Jeff Locke’s Success is Real, Thanks to His Drastically Improved Control

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.

Ryan Palencer

Author: Ryan Palencer

Ryan joined Pirates Prospects as the Indianapolis Triple-A writer in 2014. Prior to joining Pirates Prospects, Ryan covered high school, college and professional sports in the Indianapolis area. For more updates throughout the season, follow Ryan on Twitter @ryanpalencer.

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  • leadoff

    Was Glavine or Madden top of the rotation pitchers? No one would have ever said that when they came up. What makes a pitcher a top of the rotation pitcher is his ability to pitch vs throw. Locke does have top of the rotation ability, maybe not the stuff of a Garrett Cole. Wainwright is top of the rotation with all the stuff in the world, but he is top of the rotation because he knows “How” to pitch.

  • bucsws2014

    I’m glad Locke realized his shortcomings and I’m happy to see him back and pitching well. I was extremely frustrated with him in 2nd half last year as in his post-game interviews he came across with a “nothing is wrong, I’m an All-Star” attitude that became insufferable. If he can maintain this control and continue mixing pitches well, he’ll have a long, fruitful and very profitable career.

    And I’m happy any time any pitcher notes the positive difference of having Martin behind the plate. If Neal doesn’t re-sign Russell, it will go down as the single stupidest thing he’s done during his tenure.

    • deacs

      Glad you mentioned the post game comments. That used to drive me crazy. He’d go out there and give up 4 runs in 6 innings and you’d get a “Thought I threw the ball pretty well today, just missed my spots a little.” Then there’s Gerrit Cole who goes 6 innings, 3 runs (for somehow what’s considered a quality start) and you almost have to talk him off the ledge. That being said Locke looks pretty sharp. I’m very optomistic about his 2nd half. He goes deep into games too which is just icing on the cake. Hate to get ahead of myself but it seems like he’s really adjusted and could really be a fixture in the rotation for the next few years.

    • piraddict

      It takes two to tango. I hope they do sign Russ, but his great play is going to make it very difficult to do that.

      • piratemike

        Took the words out of my mouth.
        Martin will go to whomever pays him the most.
        The Yankees learned that and ended up paying McCann about 60million and getting nothing.
        Just as there is a lack of top 3b and 1b around the league so is there a lack of catchers. If the Pirates lose out on Russell they may have another Davis type hole behind the plate.
        Come on Tony, pick it up.

  • pilbobuggins

    While i’m happy that locke appears to have figured things out, it does not speak highly of the rest of the rotation when two guys locke and worley, one who was dfaed and the other relagated to virtual obscurity to start the season have been the pirates best pitchers.

    • leowalter

      And how would you expect Cole and Liriano to have really done very well with the injuries they have had ? As for Morton, the 5th inning on Cincinnati the other day aside, he has pitched pretty well if you check his peripherals. Also, would you criticize Volquez ? I sure wouldn’t ! Sometimes I think expectations get clear out of hand.

  • smurph

    I actually like what I am seeing from this rotation. Chuck has been solid all season. I agree with the article that Locke seems to have overcome his past issues. Volquez started out great, had a couple of bad outings, but seems to be improving as the season progresses. Worley is a small sample size, but very good. If either Cole or Liriano comes back and pitches at close the the #1 starter we expected them to be, their rotation looks just fine. Oh, did I mention Cumpton and Kingham?

  • Scott Kliesen

    Nice of Jeff to share in the credit of his success w Martin, but the truth is he was pitching to Martin last season, too. He is pitching better because he’s throwing strikes now. Let’s hope he keeps it up and doesn’t go on the Liriano roller coaster rides that drive us fans (and teammates) crazy!

    • NorCalBuc

      Also, Jeff is pitching better because his bad is not wrecked, like last season’s second half.