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.