BRADENTON, Fl. – Jeff Locke debuted his new delivery in an actual game this week, and the results weren’t great. Afterwards, Locke discussed the new delivery, saying that it felt good, and walking through some of the history of his old delivery. A lot of this I already knew, since I covered Locke from day one when he entered the system after the Nate McLouth trade, and broke the news in 2012 that he was changing his delivery for a more Ted Lilly-esque approach.
After talking with Locke on Wednesday, I went back through my notes over the years and put together a timeline of his delivery changes, with some new input from his talk with the media, along with a one-on-one talk after that session. Here is the breakdown, going back to 2009.
2009 – Post Nate McLouth Trade
The Pirates have a “no touch” period with their prospects, where they don’t make any changes right after acquiring a guy. The period spans for the first few months a player is in the system, so that the coaches can evaluate him and see if any changes might be necessary. Maybe they didn’t have this policy in 2009 (I first learned about it in a later year) or maybe they made a few exceptions.
If the latter is true, then Locke definitely seemed to be the exception to the rule. His delivery with the Braves was similar to the delivery he is currently working on. He immediately made a change, after a conversation and a suggestion from Lynchburg pitching coach Wally Whitehurst, removing the part where he brings his glove over his head at the start of his windup.
“It was the first day I got here, that windup was gone,” Locke said. “To be honest, I was 21 years old, new pitching coaches, new teammates, new team. Anything they were going to want to do with me, I was all aboard. I had some tough times in Atlanta as of late. I thought maybe a new windup will help me. I think it really did. I felt great with it in the minor leagues, felt great with it in the big leagues.”
The turnaround from Locke was almost instant. He went from a 5.52 ERA in 45.2 innings with a 43:26 K/BB ratio in the Braves’ system, to a 4.08 ERA in 81.2 innings with a 56:18 K/BB ratio. The ERA was inflated by a few bad outings (long-time readers will remember that those coincidentally happened to be the outings where I was in attendance), but the control was gone, and in Locke’s final eight starts he posted a 2.58 ERA in 45.1 innings, with a 35:6 K/BB ratio. That’s a massive turnaround from his first 45 innings to start the year.
2012 – The Ted Lilly Delivery
The delivery change that Locke made in 2009 worked for him for a few years. He had success in Bradenton and Altoona in 2010, combining for a 3.56 ERA in 144 innings, along with an 8.7 K/9 and a 1.6 BB/9. He started in Altoona in 2011, and eventually made the majors after strong numbers in the upper levels. But the control problems returned, and the Pirates started looking for a change.
The Pirates brought in Erik Bedard for the 2012 season. He was a lefty who hid the ball well, and they used this as inspiration for Locke’s next delivery change. The goal was to become more deceptive. So they added more of a turn, taking it to extreme measures to try and model the new delivery after Ted Lilly. Here is a picture from 2012:
Prior to 2012, Locke was falling forward early, which led to some control problems. The new delivery in 2012 was not only aimed at getting deception, but also fixing the control by staying back on the mound through his windup, without releasing early.
“I really liked that delivery, because it was different,” Locke said. “Not everybody was doing it. Everybody is so conventional, lift the leg and throw the ball, and I liked it because it was so different. To this day, I still do like it. You can even do the same thing from [the new windup], just not as much.”
This delivery worked for him for a few years. He had success in Indianapolis in 2012, then went on a run in 2013 and 2014 where he had success in the first half, but struggled in the second half. And during this time, the delivery started running into problems.
Locke was turning to keep his weight back, but ended up turning his entire body back, which was throwing off his control. There would be times where no matter what mistake he made, he would throw a strike. And then when he was struggling, that’s when people started noticing and started thinking that a change might need to be made.
The release points weren’t consistent with his full turn, mostly due to the landing spot. One pitch would see him land to the left of the rubber, and another would see him land to the right.
“It was like the results had nothing to do with the windup,” Locke said.
The interesting thing about this is that when you think back to Locke’s second half struggles, he always said something along the lines of how he wasn’t doing anything different in the second half, and felt like everything was the same with his delivery. And maybe everything was the same, which could have created his problem where he’d be lights out at one point, and a complete disaster the next point, with no apparent solution at times.
After some trial and error, the Pirates determined that the turn wouldn’t work any longer, and another change was needed.
2015 – The Start of the New Delivery
The change Locke is working on this year actually came at the end of last season, or at least it was discussed at that point. Ray Searage brought up the suggestion to Locke, but they didn’t make a switch at that point, as he had two starts remaining, and they wouldn’t have enough time to implement such a big change.
The two got together over the off-season to discuss it again. Searage stressed that he didn’t want to take anything away from Locke in terms of his pitches, or what his pitches could do. The focus was finding a way to improve his control.
At the start of 2016, Locke and Searage began working on the new delivery, with Searage meeting Locke 2-3 times per week to work with him.
2016 – A Not So New Delivery
Locke is now to the point where he is pitching in games, and Wednesday saw the debut of his new delivery in the game setting. The first time through was encouraging from a feel standpoint, even if the results struggled.
“I love it,” Locke said of the new delivery. “I know that the results are a different thing, but you feel so much better on the mound. Feel like you can throw the ball on both sides of the plate. We had some pitches that were left up today, but that’s going to happen.”
Right now, Locke is mostly throwing fastballs, although he did mix in a few changeups and throw one curve in the dirt on Wednesday. At one point, Searage paid him a visit on the mound, telling him to keep trusting what he was doing, despite the poor results.
“It’s easy for us to want to get away from that,” Locke said. “It’s easy for us to get away from the things that we’re working on. Everything was encouraging. Everything feels good. I think we’re where we need to be.”
The extreme turn has now been removed. This allows Locke to see his target earlier. Previously, when he would turn, he wouldn’t be able to look back and see the plate. He would have to find his target on the way forward, and as you could imagine, that’s not great for control. He still has some turn to his delivery, but nothing extreme like before.
Locke also brought back having his hands over his head, which allows him to see the plate earlier as well.
“I’m picking up the target much sooner. I know I had the walk today, but that’s just Jeff trying to be a little too fine, like normal.”
One thing to be skeptical about is that Locke is kind of coming full circle here, going back to a delivery that he originally moved away from after struggling with Atlanta. But before struggling that season, he was an untouchable prospect, with the Braves refusing to deal him in rumored trades for Jake Peavy and Jason Bay in 2008. So was the delivery fine, and just hit a rough patch? Or is Locke going from one bad delivery to another?
I won’t say that everything is sure to work out in this case, and Locke definitely will need some time to get fully comfortable with the delivery, and have it be fully effective. But I’d have to defer to Ray Searage on this one and assume he knows what he’s doing. As I mentioned last night, not all of his reclamation projects will work. But he’s got a good track record, and he’s a widely respected coach, so if he’s in support of this change, then I’d at least give Locke a chance to see if he can make the switch. And looking at his history, he’s been very familiar with changing his delivery up, so that shouldn’t be a foreign concept to him.
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