It’s hard to believe that the Jeff Locke era with the Pirates has come to an end. It seems like only yesterday that the Pirates traded Nate McLouth to get Locke, Charlie Morton, and Gorkys Hernandez, which led to me covering Locke that summer in Lynchburg. He came into the system at a time when there were very few legit prospects in the lower levels, and because of that trade, he immediately had a spotlight on him.

I covered Locke every step of the way of his career, starting with that Lynchburg team. I watched him develop in the minors, quickly shedding the control problems he had with the Braves that year, then getting them back in the upper levels, only to add a turn to his delivery that allowed everything to click and led to him making the successful jump to the majors. If you want to read more detail about that process, check out my article on the history of his mechanical changes from this past Spring Training.

You probably saw a lot of Pirates media members talking about how Locke was a great guy immediately after today’s move. I was one of them. At every stage, Locke was always a nice and friendly guy, always open for interviews, and often too open for interviews, giving some of the longest and most thorough responses on the team. That’s great for the reporting side, but a killer on the transcribing side. There were some times early in his career where he had to adjust to the MLB spotlight, and the fan reactions and words in the media about him, but over time, it seemed like he learned to push that stuff to the side.

I always felt that Locke had unfair treatment in Pittsburgh, primarily by fans who gave him an impossible bar to reach. That could have been the way his first full season went in 2013. He had a 2.15 ERA in 109 innings in the first half and made the All-Star game. We spent that entire first half arguing that he wasn’t as good as the ERA indicated, and that his 4.21 xFIP was more reflective of his abilities. The crazy thing is that for all of the complaining about Locke now, it was actually controversial at the time to say that he would regress in the second half.

That happened almost immediately, and to the other extreme. Locke had a 6.12 ERA in the second half that season, but a 4.14 xFIP. He went from not being as good as his ERA indicated to not being nearly as bad.

It was a similar story in 2014. He started with a 2.89 ERA and a 3.32 xFIP before the All-Star break. His walks were down and the ERA was actually looking legit this time, although in only 56 innings in an injury shortened first half. Once again, he struggled in the second half, seeing the walks increase, and putting up a 4.66 ERA and a 4.34 xFIP.

The 2015 season didn’t see a great first half, but he did put up a 4.03 ERA and a 3.96 xFIP. Once again, he fell apart after the All-Star break, with a 5.10 ERA and a 3.92 xFIP, although his walks weren’t the issue as much this time around.

The Pirates were looking for a way to get more consistency out of Locke. He showed flashes of his potential throughout the 2013-15 seasons, but could never maintain consistency. And it wasn’t always for the same reason. He looked like he was benefiting from luck in the first half of 2013, but the first half of 2014 looked legit. The walks killed him in the second half in 2014, but they actually improved in the second half in 2015. It was a frustrating roller coaster ride where every time you thought you could buy in to his latest success, everything started falling apart.

So the Pirates decided to switch him back to his old mechanics and build on that in 2016. I thought this was a mistake, since they made the switch to his Ted Lilly style turn delivery in 2012 in order to try improving his command and adding deception. The idea to switch to the former mechanics for more consistency made sense in theory. It was an easier delivery with fewer moving parts, and should be easier to repeat, which usually leads to consistency. But that was never the case for Locke in the past, and it definitely wasn’t the case for him in 2016. What we saw was a delivery that didn’t work in the upper levels in the past, that couldn’t be improved upon or fixed after a great deal of work with Ray Searage.

In a lot of cases, when a pitcher isn’t fixed, it will be because the pitcher didn’t buy in to the changes. That wasn’t the case here. Locke bought in one hundred percent. All the credit goes to him for trying to make the change, and you can’t blame him that it didn’t work out. These types of adjustments don’t always work out, and Locke is proof that they may not work even when the player is completely on board.

Locke’s career with the Pirates was frustrating, and full of inconsistent performances each year. But like I said, the bar was also set unfairly high for him. He wasn’t a bad pitcher at all. From 2013-2015, he had a 3.98 ERA and a 4.02 xFIP. The league average in those seasons was around a 3.80 xFIP. Any pitcher putting up his numbers over three years, and getting criticized for it, really wasn’t getting a fair evaluation.

Locke was a number four starter in those years in the big picture, although most of the time he was better than a number four starter for half the year, and pitched like a number five or a Quad-A guy the rest of the year. Pirates fans forgot the former, and used the latter to define him.

The unfortunate thing is that the old Locke would have actually helped the Pirates in 2016. His 4.02 xFIP from 2013-2015 would have tied with Gerrit Cole for third among all of the starters on the 2016 roster. The two guys ahead of them were Ivan Nova and Jameson Taillon. But instead, Locke turned into the pitcher that he was always accused of being, with a 5.86 ERA and a 5.07 xFIP from the new mechanics.

And now, rightfully, the Jeff Locke era is over. The Pirates can’t take a chance on him bouncing back as a starter when the cost is $4 M or more, and the rotation has so many question marks. Perhaps if he can’t find a better opportunity elsewhere, he’d be good on a minor league deal, giving him time to¬†continue working on his mechanics and possibly getting to the point where he can be an effective MLB starter again. But I’d expect him to get a better opportunity. He just turned 29 years old, and he’s left-handed with previous MLB success. He will get plenty of opportunities.

I hope that one of those opportunities leads to him finally figuring it out, or at the least, just getting back to where he was prior to the 2016 season. But that’s just because I always pull for the good guys, no matter what jersey they are wearing.

**Pirates Designate Jeff Locke For Assignment; Sign Pitcher Lisalverto Bonilla. The breakdown of today’s moves, with a report on Bonilla.

**An Updated Look at the Starting Pitching Market With Volquez Off the Board. I gave an update to the starting pitching market, noting that the Pirates will probably need a trade to get someone better than Derek Holland.

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40 COMMENTS

  1. It is funny to me that the pirate pitching coaches are renowned for fixing pitchers but couldn’t fix Locke, there own pitcher. Now they jump for Bonilla and they think they are smarter then other teams. Lets hope he works out better then Locke did. I am sure if another team picks up Locke, he will turn into a reliable #4 or 5 starter.

  2. One drawback to Locke was his pitch count. While his ERA and xFIP did make him seem like a 4/5 starter, his innings per start seemed low to me. There is a difference between a pitcher with an ERA of 4.00 that gives you 6-7 innings per start, and a pitcher with an ERA of 4.00 that gives you 5 innings per start. Locke to my memory was of the latter type, his pitch count would not allow him to go above 5 innings on many occasions, so his starts would tax the bullpen often. Maybe the stats don’t back up my memory.

    • MLB is turning into a game where a significant portion of SP’s are 5-6 IP/start types due to not wanting them to go through lineup a 3rd time. And the fact most teams have more faith in their middle relievers now compared to a generation ago.

      • One is almost always going to hit the third time through before the 6th inning, and very likely the 5th inning, since the minimum batters to face through 5 is 15, and two times through the order is 18. If you don’t want Locke going a third time through the order, that would make him (and a lot of other starters) a 4 inning starter – 12 outs, plus 6 other batters just to get through 4, which I’m guessing he often did, at least last year.

        • I should say, most teams are hesitant to have their back of rotation SP’s going through lineup a 3rd time on days they don’t have their A game.

  3. While I’m not sad to see him go, Jeff Locke was always one of my favorite players. What others saw as not taking responsibility, I saw as an athlete focusing on what he did right, and on what he needed to do to build on that. He was pretty brutal on himself at times, and he took every failure really hard.

    This guy made it to The Show. He is so, so close to being really good, but by the smallest margin hasn’t cleared that last barrier of consistency. If he does it, let’s hope it is in the AL.

  4. This is a very good article. I’ve seen a lot of caustic comments about Locke — all uncalled for. Hopefully he’ll find a home somewhere else.

  5. I am not a NH hater but he sure does seem to end up in a lot of situations where he wants to trade someone – and no one seems to value the asset: Morton, Locke, Alvarez, Walker, Liriano, etc. These were all players that contributed to the Pirates successful 3-year WC run. But when NH wanted to move them, they suddenly had no value at all: we actually had to give up additional players to get rid of Liriano, released Locke and Alvarez, got a minor leaguer for Morton, and got only a project for Walker.

    He’s like a bad poker player where all of the GMs know what he is going to do – and therefore wait for him to panic or blink…

    • This happens with 29 other GMs as well. It’s happening right now with Chris Carter in Milwaukee. Every team is going to have guys who have value to the team, then reach a salary point where they are no longer valuable and have little or no trade value.

  6. They have not had much luck getting soft tossing LH to pitch well. Locke, Neise, and Sanchez. They should not sign Holland.

  7. You know what really grinds my gears? Drew Hutchison. He is estimated to make $2.2M this year, his 2nd arbitration year. He has a career 4.93 ERA over 417 innings. He had a 3.59 ERA in AAA last year but was 4.50 after joining Indy.

    Wanna quick way to save $2.2M? Non-tender. Even if he does miraculously turn things around in AAA this year, you get 1.5 years and then he’s a free agent. But it won’t happen because the front office has to try and save face for a horrible trade. Admit the mistake and move on. Good teams don’t throw bad money after bad money.

    • You know what grinds my gears even more. Someone like Eddie Volquez coming off a season with an ERA over 5 and an xFIP of 4.58 STILL gets 2/22 in this market but we had to GIVE AWAY prospect(s) to take on the albatross of a deal Liriano had at 1/13 for 2017 when in his worst outlier year he had an Xfip around 4.2 and an ERA under 5 as well as 2 3 fwAR seasons in the last 4 years.

      Something is rotten in Denmark. Everyone knew this was a small market team but it’s even smaller than we realized. And if ESPN’s recent troubles are signs of a cable bubble bursting we are even more seriously screwed than it appears right now.

      Maybe Frank Coonely can talk up his TV deal again at Piratesfest

      • Totally agree. There was NO REASON we had to give up so much to dump Liriano’s contract. He had value. Maybe not 2/$26, which is what he had left, but not far from that.

    • I really, really, hope Hutch makes his detractors eat a heaping helping of crow. No Pitcher in MLB history has ever been raked over the coals like him before ever throwing a pitch for the team.

      Is it really too much to ask to give him a chance to show what he can do after spending some time getting coached up by Searage before throwing him into the proverbial dumpster?

      • I have nothing against him. My complaint is with the front office. And yes, $2.2M is too much to ask for what his history and upside are.

        • Do you realize how cheap $2.2mm is for a SP? If he contributs positive WAR at all this year, he’ll be worth what he was paid.

          I choose to believe Pirates brass saw something in him that was untapped by Blue Jays. Pirates front office may not be perfect, but they have a stellar history of helping struggling Pitchers exceed expectations.

          Just give the guy a chance before saying he’s a failure, that’s all I’m saying.

  8. Tim one thing that fascinates me about Locke maybe you have insight on?

    OK, they reworked his delivery removing the turn which looks like huge mistake. I understand the reason they tried it but it sure seems he benefits from deception in his delivery. But beyond the delivery… what was the reason for dropping the curve ball and essentially turning him into a 2 pitch pitcher? Was the curve tied to the turn? Did he lose ability to throw it consistently once he reworked his delivery. While he didn’t throw the curve a ton, he always got above league average results with that pitch from 2013-15. Whether intentional or not, Searage’s redesign changed Locke from a 3 pitch pitcher with deception in his turn to a 2 pitch pitcher with little if any deception. I don’t get it… Searage is a smart guy.

    • We wrote about that at some point this year. I can’t remember the exact reason they made the switch, but I think it had to do with trying to get a better out pitch and getting a pitch that worked better with the new mechanics.

  9. Fantastic article Tim. Actually touching in a way. These guys are human beings and Locke was a better pitcher than consensus prior to this year. I always like hearing about the guys who are nice people.

  10. Not supporting the Holland option basically another Neise.
    Time to sign Nova or make a big move in trade market. If NH was preparing for a Cutch trade he’d already know who the potential suitors are and have a price in mind. It’s a, no, THE defining moment of his tenure. What happens out of this will never be forgotten.
    If Mclouth was worth 2 potential starters and an outfielder what is Cutch worth?

  11. I was a defender of Locke until last year when he really missed out on his opportunity with this club to be just what he was and still is destined to be- a solid 4th/5th guy. He just imploded.
    Sometimes a change of scenery helps he’d be a fit in Petco or Safeco.

  12. Thanks Jeff for your contributions to the Pirates. Were you one of the best players on those playoff teams, no, but you were certainly an integral part of the team. Your ability to eat innings and win your fair share of games was a key component to the team’s success.

    Best wishes wherever you land (as long as it isn’t in the division).

  13. I am sure Tim is right that Locke is a great guy, so one can only wish him well. He was, like Morton and Liriano, maddeningly inconsistent and it seems like he got bombed much more often than the occasional strong performance. It seems like the Pirates are extremely constrained financially at present for whatever reason as illustrated by the salary dump of Liriano and their exploration of trades for Cutch and JHay. Things are starting to look bleak for our Mudville 9!

  14. Good guy or not, Locke was awful. This is one guy I can honestly say I will not miss. i couldn’t stand his post game interviews after he was rocked and gave up 7 runs. He would never take responsibility. Always had an excuse and would say he thought he pitched well. Will go crazy if this guy comes back on a minor league deal

      • Last 4 years (2013-2016) 100 starts with a record of 34-32. I know the advanced metrics numbers, but somebody explain how he managed to go through the last 4 years averaging 25 starts a year and posting a winning record in spite of those numbers.

        Smart money is on somebody picking him up for at least the first half (always his best) and then trading him at the deadline

        • Lots of folks choose to only remember the bad Jeff Locke starts. He had his fair share of good one’s too, as the article and your post show.

          He’ll land on his feet somewhere.

      • Yes he was inconsistent but he’ll always be remembered to me as a guy that was a key part to the three playoff teams of 2013-2016 .great guy and I wish him the best

      • he didn’t pitch with any similarity to Charlie Morton whatsoever. his pitches, his stuff, not even the same arm….definitely not intelligence or personality. even how he struggled was different. nice comment.

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