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.
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