JEFF LOCKE, LEFT HANDED PITCHER
|Born: November 20, 1987
Height: 6′ 2″
Drafted: 2nd Round, 51st Overall, 2006
How Acquired: Trade (for Nate McLouth)
High School: Kennett HS (North Conway, NH)
WTM’S PIRATE PLAYER PROFILES
|Locke came to the Pirates with RHP Charlie Morton and CF Gorkys Hernandez in a hugely unpopular trade for the hugely overrated (by Pirate fans) Nate McLouth. Baseball America ranked Locke as the 7th best prospect in the Braves’ system going into 2009, despite a so-so 2008 season. BA also rated him the 14th best prospect in the South Atlantic League for 2008. Locke’s fastball sits around 88-92, averaging a little over 90, and can reach a little higher. He throws a changeup and a curve that have been effective at times. He has had just a mild platoon split over his career. Like most Pirates’ pitchers, he’s had an above-average groundball rate, 50.5% for his career. In the majors, his biggest issue by far has been a tendency to nibble and fall behind hitters.
Had a solid debut in rookie ball. Opponents hit .299 against him, but his walk and K rates were excellent.
In the advanced rookie Appalachian League, Locke was much harder to hit and his walk and K rates were even better.
Locke wasn’t as dominant in full season ball, but he didn’t walk many and allowed only six HRs.
Before the trade, Locke struggled with his mechanics, leading to control problems for the first time in his career. After the trade, the struggles continued, as he had an ERA of 5.31 in June and July. He started turning things around in his last July start and had an ERA of 2.58 from that point on. The strong stretch began after one meltdown in which he failed to get out of first inning. His walk rate dropped dramatically with Lynchburg as the Pirates got him to focus more on throwing strikes. His K rate also dropped significantly, but was increasing again late in the year.
Went back to high A and turned things around. His walk and strikeout numbers were excellent, and his pitching overall was better than his ERA indicates. He moved up to Altoona in mid-July and put up nearly identical numbers there. He had two bad starts out of ten and pitched very well in all the others.
The Pirates sent Locke to Altoona to start the season, partly due to their desire to have some veterans in the AAA rotation as insurance. He’d been added to the 40-man roster in the off-season. He struggled early, as his stuff seemed flat and his velocity was down in the mid- to upper-80s. May was an especially bad month, as he had a 7.01 ERA and walked 16 in 25.2 IP. He pitched much better after that, though, and moved up to Indianapolis in August. He started five games there and pitched very well in most of them. The Pirates brought him in September and added him to the rotation for four starts. He struggled with his control and mostly pitched poorly, which is hardly surprising. He may have been tiring, as his velocity declined in each start.
Locke returned to AAA and had an outstanding season. He improved throughout the season; after the AAA All-Star break, he had a 1.57 ERA and allowed just a .212 opponents’ average. He had a significant platoon split on the season. Left-handed batters hit only .197 against him with no HRs, while right-handers hit .257 with nine HRs. Baseball America named him the International League’s 9th best prospect, although it was an extraordinarily weak season for that league, prospect-wise. The Pirates brought Locke up in August for two relief appearances, then brought him back in September. He spent the month in the rotation, making six starts. He struggled in half and pitched well in the other half. One very encouraging sign is that he had excellent walk and strikeout rates, and he didn’t get hammered; opponents hit 267/327/422 against him. He tended to pitch well for several innings and then give up a big HR to somebody; he allowed six, better than one every six innings. He did a far better job of throwing strikes than in his 2011 callup. His fastball velocity was higher than it’s been at times, averaging over 90 mph in four of his six starts and 90.8 overall. Both FIP and xFIP suggest he pitched better than his ERA, although it’s a small sample size. Locke is not a groundball pitcher, so the longball could be a continuing problem for him.
With Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens starting the 2013 season on the disabled list, Locke competed with Kyle McPherson, Jonathan Sanchez and Jeanmar Gomez for the last two rotation spots. He ended up getting one spot more by default than anything, because he didn’t have a great spring. He proceeded to have a remarkable first half, going 9-2, 2.11 in his first 19 starts and making the All-Star team. His success came despite peripheral numbers that weren’t nearly as impressive as his ERA. At that point, he’d walked 51 and fanned 79, and had a batting average on balls in play of .231. Apart from the final numbers, Locke raised concerns due to his habit of falling behind in the count on a regular basis. In fact, he led the NL in walks for the year. Locke’s first half triggered considerable disagreement between statheads, who said he was due for regression, and other fans who bristled at the idea. Unfortunately, the statheads proved to be right. Locke’s BABIP skyrocketed to .374 and his WHIP to 1.87. As a result, he went 1-5, 6.66 in his last eleven starts. The Pirates removed him from the rotation temporarily in September, hoping some time off would help him get back on track, but it didn’t work. Locke was left off the playoff roster.
On the positive side, Locke had a 53.2% groundball rate and allowed only 11 HRs. His velocity stayed consistent all year, with his fastball averaging a little over 90. This gives reason to hope he’s not the second coming of James McDonald, who had a great first half in 2012 only to fall apart, so far permanently, in the second half. Unlike Locke, McDonald lost velocity, as well as the sharpness of his curve, and Locke hasn’t had any arm problems, as McDonald did. Locke’s final numbers probably ended up somewhere near his real ability level, so it’s realistic to think he can be effective in the future as a 4th or 5th starter. His xFIP (4.19) wasn’t a great deal higher than his ERA.
Locke went into spring training expected to compete for a starting job, but with Edinson Volquez signed for a guaranteed $5M, Wandy Rodriguez healthy, and Locke still having an option, the odds were against him. As it was, he ended up missing much of the spring with an oblique injury and opened the season on the disabled list. The Pirates activated him in early April and sent him out on a minor league rehab assignment, but eventually optioned him to AAA. He came up for one start in early May, then returned for good (aside from being optioned briefly near the end of August in a paper move) in early June. Locke didn’t pitch well in AAA and got pounded in his one May start, but once he returned in June he got hot immediately. He had a 2.13 ERA in his first seven starts and walked only six batters in 50.2 IP.
After the strong stretch in June and July, Locke’s control came and went, and in most cases his effectiveness with it. (In one notable exception, he walked six and struck out none in six innings in Milwaukee, but allowed only two runs.) For example, he had two starts in September in which he walked none over seven innings each time. In his other three September starts, he walked 13 in just 12.1 IP. Starting in June, his monthly ERA was 2.54, 3.79, 2.90 and 5.47. Overall, Locke’s walk rate was down substantially from 2013, although his K rate also dropped. He threw 45.3% of his pitches for strikes, compared to an extremely low 41% in 2013. (MLB average is about 49%.) He had a little trouble with gopher balls, allowing 16. Batters had a 257/315/406 line against him.
The Pirates continued to stick by Locke, naming him the team’s fifth starter, over Vance Worley, even though he didn’t have a good spring. (The issue became moot when Charlie Morton opened the season on the disabled list.) Locke continued to pitch more or less as he always has — although his ERA rose, his xFIP (3.94) was very similar to what it was in 2012-14. He struggled early and late in the season, with ERA of 5.34 in April and May, 3.12 in June and July, and 5.07 from August on. When J.A. Happ turned into a major surprise, the Pirates went to a six-man rotation briefly, in part due to a doubleheader. At the very end of the season, though, they skipped Locke. For the season, he had a good groundball rate (51%) and a reverse platoon split, allowing a .791 OPS to left-handed hitters and .718 to right-handed hitters.
With A.J. Burnett retiring and Happ leaving as a free agent, the Pirates badly needed to upgrade their rotation after Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano. Instead, they downgraded from Morton to Ryan Vogelsong (although the latter lost out to Juan Nicasio during spring training), added Jon Niese, and retained Locke in the rotation. They tried to address his problems by revamping his delivery, but it resulted in his worst season. He got hit harder than ever (opponents batted .298 against him), saw his K rate drop to easily a career low, had more trouble than ever with gopher balls (17), and had a career low groundball rate (47.2%). Despite all the struggles, the Pirates didn’t remove him from the rotation for good until early August. He pitched in long relief after that, not doing particularly well in that role, either. He pitched only once after September 10 due to a sore shoulder.
The Pirates stuck with Locke too long. He’s in his second arbitration season and will be due a raise despite his bad season. One scout was quoted around mid-season as saying Locke had some trade value, but another bad half-season has intervened and any interested team will be expecting the Pirates to non-tender him. The reality of having to pay him an arbitration-2 salary will probably overcome their determination to stick with him.
|Signing Bonus: $675,000
MiLB Debut: 2006
MLB Debut: 9/10/2011
MiLB FA Eligible: N/A
MLB FA Eligible: 2017
Rule 5 Eligible: N/A
Added to 40-Man: 11/19/2010
Options Remaining: 0 (USED: 2011, 2012, 2014)
MLB Service Time: 4.020
|June 6, 2006: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 2nd round, 51st overall pick; signed on June 16.
June 3, 2009: Acquired by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Atlanta Braves along with Gorkys Hernandez and Charlie Morton in exchange for Nate McLouth.
November 19, 2010: Contract purchased by the Pittsburgh Pirates.