It was almost one year ago that Jeff Locke found himself with the best players in the game in New York after a dominant first half of the season. However, the southpaw found himself on the opposite end of the spectrum, in Bradenton toward the beginning of this season.
There is no secret what led to Locke’s downfall last season. Before the break last season, Locke walked 47 hitters in 109 innings. Following the midseason classic, he allowed 37 walks in almost half as many innings – 57. After enduring the struggles in the second half last year and working his way back, Locke thinks that he may have pinpointed his issues and improved upon them.
“Last year, I really focused on trying not to let guys score,” Locke said. “I didn’t care if I walked them or give up a hit. There are so many times that I could have prevented a guy from scoring in games where I would go six innings with two or three hits, but six walks. They still count the same. Guys are still on base and you are pitching from the stretch.”
Locke thinks that one big difference from last season into this campaign is confidence when going after hitters. This confidence and fearlessness is another aspect that helps to limit his walk totals.
“The first full season up here, I think there is a lot of times where I have given hitters credit and tried to nibble and not get hurt,” Locke said. “It’s resulted in deep counts and walks. Then you are forced to throw strikes. I was really digging myself a hole. Whereas this year, I am really looking to throw those strikes and let the defense work for me.”
After logging 56 minor league innings this year and finding his way back to Pittsburgh, Locke has regained the command and the stuff that made him an All-Star just a year ago. He has posted a 2.89 ERA in eight starts in the majors. That’s supported by a 3.35 xFIP, which kills the regression talk that surrounded Locke when he put up impressive numbers in the first half last year. The work Locke has put into his new approach has allowed the command to improve. He has 56 innings this year, which almost matches his second half totals from last year. In those innings, he has allowed six walks, which is 31 fewer than his second half totals from 2013.
“Everything is really starting to come along,” Locke said. “We are getting ahead of guys and that is one big thing that we are trying to emphasize. I know that I had so many walks last year…This year, we are just trying to get ahead with strike one. If they swing at it and put it in play, great. If not, then they are behind in the count.”
However, this same command was not present in Indianapolis. Locke walked 22 hitters in 50 innings, while posting a 4.14 ERA. He also allowed 51 hits in Triple-A. While finding the command at the big league level is baffling, Locke credits a great deal of it to the work with Russell Martin.
“Obviously, you always have to feel like you have an advantage when someone like Russell Martin is back there catching you,” Locke said. “We have been on such a good run the last couple years. There is not a whole lot of shaking that is going on and we seem to know what we want to do.”
In addition, Locke credits Martin with allowing the pitchers to work with what they do best, rather than just playing into the scouting report and opposing hitter weaknesses.
Along with Martin, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said that Locke’s ability to work in a speedy nature since being recalled aids him in getting some plays behind him.
“The combination of things, when you work quickly and you throw strikes, defensive plays get made more often than not,” Hurdle said. “That has really worked to Jeff’s benefit this year as well, but he has stepped up his game and deserves all of the credit. He’s been focused and been relentless. He keeps throwing strikes.”
While Locke may have some assistance from his defense, he has had some tough luck this season. Even with this, Hurdle is impressed with the progression of Locke throughout.
“I am seeing improvement across the board,” Hurdle said. “That is three games, I think, where he has left the game with the lead and did not get a good mark. The fastball command, strikes, and efficiency (have been great).”
As for the rest of the season, Locke has a few goals. However, they are all team based and looking to repeat the first half success.
“I am just taking the ball every fifth day and try to be as efficient as I can,” Locke said. “I am not taking the closer’s mentality, but I am going out to see how many innings that I can go and close out. I am trying to see how many innings that I can go that night to give the bullpen a rest and not make the offense feel like they have to go out and get 10.”
While the second half was a bugaboo for Locke last season, it would be difficult to see a collapse of the same magnitude. Locke seems to have figured out the cause of his command issues last season, and getting ahead in the count will work the advantage of every pitcher. While Locke is not a top of the rotation option, he is a solid contributor to the rotation down the stretch and created a real shot in the arm when the starters needed it the most.