The story of Jeff Locke from 2013 all-star to minor leaguer in less than a year is well-known. However, Locke is getting an opportunity to rebound, as he will start for the Pirates tonight as they open a series against the Giants.
While Locke’s ERA is over five in his four starts at Indianapolis, some of this is due to tough luck. In his first two starts, Locke allowed all of his runs by way of the long ball. In that time, he struck out 17 hitters in 19 innings, while walking only five.
However, some of the runs are due to the overall contact from the opponents. Locke has allowed 24 hits in those 19 innings at Indianapolis and opposing batters are hitting an even .300 against him. With all of these numbers, Locke is still looking to improve on everything, as his season got off to a slow start due to an injury.
“Everything has been a work in progress,” Locke said. “Everything has felt a lot better every time that I have gone out. I have been able to reach my pitch count. In Bradenton, I threw 81 or 82 pitches. When I came to Indy, I threw another 80-something. My last two outings, I have been throwing in the mid-90s, so I feel like I am good and stretched out, back where I want to be.”
At the same time, Locke said that his body feels like spring training has just ended. Locke missed three weeks of work, as he suffered from an oblique injury in camp.
Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington agrees with the assessment and sees the difficulty that Locke had while missing a majority of spring training.
“As we’ve seen with some past guys, when they don’t have spring training, sometimes it takes them a little while to go through spring training, but they’re going through spring training live and they’re going through it at a competitive environment,” Huntington said. “Jeff’s kind of doing that, as we’ve experienced here when you ask a man to go through spring training at the major league level, that’s a tough thing to do. So we’re asking him to go through it at Triple-A, which can be a challenge. He’s stretched out, he’s healthy, he’s had some really good signs, and at the same time, just like most pitchers, he’s made a few mistakes.”
Since coming back from the injury, Locke has put a major emphasis on repeating his delivery every time, getting on the back side, and staying strong over the rubber. He is also working on pitch location.
“There have been times, since I have been here, that my fastball has gotten a bit up,” Locke said. “Thankfully, working on it enough, you can make that correction and get it back down in the zone. Really, aside from that, I feel like I have picked up where I left off in spring training, even through it was early when I went down.”
Locke realizes that throwing in the low 90s means that his misses must be down in the zone. With this emphasis, the only goal is to keep the ball below the belt at almost all cost. With this plan, Locke boasts a 54.6% ground ball ratio in his five minor league starts.
Locke said he has been most pleased with his fastball so far. He said that he feels like he has good control with it and has looked to use the fastball more than his other pitches.
“My off speed stuff has been really reliable so far,” Locke said. “I don’t normally do a whole lot of maintenance work on anything like that. Everything just normally fits pretty good. There are days where I just won’t use it nearly as much, depending on the situation. If they are making early contact on fastballs and I am getting outs, then I won’t have to use it as much.”
Locke is not the only person seeing the marked improvement. Indianapolis pitch coach Tom Filer is seeing it as well.
“I am seeing some really good stuff,” Filer said. “In each game, he has gotten better. I see a marked improvement in each one of his outings. He shows me something a little bit more that makes me think that it’s coming.”
With this improvement, Filer said that he is waiting for one more aspect to come around.
“Right now, I see his fastball command and his changeup command,” Filer said. “Now, if we get that curveball to do what it is supposed to do and be that big weapon that he has had in the past, then he is going to be right there.”
Filer said that he views that the biggest key to Locke’s success is having the three pitch mix. He said that mixing the curveball in makes hitters look for more than just hard and soft, but also incorporates some movement in. With what he has seen with the mix, Filer said that Locke is very close to being the winner that he has been in the past.
Filer said that one of the biggest things with Locke is finding the target when he comes out of his turn, which is a bit more dramatic in his delivery. He said that this allows Locke to improve his command and create angles to the plate. He was also looking for all three pitches to come out of the same slot, rather than moving it on any particular pitch.
In his first start, Locke allowed a lead off home run and then a grand slam later in the outing. Then, in his second start, both against Louisville, Locke allowed back-to-back home runs. Locke was not as concerned with the solo shots, as he understands that they will come.
“As far as hard contact, nobody has really hit the ball hard unless it has gone over the fence,” Locke said. “It’s just one of those things. There was a lot of damage done on one swing. Last week, it was back-to-back home runs. I’m ok with that. You are going to win a lot of games just giving up solo home runs.”
With this in mind, in his final two outings in Indianapolis, Locke did not allow a home run.
Though Locke is seeing marked improvements in several aspects, it is hard to believe that his is ready to compete at the big league level with the consistent success that opposing hitters are compiling. However, the walk numbers being down are certainly a sign that Locke could improve enough to get to that point by the end of the season.