Jeff Locke may just be the story of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates.
The left-handed rookie starting pitcher went 8-2 prior to the All-Star Break with a 2.15 ERA. He was the only starter from the Opening Day rotation to not miss a scheduled start until he sat out of the final game before the All-Star Break. And to be fair, he sat only as a precaution to take advantage of the upcoming break to rest his stiff back.
In the post-All Star Break world that has the Pirates 69-44 with exactly 50 games remaining, it’s difficult to find flaws in the team with Major League Baseball’s best record, but people will certainly try. It seems like they’re starting with Jeff Locke.
No, Locke’s numbers aren’t as fantastic as they were in his first 18 starts of the season when he held opposing hitters to just a .202 average at the plate. At 1-1 with a 4.03 ERA in four starts after the break with a .308 BAA, Locke’s numbers appear hideous in comparison to the numbers he posted in the first half that placed him as the only Pirate starting pitcher in the All-Star game.
Now, it seems Locke is the current subject of the ire of many Pirates fans and analysts who seemingly expect Locke to implode akin to Three Rivers Stadium on Feb. 11, 2001.
“I went through a series of questions in Miami where people were electrocuting me on Jeff,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said before Tuesday’s game. “The walks, the hits, he’s fallen apart, someone even went as far as to say they really didn’t think he would have as good a second half as he did the first half.”
The buzzword keying the talk of Locke’s implosion? Regression.
Before Locke’s performance is even discussed, “regression” in a baseball sense is not a bad thing, nor is it a good thing. According to FanGraphs, regression is a term used for statistical modelling that predicts outcomes based on averages. Regression carries no positive or negative influence, it simply is what it is.
Back to Hurdle’s quote, it would be pretty difficult in general for Locke to pitch like he did in the first half. He pitched at a level players like Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw pitch at, and we can be honest with ourselves when we say Locke is no Kershaw or Verlander.
Breaking down Locke’s four starts after the break, only one has really been that bad.
- July 21 @ Cincinnati: 6 IP, 1 R, 1 H, 4 BB, 6 K, W, 63 Game Score
- July 26 @ Miami: 6.2 IP, 2 R, 8 H, 6 BB, 9 K, L, 53 GSc
- July 31 vs. St. Louis: 4 IP, 4 R, 10 H, 1 BB, 6 K, ND, 31 GSc
- Aug. 6 vs. Miami: 5.2 IP, 3, 9 H, 3 BB, 4 K, ND, 40 GSc
It’s probably apparent the start at home against St. Louis is the “bad” one. And the Pirates actually ended up winning that one, 5-4, mostly by virtue of the five shutout innings pitched by the bullpen.
In his three others, Locke gave the Pirates over a 50 percent chance to win in two of the games he started and was a single out away from a quality start Tuesday against Miami. And although Bill James would say Locke’s start hurt the Pirates’ chances of winning, the Bucs won 4-3 on Josh Harrison’s walk-off home run.
And when talking about regression, there’s really no strong indicator as to what Locke is supposed to regress to. He has just over a year of service time in the major leagues, and you can look at this in either one of two ways via his numbers from his stints in the major leagues from the past two years compared to the superb year he’s enjoying in 2013.
- 2011: 4 GS, 16.2 IP, 21 H, 12 R, 10 BB, 5 K, 6.48 ERA, 0-3
- 2012: 6 GS, 8 appearances, 34.1 IP, 36 H, 21 R, 11 BB, 34 K, 5.50 ERA, 1-3
- 2013 22 GS, 131.1 IP, 104 H, 38 R, 61 BB, 98 K, 2.47 ERA, 9-3
So, depending on how you see it, Locke is either atrocious or fantastic. The truth, though, may lie a little closer to the middle of those small sample sizes as indicated by Locke’s Fielding Independent Pitching.
FIP is supposed to resemble a true measure of what a pitcher’s ERA would truly be based on factors only he can control: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.
Locke’s FIP? 3.70.
With Locke averaging roughly six innings per each one of his 22 starts this season, his FIP would flesh out to about 2.5 runs allowed per start if he stays close to his average. With the Pirates bullpen pitching the way it is, Locke “regressing” to holding teams to 5 total runs for every two starts he makes doesn’t sound as terrible as some may make it to be, now does it?
Of course, with his recent performances against St. Louis and Miami, the Pirates have some “fixes” laid out for Locke to get back to pitching “Jeff-like” as Locke called it. On the ends of Hurdle and pitching coach Ray Searage, the fixes entail “one physical and one mental” according to Hurdle.
“I’m more concerned about what he’s thinking right now,” Hurdle said. ” He still looks good when he looks at you. I think there are lessons to be learned for him. He’s got to always be the predator and the aggressor.”
For Locke, he spoke at length after the game following conversations he had already had with Searage. One of those conversations occurred on the mound in the third inning after Locke allowed two runs to score in the inning as the Marlins extended their early lead to 3-0.
“I’m somebody that needs to work quick on the mound,” Locke said. “Ray will come chirp at me once in a while and I gotta just pick the pace up a little bit–‘get the ball and you’re going,’ ‘no thinking,’ ‘you’re a little slow.'”
In addition to picking up his tempo, Locke also detailed the “physical” fix Hurdle mentioned in his post-game comments.
“I’m noticing a little bit of stuff on my delivery,” Locke said. “Not getting on my backside that well, sometimes using that turn I have at the top is a disadvantage for me because if you don’t come back out of that turn fluid you just fly yourself open. I really just gotta get my backside over the rubber better and continue to throw the ball downhill.”
Locke’s next start is slated for Sunday at Colorado in a ballpark that favors hitters more than any other venue in baseball with a park factor of 114, and it’s an opportunity to show the “predator” mentality he and Hurdle are looking for.