No one in the Pirates’ starting rotation has been as dominant as Jeff Locke has been over the last month.
It wasn’t long ago that people were questioning what Jeff Locke’s future as a Pirate held because he struggled mightily through the end of May. He had a 5.34 ERA, a poor 3.71 BB/9, and was not providing the Pirates with sufficient length in his starts. Locke only pitched six or more innings just five times in his first ten starts.
However, Locke has turned his season around over his past six starts. His 1.59 ERA over the last month is third best in the National League, while reducing his BB/9 to 2.48 during that stretch. He has credited this turnaround to his ability to execute his pitches more efficiently early in at-bats, which in turn has kept hitters out of favorable counts. This has led to Locke inducing more soft contact, and inducing more ground balls – 57.1% of them during this span.
Pitching Coach Ray Searage has credited the turn around to a couple of minor mechanical adjustments in Locke’s delivery that has aided him in throwing strikes, as well as delivering his pitches at a more downward plane.
“Before those [successful] outings, we were working on it, and all of a sudden it clicked, “ Searage explained to me before Locke’s start tonight.
As Searage described it, Locke wasn’t getting to the top in his delivery, causing him to collapse on his front leg as he released his pitches. This was impeding Locke’s ability to stay tall while he was delivering his pitches, which made it tough for him to have a good feel and to throw his pitches on a downward plane, thus leading to his earlier command problems.
“Sometimes I get a little rushed and try to throw the pitch before I finish the wind-up,” Locke said. “I’ve been doing a much better job at that over about the last month and [I have been] progressively getting better.”
Although Locke took the loss in tonight’s game against St. Louis, he was still encouraged by his ability to keep the game from getting out of hand. He breezed through the first four innings, but ran into misfortune in the fifth inning when Jordy Mercer booted a potential double-play ball that could have prevented the Cardinals from starting their rally. Instead, because of the error the Cardinals set up shop with runners on first and second and no outs in the inning. After a sacrifice bunt, a hit by pitch and a couple of well-placed base hits, the Cardinals had plated four runs off of Locke, although only one of the runs was earned.
“Even in an outing tonight where we don’t win, or I don’t go eight [innings] or I don’t pitch a complete game – It’s an outing like tonight that could’ve gone a lot worse. It could’ve really gotten out of hand at one point,” Locke said.
This is the type of start in the recent past in which Locke has had trouble shutting down opponents and limiting the damage.
The challenge for Locke has been to carry over this first-half success into the second half of the season, something he hasn’t been able to accomplish so far in his Major League career. Locke has historically been at his best in the first-half of the season – he’s posted a 3.00 ERA in his career before the All-Star break, which has included an All-Star selection in 2013. However, he hasn’t been able to sustain his strong performances into the second half of the season, where he’s posted a career 5.34 ERA.
A portion of his issues have been health-related. Locke dealt with a back injury in 2013. But much of it has been due to a lack of experience, according to Searage. Locke has now been through the rigors of a 162-game season, and is more familiar with how to properly take care of his body and what it takes to stay fresh throughout the long season. Locke believes that he has put himself in the best position physically and mentally to carry his recent success into the second half of the season.
Overall, so far this season Locke has an ERA of 4.03, with an xFIP of 3.84. Those are strong numbers from a fifth starter, but do the Pirates think they need more? They were reported tonight as having a scout in attendance for Scott Kazmir’s start, although they could have been watching anyone in that game.
Teams with scouts at Kazmir's start tonight at Yankee Stadium include: TOR, HOU, KC, DET, WAS, PIT. Some monitoring Zobrist, Clippard.
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) July 8, 2015
Locke’s performance coming out of the All-Star break could have a major influence on how aggressive Neal Huntington is in pursuing another starting pitcher. The one-two-three punch of Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett are arguably baseball’s best. Charlie Morton seems to have found his 2013 form, and if Jeff Locke is able to continue his success into the second half, the Pirates may be better off focusing on an upgrade elsewhere.