First Pitch: The 2014 Version of Jeff Locke Looks Like the Real Deal

Last year Jeff Locke was an All-Star in the first half. His 2.15 ERA looked like the numbers of a top of the rotation pitcher. And none of it would last.

We threw around the word “regression” last year, talking about how Locke wouldn’t continue pitching the way he was pitching. He had a 3.80 FIP and a 4.21 xFIP in the first half, which suggested the strong ERA wouldn’t last. It didn’t, although Locke went too far in the opposite direction. His second half ERA was 6.12, despite a 4.46 FIP and 4.14 xFIP.

After tonight’s start, Locke is off to another good start. It’s not as lofty as his first half last year, but his 3.74 ERA in 33.2 innings looks good, especially for a Pirates rotation that has seen struggles, injuries, and is currently 60 percent made up from pitchers who were in Triple-A last month. Locke was one of those pitchers, down in Triple-A a year after being named to the MLB All-Star game, all due to those second half struggles.

With the way Locke has been pitching this year, it doesn’t look like we can expect another regression. In fact, if we’re talking about Locke regressing to the mean, then we’re talking about seeing his numbers improve. His FIP this year is 2.94 and his xFIP is 3.39. His ERA would be closer to that range had it not been for a two run homer from Evan Longoria tonight in the eighth inning, which hid the fact that Locke looked excellent the first seven innings.

The biggest difference between last year and this year has been a lower walk rate. Locke had a 3.88 BB/9 ratio in the first half last year, before putting up a 5.81 BB/9 in the second half. This time around he has just four walks, which is a microscopic 1.07 BB/9.

“As you develop as a pitcher, you start getting a better feel out there,” Russell Martin said after tonight’s game. “And it looks like he’s really developing that feel for attacking the strike zone.”

Martin said that Locke’s pitches are coming out nice, and that it looks like he’s trusting his stuff a bit more compared to last year. Locke said that his approach was as simple as throwing more strikes.

“I’m just throwing more strikes,” Locke said of his performance this season. “That’s all you can really attribute it to. Just trying to get ahead of guys better, trying to throw more strikes. One change I’ve tried to make from last year to this year is try to get ahead more. Try not to nibble so much. Put them behind and try to put myself in the driver’s seat.”

Locke is doing a much better job of throwing strikes and getting ahead of the count this year. His first pitch strike rate is 64%, up from 58.5% last year. The MLB average is around 60%. He’s working in the strike zone 50% of the time, after a low 37.9% last year. League average is around 45%.

It’s not just about throwing strikes. Locke has been more effective in the zone. Despite spending more time in the zone this year, he’s seeing less contact in the zone. He has a 79.6% contact rate this year, after a 90.8% rate in the zone last year. The league average is around 87%.

Prior to the game, Clint Hurdle talked about how Locke’s approach was working, especially with the way he has been mixing in the changeup.

“He’s throwing more strikes, he’s getting it glove side,” Hurdle said. “He’s speed dialing the changeup. What I mean by that — fastball in, changeup in. He’s been able to throw the two-seamer away and down, and then he’s been able to throw the changeup off that. He’s mixed in some breaking balls. But the fastball/changeup combo has played extremely well, and you look at the walks-to-strikeouts, you look at the number of pitches per inning, they’ve all gotten to the best place that he’s been able to get them to since he’s been in the Major Leagues.”

Martin also had good things to say about the way Locke was using his stuff.

“He has that good comeback fastball that he can throw inside to righties,” Martin said. “Combine that with a good changeup. Combine that with the fact that he knows how to use the lower part of the zone and elevate at times if he needs to. Today he had a high percentage of curveball strikes. Not many swings at it. There was one base hit on the curveball late. It was kind of slapped the other way and found a hole by [Brandon] Guyer. But he was in complete control of his stuff and his mindset and how he felt out there. He was just a pro today, and he’s been that way pretty much the whole time he’s been up here.”

If you look at the minor league numbers for Locke this year, you might say that his walk rate in the majors are a small sample size. Locke had a 4.0 BB/9 in 50 innings with Indianapolis.  However, a closer look at the numbers shows that the small sample size issue actually lies in Triple-A. Locke had two outings in late May where he walked five batters in six innings each time out. In his other outings, he had a 2.8 BB/9 ratio.

Of course all of these are small sample sizes. 50 innings in Triple-A. 33 innings in the majors. In those cases, you need to rely on the eye test. So far, the eye test is saying that Locke’s performance this year is legit. He’s pounding the strike zone, but not getting hit. His pitches have good movement, and he seems to be commanding them and mixing them up a lot better than in the past.

It’s hard to say if this will last for the long haul, but right now this looks like a totally different Jeff Locke than what we’ve seen in any of his previous appearances in the majors. The Jeff Locke we’ve seen this year has been a much better pitcher than the version that went to the All-Star Game last year. And if this continues, Locke should have a spot in the Pirates rotation for the short and long-term.

Links and Notes

Prospects

**Cole Tucker Drew First Round Consideration From at Least Five Teams on Draft Day

**Josh Bell Selected For the Future’s Game

**Prospect Watch: Glasnow and Kingham Dominate Again

**Minor League Schedule: Which Orlando Castro Will Show Up Today in Bradenton?

**Prospect Highlights: First Look at GCL Starter Dario Agrazal Jr.

**Pirates Agree With 26th Round Pick Jerrick Suiter

**Pirates Trade Daniel Schlereth to the Tigers

Pirates

**Pirates Are Going to Find Playing Time For Josh Harrison as a Super Utility Player

**Pirates Outright Jose Tabata to Triple-A

**Starling Marte Removed From Game With Concussion-like Symptoms

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Ron Loreski

    Jeff Locke reminds me a lot of Travis Wood. Except the movement Locke has had this year makes him a little bit better. Getting quality starts from Locke is such a huge boost to this team.

    • Leefoo Rug Bug

      Now if we could just get him to HIT like Travis Wood.

  • blainehwl

    I’m really not understanding Hurdle’s thinking when it comes to pitch counts.

    Locke was at 7 IP, 90+ pitches…and had just wriggled out of a mini-jam. Yet, he’s brought out for the eighth facing the heart of the rays line-up.

    Seems like a perfect spot to bring in a fresh arm.

    I keep seeing this over and over again and it seems to almost always end with the starter getting tagged for late runs that either makes the game closer than it needs to be or results in a loss.

    • http://www.facebook.com/andy.prough.3 Andy Prough

      I wonder if we’ve got the bullpen backwards now. Melancon seems more comfortable as the 8th inning reliever, and Watson’s numbers would indicate he’s really got closer stuff this year.

      • BallHeadWonder

        It’s time for Tony to be the Closer!!!! Melancon is not a closer!! Tony has earned an opportunity and he is throwing like an All-Star!!!

      • JayBird

        Spot-on, Andy! In fact, I was a bit p-o’ed the other night when Clint relieved Locke with Hughes… then brought Watson in for 1 out. I was thinking he should have let him through the 9th.
        I think Melancon is a pretty good closer (after all, he struck out the side the night before, he’s only given up 2 HRs as a Pirate, and his numbers are good). I just think Watson might be better. It seems like RH hitters are able to lay that barrell out there and get those balls into RF if that cutter is not really sharp.

    • emjayinTN

      blaine: I was thinking the same thing and thrilled that Jeff Locke had posted 7 innings of 1 run ball and the Pirates were ahead 6-1. With the announcers talking about how rested the bullpen is because of excellent outings by Cumpton, Volquez, and now Locke, and he had already thrown 90+ pitches, WHY? That said, he got the first batter quickly, and had Guyer down 0-2 before he just reached out and got one down the 1B line, and then you are facing Evan Longoria for the 4th time. Maybe Hurdle thought that some quick outs in the 8th and maybe he is trying for a CG in the 9th – who knows? Just thrilled to get over that .500 hump compliments of a 14-8 record so far in June.

      • Ian Rothermund

        I refuse to bash a coach for sending a pitcher out there to try and take the 8th when he’s been relatively dominant so far in a game. Longoria’s HR was a great hit, and several inches out of the strike zone, it happens. I’d rather see starters get pushed deep into games than see them taken out too early.

        • emjayinTN

          IR: Do you remember Locke’s first game this year? I think he threw about 40 pitches at AAA on a Thursday before getting taken out because the Pirates made a late decision he would be brought up to be the SP on Monday. So, with 3 days rest he went out and pitched 5 strong innings throwing close to 70 pitches. Based on his totals from Thursday and Monday, I thought it was time to get him out. Instead we tried to push 6 innings, and I think he gave up 5 or 6 runs and only got one out before being removed for a RP.

          I do agree that I would rather see SP’s pushed deep, but once you get through 7 and you are nearing 100 pitches, and the bullpen is well rested, where is the downside to taking the SP out and letting him get the hugs in the dugout? 7 innings is the magic number for SP’s these days, and I would much rather see a SP leave on a positive note rather than as he did in the 8th. But, it is definitely the call for the Manager and Pitching Coach to make – I just disagreed based on the circumstances.

    • moose7195

      That decision is very easy to make in hindsight and very hard to make in the top of the 8th at Tropicana Field up 6-1. Poor Hurdle really can’t catch a break because many comments on this site bash him for pulling starters too quickly when the bullpen starts blowing a late lead. Now we have people ignoring the fact that the bullpen almost lost the game and choose to pick on his decision to leave a pitcher that is dominating in to pitch the 8th. I’m sure glad I’m not the manager

      • blainehwl

        I disagree.

        If you’ve got a horse of a pitcher who can handle a 110-120 pitch outing, sure…throw him out there for the 8th and see what happens.

        Locke isn’t a horse. His getting 7 innings and 90+ pitches, in my opinion, is what you take as an excellent start and move onto the bullpen. If the pen blows a five run lead before it can get six outs, I don’t think there are many people who would make the argument Locke should’ve stayed in.

    • smurph

      Hindsight is 20-20. If Hurdle had removed Locke before the 8th and a RP gave up the 2-run homer, he would have been criticized for the move. We are at the end of June. Most starting pitchers can throw more than 90 pitches at this point. If you can get 8 innings from your starter, it eases the burden on a bullpen which might be the weakest part of this team right now.

    • JayBird

      I didn’t have a problem with Hurdle — with a 5-run lead — seeing how far he could go. Longoria can hurt anyone at a given time. I haven’t been one of those pounding on Clint for using the bullpen so much early season as a lot of people have. You gotta use the bullpen early to, 1) see what you have, and 2) to not wear out your starters. However, it’s late June, hot and humid, and I don’t have a problem with Clint trying to stretch out the starters now. Volquez went 8 the night before… and I wish he would have stayed with Cumpton when he was pitching so well in Chicago.

  • mam995

    Jeff Locke is pitching like a classic lefty. He’s been effectively spotting his fastball across the strike zone (down and in) to right hander hitters.This can be hard to do for a lefty, because a right-handed batter sees the entire flight of the ball across the hitting zone. In the first half of last year, Locke was effective in doing this, until he got tired (i believed that is what happened to him)..plus he got hurt. This year, his change-up is so much better. I bet he has learned to change speeds on his change-up like Ted Lilly. I don’t think he looks like Travis Woods (who I like) Jeff throws harder. Woods’ fastball tops out around 88-89 mph. Jeff can hit 94 mph. He reminds me of the way that Tom Glavine attacked the hitters with the way he moves his 2 seam fastball around the hitting zone. That’s how he’s getting all of those ground balls. I don’t think he throws a sinker. Amazingly, if you look at the way Vance Worley pitches, he almost NEVER comes into the hitting zone. He beautifully “feathers” the outside part of the plate. It’s really something to watch. I believe that if Brandon Cumpton develops a grade A change-up, he could become a good number 3 starter in the big leagues. Without one, however…once the scouts get the book on him, he might have a hard time getting through a major league line-up that is good at adjusting to the fastball (like
    the Dodgers and the Brewers). Look at what the Dodgers were doing to him (on their second look at him) when he tried to crowd them inside with his fastball, and his other pitch, the curveball wasn’t working that day (unless you’re Bert Blyleven, a curve is hard to get a feel for as an out pitch every time out…just ask Charlie Morton). They brought their hands in (just like Willie Stargell used to do) and drove the ball the other way or even pulled his pitches for power). Now to be fair, Curt Schilling and Tom Seaver would beat you mostly with a great fastballs in the hitting zone. They simply moved it around the corners of the strike zone. Schilling also had a great change-up and Seaver threw a great, great curveball. Don Sutton said that he just pitched off fastball command within the strike zone and mixed in a curve. He said that he changed eye levels for the hitter. At any rate, you gotta change speeds…you gotta ‘add and subtract” by adding fingers and taking fingers off the ball.There aren’t too many starters in the big leagues, who don’t throw a good change to keep hitters off of their fastball. Even Garrett Cole throws a pretty decent change. When Liriano comes back, Cumpton is likely to be the odd man out. Besides still having options left (Locke has options left too, Worley does not) Cumpton is basically, a 2 pitch pitcher. Management doesn’t see him in the same light as the other two. He needs a change-up.

    • smurph

      Good analysis mam. I do think Locke is a better pitcher than last season. #1. As was stated in the article, he is getting that first pitch strike. #2. He knows how to pitch hitters now, moving the ball around, hitting his spots, never grooving the fastball, getting batters to swing at pitcher’s pitches. Unless your are an overpowering pitcher (he isn’t) the key is hitting your spots, which means knowing how each pitch will move. Of course Greg Maddux was the best. Pretty good template for a starting pitcher.

  • John

    Longoria’s homerun doesn’t bother me. The fact it was a two run shot does, because if Hurdle is playing a basic defense in the bottom of the eight Davis is there to get Guyer’s softly hit ball past first. I don’t get the feeling Hurdle realizes the shift giveth and the shift taketh.

  • Leefoo Rug Bug

    I have long been a Jeff Locke fan and I am glad he is, once again, restoring my faith in him.

    I’m thinking that back injury, which hindered his between game conditioning, really was a factor in the 2nd half.

  • st1300b

    As much as I appreciate Locke’s work last night and this year – I’m anxiously awaiting Cole’s return. The Marte injury also seems to be really poor timing as the team was just getting back together. The lineup last night looked strong, losing Marte hurts.

    • smurph

      Pirates will be fine. Marte should only miss a couple of games. Harrison will get a couple starts in left. They are facing David Price today. Even if they lose, winning 2 of 3 on the road works for me. Then they have a nice homestand which should see them in 2nd place by July 6. They actually have a decent rotation when Cole Comes back – Cole, Morton, Locke, Worley, and Volquez. For those who still think the Pirates should dump Volquez, he leads Pirate starters in WHIP. And I don’t think what Worley is doing is a mirage, though I’m sure he won’t be this dominant for the rest of the season.

  • lfhlaw

    What I like about lockes performance this year is that he’s been going deeper into games pitching seven or eight innings when he does.

    And that’s a nice refresher because early in the season most of our pitchers weren’t going seven or eight innings.

  • jalcorn427

    The babip is going to come up, but BB rate is everything for Locke. If he can keep the walk rate at 2/9IP he will be an effective mid-rotation starter.

  • PitPirates

    Jeff can be great, when he is Locked on

    • Ron Loreski

      I see what you did there..

  • leadoff

    Lockes longevity comes from his legs, he is not big and he will wear down, Hurdle needs to pay attention to this. There is no doubt that he could have pitched 8 innings, but you have to think about the next start and further down the road.
    Watch pitchers next start when they pitch 110-120 innings in a game, usually they are not sharp the next time out. Locke was not even at 100 pitches, but as I said he is not a strong pitcher. When Liriano and Cole are both back, It would be Locke that I send back down and at Indy I would put him on a 6 man rotation, something like what the Cards did with Wacha last year.

  • leadoff

    Locke is also subject to the plate umpire, if he can get the calls just off the plate it makes a world of difference because he does not have the stuff to get away with pitches that catch a lot of the plate. When he gets an umpire that squeezes him, he will have a problem, when i saw the wide zone of the umpire last night I thought Locke might have a good shot at a good game.

    • bucsws2014

      That’s when Locke gets the 5 walk games – when the ump isn’t giving the inside call.

      I admit, I was more a McPherson fan than a Locke fan when they were both on a similar track to come up. I chuckled most of last year at Locke being AJ’s puppy. But it looks like he’s becoming his own man and I’m more and more convinced he’s for real.

      Melancon was victimized a couple of time last night himself. He was pounding low and away, missing sometimes, but also hitting the corners and not getting the strike call. Martin’s glove wasn’t moving, yet still those were called balls. I think that had at least something to do with him getting hit, as he had to elevate to get the calls.

      My main reason for Watson as closer is that TW isn’t subject to those calls. TW can throw it anywhere and get strikes and isn’t overly dependent on a cutter that ends up in mostly the same place every time.

      I still don’t know how Mariano got away with it all those years.

      • JayBird

        Bingo on the Melancon/Watson comparison.

  • Ben Swogger

    The thing I’m most excited about is the separation of his fastball and change up. When he throws the fastball 89-91 and then the change at 77-78, it’s impossible to hit, given his arm slot looks the same. I may be wrong but I don’t remember such a large velocity gap last year. That change can become an elite pitch if he can maintain the velocity difference.

    • Andrew

      I was intrigued by this too, I looked at Locke’s Pitch/Fx data.

      Pitch: / 2013 / 2014

      Fourseamer: 90.3 / 90.3

      Twoseamer: 90.7 / 91.0

      Change up: 81.0 / 79.1

      So there is about a 2 mph difference, obviously the sample is small 442 pitches last year to 114 this year, but the change up has been much more effective. He is throwing it in the zone more, getting more swings overall, including more chases, the swing strike rate last year was 20.4% it is up 26.3%, that is Cole Hamels territory. League average is around 15%, so even 20.4% is fine, but the biggest difference is he only threw the change up in the zone last year 32.1% of time, this year 51.8%.