I have a hard time writing about how Jeff Locke should be removed from the rotation.
Locke has been an incredibly frustrating pitcher throughout his career. He shows signs that he’s going to be a reliable MLB starter, and just when you buy in, he does a 180 and struggles. Then, right when you’re about to give up for good, he turns things back around and starts showing his promise again.
This all started in 2013, when Locke had a great first half. He had a 2.15 ERA, although his 4.21 xFIP showed he was due for regression. Still, that 4.21 mark would have been good enough to be a starter in the majors. He did regress in the second half, but had the exact opposite situation. This time he had a 6.12 ERA and a 4.14 xFIP, looking much worse than he actually was.
In 2014, he once again had a good first half, posting a 2.89 ERA. This one was backed by a 3.32 xFIP, and Locke was looking legit. But once again, he struggled in the second half with a 4.66 ERA and a 4.34 xFIP.
Last year he didn’t have such a dominant first half, putting up a 4.03 ERA. That was once again backed up by his 3.96 xFIP. While these results weren’t as good as the previous years, they were still good enough to be in a rotation. But once again, he struggled in the second half, with a 5.10 ERA and a 3.92 xFIP.
Outside of that 2013 first half, all of his good stretches have been backed up with good advanced metrics, making you think that he was finally settling in. Even the 2013 numbers had good enough advanced metrics to make him a back of the rotation starter. Then, the second half rolled around, and his ERA looked like a guy who should be in Triple-A, while his advanced metrics suggested he wasn’t actually that bad. Looking at every single xFIP above, you’d take that starter in the Pirates’ rotation right now.
Unfortunately, the Pirates don’t have the old Jeff Locke. This year’s version has seen the same ups and downs, only in a much shorter time span. We’re not talking a good first half and a bad second half. We’re talking two excellent starts, and two horrible starts. And during that process, it’s easy to get caught up in the season and give another chance when a good start comes along, and start to question him when a bad start comes up. But this can create a situation where Locke is in the rotation until he puts together enough poor outings in a row to get the boot, and he never seems to do that.
I don’t think this is the best way to evaluate Locke, even though I’ve been sucked into this approach this year as well. At this point, the best thing to do would be to step back and look at the big picture.
The big picture? Jeff Locke is showing very little reason to be in the Pirates’ rotation right now.
Locke has a strange trend this year where he has put up some of his worst career starts, and some of his best career starts. He pitched a shutout in Miami on May 30th. He gave up one run in seven innings against the Dodgers and pitched 6.2 shutout innings against the Giants in back-to-back starts at the end of June. On the flip side of this, there have been five starts this year (including tonight) when he gave up 5+ runs in less than five innings.
Taking a step back, one key thing to notice about Locke is that he has seen a big drop in his strikeouts this year. He used to be in the 16-17.5% range. Now he has dropped to 12.2%. The walk rate is down at 7.4%, which is just above his career best of 7.3% in 2014. But the lack of strikeouts makes him a guy who is relying too much on pitch-to-contact.
Let’s go back to those successful games this year. That shutout in Miami? One strikeout. The seven innings against the Dodgers, and 6.2 against the Giants? Three strikeouts each. The outings where he gave up 5+ runs in fewer than five innings? Tonight was the only one of the five starts where he struck out more than three. The K/9 is higher in those starts, but he’s facing about the same amount of batters.
Locke is no longer throwing his curveball. He has thrown the pitch 24 times this year. That’s 1.5% of the time. He threw the pitch 15.9% of the time last year. His fastball usage has gone up slightly, and his changeup usage has gone up from 22% to 28%.
Throughout his career, Locke’s best pitch for swinging strikes was his changeup. He has a career 19.6% swinging strike rate on the pitch. For some reason, that is down to 15.2% this year. His curveball was his second best pitch, getting a career 13% strikeout rate, which is about the same this year at 12.5% in the limited usage.
Locke’s curveball previously got his best results, with a .568 OPS. His changeup had a .742 career OPS. This year that changeup is up to an .801 OPS.
It’s easy to see what is going on here. Locke’s most effective pitches were his changeup and curveball. The curveball has been scrapped, and the changeup has regressed this year. Maybe that’s because of the new delivery. It was aimed at giving him better control, and he’s had that, but the impact on his pitches is a question mark. Maybe the changeup is less effective now because he’s basically a two-pitch pitcher.
Either way, this version of Jeff Locke should not be in the rotation. Whatever hope might have existed from the previous version of Locke, that should be gone now. This version isn’t throwing one of his best pitches, and the best pitch has declined this year. As a result, he’s a pitch-to-contact guy with two pitches, and a lot of his best results coming thanks to his defense. Only four of his 17 starts this year have produced an xFIP below 4.00, and that doesn’t include his shutout, or two of his four games where he went seven innings. Meanwhile, tonight was his tenth start with an xFIP over 5.00.
There’s no sign of regression here. You can’t point to past success and expect the same going forward. This is a completely different pitcher, and one who shouldn’t be in the rotation, especially when so many prospects are knocking at the door. Maybe those prospects won’t be reliable from start to start, but that would be due to age and experience, and not due to relying on BABIP and defense with a reduced arsenal. Perhaps Locke could work out in the bullpen as a two-pitch guy, and a long reliever, but he’s clearly not working out in the rotation, and it’s time for him to be replaced.
**The mid-season top 30 Pirates prospect list is currently being finalized, and will be written up tomorrow, to be posted on Friday. If we only went with tiered rankings, it would be up tomorrow, or maybe even today. But we’re doing a 1-30 list, because people love lists. We’ll have the tiers as well, because those are so much better. As for tomorrow, we’ll just have more great individual prospect features.
**Jeff Locke Struggles Again in Pirates Loss to the Brewers. Alan Saunders has a live recap of tonight’s game, and the comments from Clint Hurdle can’t be good for Locke’s future in the rotation.
**Pirates Notes: Cervelli and Polanco Back in the Lineup Again Tonight; Taillon and Stewart Updates. Good to see Cervelli and Polanco looking healthy.
**Prospect Watch: Vogelsong Leaves Start Early Due to Tight Neck. Brian Peloza with the live report on Vogelsong, who was getting close to a potential return to the majors. Also, live reports from Sean McCool in Altoona, and Abigail Miskowiec in West Virginia.
**Pirates Activate Elias Diaz from Disabled List and Option Him to Indianapolis. Not much of a change for Diaz, except that he’ll stop getting MLB service time now.
**The Change in Approach That is Leading to Better Results For Max Moroff. Brian Peloza writes about the change Max Moroff made that has led to better results the last two months.
**Stephen Tarpley Has Improved Secondary Stuff, Needs Consistent Fastball Command. Stephen Tarpley is showing better off-speed stuff, but his fastball command hasn’t been consistent this year.
**Frank Duncan Placed on the Indianapolis DL With a Minor Hand Injury. Brian Peloza breaks down the injury, with all parties in Indianapolis expecting Duncan back soon.
**Morning Report: Catching Up with the Young Pirates from South Africa. John Dreker looks at Vince Deyzel and Victor Ngoepe, the two recent signings out of South Africa.