Giles: What Can We Make of Jeff Locke’s Season?

PITTSBURGH — Beginning with his first full season in 2013, in which he earned a spot on the NL All-Star team, perhaps no Pirates pitcher has seen as many highs and lows as Jeff Locke. His rise and fall in 2013 was well documented, as regression in his strand rate (83.3% 1st half, 67% 2nd half) and his BABIP (.228, .365) led to a 6.12 ERA in 57.1 innings pitched after the break. As you probably remember, he was removed from the starting rotation before the end of the regular season, and he was left off both the Wild Card and NLDS rosters.

Since that time, Locke has proved a frustrating pitcher to analyze, as his performance seems to vary considerably from start to start. Charlie Wilmoth wrote about this last week, prompted in part by this Travis Sawchik piece. Sawchik pointed to Locke’s higher walk rate on the road, perhaps indicating that Locke wasn’t getting as favorable a strike zone when he’s the visiting starter. That bias among umpires towards the home team, though real, is probably far less influential than our intuition might have us believe.

Saturday’s performance at PNC Park was arguably Locke’s best start since he threw eight scoreless innings against Cleveland on Independence Day, and it certainly lends credence to the idea that Locke struggles on the road and pitches better in Pittsburgh.

After the game, Clint Hurdle ran through a laundry list of things Jeff Locke did well Saturday night.

“The [pitch] mix played, controlled bat speed, stayed out of the middle of the plate, really good with first pitch strikes as well,” Hurdle said after the start. Locke threw 18 of 24 first-pitch strikes, and perhaps more importantly, to 14 of the first 16 batters he faced.

Another focus for Locke on Saturday was making sure Brewers hitters didn’t sit on inside fastballs, which he felt was a primary reason for the rough start in Milwaukee. He and Cervelli discussed keeping hitters off-balance more by starting off away and changing speeds earlier in the game.

The effectiveness of Locke’s changeup helped that strategy succeed. He generated seven swings and misses on 17 swings with that pitch, more than half of his total whiffs on the night (11). Interestingly enough, he threw the same number of changeups (17) in Milwaukee, and got nearly the same number of whiffs (6).

I spoke with Locke after Saturday’s game, and he offered some interesting thoughts on making adjustments within and between starts:

“[Baseball] is unlike any other sports, in my opinion, where you don’t always know what you have every day. And I know people say, ‘What do you mean you don’t know what you have? You’ve been doing this your whole life.’ But it really is the truth. You don’t know how it’s gonna play.

“I think we’re all at this level because we know how to make adjustments, and I think that’s the only difference between me or somebody that’s in Single-A or Double-A. No one throws a whole lot harder than anybody else; no one does anything too different. But you’re able to correct your mistakes a little quicker, and you’re able to repeat pitches.”

Locke expressed a general confidence in the idea of a changeup.

“I think it’s one of the best pitches in baseball,” Locke said of the pitch. He added, with a laugh: “It looks just like a fastball, except for it’s not one. That’s why it’s such a good pitch. When I’m changing speeds and doing that successfully, then the changeup plays a big part in that.”

Locke has never had elite stuff, so a larger part of his process has been seeing what pitches are working for him on a given night, then tailoring his approach and making in-game adjustments to best utilize his arsenal and keep hitters guessing. As we’ll examine below, his general approach stays the same from start to start, but the results are often very different.

Looking at Home/Road Splits

A quick Pitch f/x query tells us that the percentage of Locke’s pitches that are called a strike at home (18.53%) is better than when he’s on the road (16.87%). To a lesser extent, there’s also a difference between the share of pitches called a ball  at home (33.45%) compared to his road starts (34.41%).

So are these home/road splits indicative of a real problem for Locke? It’s possible that he, like most players, prefers playing at home. He may get worn down by the travel time, or sleeping in hotels, and that takes its toll on the field. It also may be the case, as hypothesized above, that he’s getting squeezed by the home plate umpire while on the road. Let’s examine some other options first.

We know that when compensating for park effects, rest in between starts, etc., and taking an aggregate view, pitchers and hitters play better at home than they do on the road, so a small strike zone can’t entirely explain Locke’s performance in Milwaukee and other houses of horror. Consider the 2015 home/road splits (through Sunday) for members of the current rotation who have at least 40 innings pitched both at PNC and on the road:

sphomeroad1

You can see that each pitcher does at least slightly worse on the road, once xFIP does its smoothing out of home run rate and other factors. These differences could also be at least in some part due to a tailored approach for PNC Park, but we would need to see some proprietary information to fully test that theory.

With respect to Jeff Locke, and also Charlie Morton, you can see that each has had some bad luck in their road starts. These numbers reflect the fact that both are back of the rotation starters, and their overall xFIP this season (3.92 for Locke, 3.84 for Morton) puts them in a group of NL starters that includes John Lackey (3.95), Shelby Miller (3.93), Lance Lynn (3.85), and Jordan Zimmerman (3.83).

It’s possible that Locke is getting squeezed a bit on the road, but the effect is likely very small, and it seems his home/road splits are better explained by the typical differences that we see among all Pirates starting pitchers.

Locke’s Summer Struggles

Let’s take a deeper look at the roughest stretch for Locke this season — his eight starts between July 24th and September 2nd — and try to figure out where the problems lie:

lockestruggles1

As you can see from the chart, Locke struck out fewer batters during this stretch, but also walked fewer, with a higher FIP and ERA than his season averages. The lower walk numbers would seem to cut against the idea that he’s getting squeezed while on the road.

What jumps out to me, though, is the high home run rate. Locke also has a slightly lower strand rate at 64.6% during this stretch, compared to 67.8% on the season. When the strand and home run rates get normalized, you have a 4.00 xFIP, which sits very close to his 3.91 xFIP through the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

It’s also worth noting that three of Locke’s worst starts in the sample were at home — one against the Nationals, not yet into their collapse; one against the Cubs, surely bound for the playoffs; and the other against the Giants, who recently won their third World Series title in five years. There are also three bad road starts against divisional opponents, and the Pirates’ poor performance across the board in those games has been well documented.

Essentially, this difficult stretch for Locke coincided with perhaps the toughest portion of the Pirates’ 2015 schedule. Perhaps it’s to some extent obvious why he’s rebounded with consecutive effective starts against the Reds and Brewers.

As a final test, let’s examine the type of contact Locke surrendered during this stretch compared to his season stats:

lockecontact1

Locke certainly surrendered more line drives in this stretch, but his fly ball rate is down slightly, which ought to lead to fewer home runs, if anything, and not more. Intuitively, the slight rise in hard contact might explain some of the extra line drives, but initial analysis has found that hard contact doesn’t correlate with more line drives.

The reasonable conclusion is that Locke probably had some trouble beating good teams — some at home, some on the road — but he almost surely had some tough luck along the way.

The “Real” Jeff Locke

Both Locke (and to a similar degree, Charlie Morton) are prone to these troubles, given their more contact-oriented strategy and limited ability to miss bats when they need a strikeout. Locke does lead the rotation in pitches thrown to the edges of the zone, increasing the risk of starting the vicious cycle of more called balls, more baserunners, and more balls in play.

Occasionally, the contact-oriented strategy and the edge-heavy approach will lead to stretches that include unusual amount of runs allowed, as both Locke and Morton have found over the last few years. I don’t mean to dismiss entirely the notion that Locke doesn’t get as many calls on the road, but his issues with consistency of late are far more likely to be the result of variance related to contact, and the quality of his opponents, rather than bias in the strike zone.

For now, the Pirates have Locke scheduled to make at least two more starts in the six man rotation that’s not a six man rotation: Sep. 18th at the Dodgers, and Sep. 23rd at the Rockies. Dodger Stadium and Coors Field are almost polar opposites in terms of friendliness to pitchers — as are the Dodgers and Rockies — so it will be interesting to see how Locke performs coming off these consecutive strong starts.

Bear in mind that this year is likely not the final chapter of Locke’s story with the Pirates. Given that he will only be entering his first arbitration year, A.J. Burnett will likely retire, and J.A. Happ will soon be a free agent, don’t be surprised if the Pirates decide to roll the dice again with Jeff Locke’s arsenal and approach in 2016.

  • Pirates need to keep Happ, LHP to win against Reds and Brewers. when the guys from AAA come up move on from Morton and check to see if Locke has figured it out by then. Keep the best and let the bottom of the order move on.

    • Love what Happ has done, but he’s due to return to Earth at some point ( hopefully November). Sawchik had a nice section on him in his blog today. Just looking at his career numbers I’m not convinced he’s an 8 figure a year pitcher. At least not consistently.

  • Locke would be the best pitcher on the Pirates 10 years ago. He’s like Paul Maholm with better stuff but worse command. Speaking of Paul Maholm, 2003 was a terrible draft. Best pick was Ian Kinsler in the 17th round.

    • meatygettingsaucy
      September 14, 2015 5:31 pm

      Certainly wasn’t a good draft. Maholm was a decent selection though, just not someone you think of when drafting 8th overall.

      • Alot of years you look at a bust drafted high and think we should’ve drafted this guy instead. Maholm was pretty much the best pitcher out of that draft. That’s pretty sad.

    • Adam Jones went 37th overall.

      • He did and Matt Kemp went in the 5th round. I think Kinsler has a higher career WAR than those 2 combined.

  • Very good read! One question that springs to mind… is he grooving more pitches when he is “off”? Maybe the high HR rate comes from not having his best control, which doesn’t necessarily lead to walks if he is missing down the middle. A quick look at brooks baseball shows higher % of grooved pitches but it doesn’t give the denominator for each pitch type so it’s harder to tell if it’s significant or not.

    • Yeah, you could look at that to try and isolate some of the home runs and other hard contact. I was curious about him not getting calls on the edges, so I didn’t look to much at grooved pitches. I may save that one for later!

      • Ed
        A question and some observations.
        What does Locke project to earn next year in his first year of arbitration?
        Locke pitches better at home….no surprise here. It is interesting to note just how good his best games can be, both as to result and statistics. I believe that the home strike zone bias is a factor with Locke performance…………and that if he is not getting the borderline calls he is forced to “groove” more pitches. This leads to him getting rocked, often with men on base as a result of walks.
        The fact that he told you in his interview that he doesn’t really know how his stuff is going to play from game to game is significant. I assume he is talking mostly about his control. Maybe Clint Hurdle summed it up best when he highlighted the importance of first pitch strikes with Locke.

        • Tim and MLBTR are much better at estimating arbitration raises than I am, so I’ll defer to them in the offseason on that. It’s possible that Locke not getting calls from game to game hurts him, but I hope I made it clear that I think (and I believe he thinks, too) the problem is more about execution of pitches than the fluidity of the strike zone. WRT to how his stuff plays, I took him to mean the quality of everything: how the pitch moves, whether or not he can command it, repeating his delivery, etc.

  • Very high quality presentation, Ed. A lot to talk about.

    I don’t particularly agree with bringing Charlie Morton into the comparison because his struggles are quite clear; he’s a heavy-platoon starter due to a two-pitch arsenal. Pretty well cut and dried.

    Jeff’s far more complicated, in my opinion, because he’s close enough to the edge of not being a long-term starter that the degree to which you place home run luck on his results makes the difference. Using xFIP to “smooth out other factors” is inherently assuming Jeff Locke gives up home runs at a league-average rate, which is understandable if not overused, but it does ignore the fact that for his career to date he’s been below average at that skill (11.9% HR/FB). Since his fluky first half of 2013, that rate has been even higher (12.9%).

    We’ve learned enough about xFIP not to automatically assume regression to Major League average. Ernesto Frieri says hello. In my opinion, Jeff Locke is a guy with fringe-average command whose stuff must live on the edges to succeed. Miss off the plate and give up baserunners. Miss over the plate – especially elevated where they try burying the inside fastball – and yes, you can absolutely understand why he’d give up more extra base hits and home runs than average.

    End of the day you have a second-division starter who is fine for filling voids but should be looked to improve upon.

    • Locke and Morton probably feel the effects of subpar defense probably more than other three.

      • Good point. As I was reading your statement I was mentally visualizing that play in the 7th with Alvarez giving that poor feed to allow Braun to beat the play at 1B. No official error, but it was a play that a decent 1B makes on a regular basis.

        • This is only vaguely related, but has anyone else noticed the ridiculous watering down of scoring official calls this year? I have seen so many obvious errors called hits this year (and again i watch at least 100 games every year for 28 years) that it truly boggles my mind. It has gotten waaaay out of hand and i really don’t know why…? is it because offense around the league is down so they are trying to hold it up a little? It is really sad

          • Totally agree. You notice it even more in the other games the Pirates are not involved in.

    • I included Morton since he has a thin margin of error as well, and relies on a non-fastball pitch to help hitters stay off his two-seamer. Sinkers have a worse platoon split than other pitches, so that’s part of the issue for both of them as well.

      I agree with you about xFIP and regression; it was the most useful to demonstrate the bad HR rate in this stretch. Locke is more prone to HR than the average starter, but it shouldn’t be one of five fly balls. I think we’re on the same page with that.

      I said on Pirates Roundtable right around his All-Star appearance that Locke’s ceiling was still as #3 SP, despite his success. He likely won’t reach that ceiling, but he has utility to the Pirates (or another team) as a 4/5 who can throw 160 IP.

      • Locke has been pretty durable, doesn’t seem to give a ton of effort out there, and still could develop into a pitcher with greater consistent command. I think at this point, you would rather have Locke than Morton as I see them they have essentially the same problems and same general performance, but one costs 7 million more than the other. I feel better with Locke as our #5 than I feel with Morton as our #4. I disagree with the fact that NMR said Morton is a 2 pitch guy, he actually has too many pitches and they kinda forced him to eliminate some of them this year in an effort to find more consistency. They may have swayed a little too far in the other direction though in this curveball-sinker rut he’s in, I really liked his use of the split finger pitch last year, and when he uses his 4 seamer effectively and can get it up to 94mph, his sinker, curve, and split mix can make him deadly out there.

        • It is very, very well established that Charlie Morton is essentially a two pitch pitcher. Been written about many times.

          • as has the fact that he has about 5 pitches he can throw. it was on inside pirates baseball in spring training and last year…..i’m not arguing, just stating a fact. This year it seems he is only throwing 2 pitches for some reason

    • Not to mention Charlie’s #s are severely impacted by that 2/3 inning in Washington. Take that outlier out and you’ve got a #3 starter in terms of ERA/FIP/xFIP… although there are still other issues.

    • Locke gives up fewer extra base hits and home runs than average.

      Though, I agree with your characterization of Locke, his struggles start with fastball command, (a common affliction for pitchers), he simply walks too many batters.

      The interesting thing with Locke is his reverse platoon splits. His change is a plus pitch, his knuckle curve sucks, thus he struggles to put same sided hitters away. His best season against lefties was last year when he threw his knuckle curve the least, just threw a sinker in on the hands to LHH.

  • Good piece, Ed. Someone like Locke, who has to nibble and pitch to contact, seems like more things factor in to his success or failure. Ballpark, lineups, the umps strikezone, his walk rate…wind blowing out as opposed to in. 🙂

    He is what he is. I get annoyed when he doesn’t get the hook fast enough, but he’s given them good innings at times.

    • The interesting thing about these guys, to me, is that although they drive fans crazy, they’re actually pretty valuable. 160-ish innings with league average-ish numbers can really mean a lot to a team.

      • Especially from a kid making $500K – very cost effective. I laughed when you inferred that Locke and Morton do better against the Reds and Brewers – almost like they should do better against lesser teams. They are both having pitiful seasons in 2015, but we cannot seem to do well against them. Those two teams give us fits!

        I was impressed that Locke began hitting 94 mph on a regular basis earlier in the year, and with 3 years of team control remaining, he could be a valuable commodity. Nice article.

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