Can Jeff Locke Sustain His Latest Success?

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.

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.

  • Hanson is not going to be brought up to be a bat off the bench nor should he be. When he’s brought up, it should be to play everyday.

  • I know this is a big series, but not any more important than any other series the Bucs will play in 2015. Halfway through a season where our team has performed better than expected – don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. If they lose them all and go into the AS Break 12 or 13 games above .500, I will still be thrilled, because I see a lot of positives in this group of players.

    Hanson has been a favorite of mine since his days in Lo A where I thought he should have been the Minor League POY for the Pirates instead of Polanco. His time will come, but not because Walker needs a break. I expect this team will undergo a major transition shortly – then he will get his opportunity as a starter, not a part-timer.

  • Really frustrating game last night to watch. I think it should be time for Hanson to come up and not because of Harrison’s injury but because of Neil Walker’s frustration. Yes, he’s been one of our hottest hitters, but did anyone watch his body language last night? Guy needs a day off…and we need a leadoff hitter. We also need to find a way to remove Sean Rodriguez’ bat from the lineup…how bad can Gorkys be?…at least he’s got great speed on the bases.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    July 10, 2015 8:46 am

    Locke and Morton both tend to pitch very well for 3-4 innings, but both seem to be susceptible to the big inning. The Mercer error didn’t help, although it was not an easy play – and if handled cleanly, I am not convinced they get a double play.

    Overall, I thought Locke pitched okay – not great, but competitive. Its not his fault that the offense continues to struggle. If it wasn’t for the fact that SD’s offense is even more abysmal that the Pirates, we could have easily been swept in that series, instead of sweeping the Padres. In each game, the offense did nothing until late in the game.

    Having Marte and Harrison out doesn’t help, but the Cards have been playing .650 ball without Wainwright, Adams, and Holliday.

    When is this team going to start trusting its prospects enough to promote them and see if they can provide a shot in the arm, even if short-term? Hanson should be up, and either Lombardozzi or Ishikawa sent packing. Hanson could provide speed and help the team manufacture runs, since they haven’t been able to hit for much power this year. Hanson is hitting.290 at Indy – what are they waiting for??

    • Pitching well for 3-4 innings but both seem to be susceptible to the big inning.

      I think you are describing the times through the order penalty, all pitchers get worse with each turn through the order, and lesser pitchers more so. Morton throws two pitchers, these type of pitchers usually have the most difficulty, while some like to wax on about mental strength or whatever, I think this is most logical explanation.

      Also both Morton and Locke are at best merely average in K rate, so they are slightly more dependent upon the fielding behind them, walks and fielding miscues be can become more costly.

  • I was looking at BsR values – which show Polanco and Kang as the leaders on the Bucs – then looked at FG’s glossary for the components of BsR. If I’m reading it correctly, neither Polanco’s nor Kang’s gaffes last night would count against them. And if that’s the case, then that metric needs to be fixed.

    • I thought it was telling that Hurdle and the major league vets on both the radio and TV broadcast teams did not shy away from being critical of the mistakes that should not be made by major league players. Metrics are a joke if they don’t account for blunders.

    • Both events would be rated, and merits or debits would be awarded under UBR (Ultimate Base Running,) and added to the BsR number.

      Not sure Kang’s was a gaffe, more bad fortunate.

      • I’m not sure about that. The way I read it, UBR doesn’t count scoring/not scoring from 3rd on a ground ball. Not saying I’m right here, but that’s what I’m interpreting from FanGraphs UBR page. Saw nothing about Kang’s situation. If you know different, can you provide your source?

        • No sorry, you are correct I thought that UBR added in balls on the ground with runners at 3rd when they added past ball and wild pitch situations.

          So it doesn’t look like they cover Polanco’s situation, Kang I’m not so sure because ball in the air but not to the OF.

          Baseball Prospectus has similar numbers that are a little more brute, that cover all situations.

          As for why UBR doesn’t cover it, it could be a product of sample size, mostly I think it is not being able to discern if the infield was playing in or for the double play. Infield alignment would dramatically affect if the run is scored or not.

  • Can jeff locke sustain his recent success? Probably not, what he can and is doing is what a #5 starter should do, that’s keep the game close (relatively) giving the team a chance to win. I’m not a fan of lockes as most of you know, that said there are not a lot of #5 starters available who are better than he is or as cheap as he is. So bigger price tag and a prospect versus locke, I have to take locke.

    • Like many I have also been a critic of Locke, mainly because of the tendency to “nibble.” However, the recent improvement in command and quality of pitches has been obvious and now we are hearing he solved a mechanical issue. The Bucs lost night due to gaffes on the base paths, a key error, and the inability to put the ball in play with men in scoring position. Take this loss and the three extra inning losses in St. Louis and you have an explanation as to why fans are frustrated despite playoff status in the standings. Now our three studs have to stand tall and the position players have to execute like the major league players they are fortunate to be. We have to stop giving these games to the Cards.

  • Weak contact or not, the 5th inning was bad. Just bad. If Locke held to just the two runs, it could’ve been a game. But it did get out of hand.

    • Agree, but against a pitcher like the Cardinals threw tonight, a team has to cash in on good opportunities. He walked Rodriguez to start the 3rd, Locke sacrificed him to 2B, and then he walked Polanco, and was walking around the mound talking to himself. With recently hot hitters like Walker and ‘Cutch coming to the plate I was hoping for at least one run to break ahead, and to put more heat on this kid. We failed. The first pitch to Walker was a FB right down main street and he watched it – turned out to be the best pitch he would see and that AB ended with a K on a low breaking pitch. ‘Cutch neither.

      • Seems to be an aberration this year, but Cutch is merely pedestrian (.257/.668) in innings 1-3 compared to career norms. Although he is outperforming norms in innings 4-9. Maybe that’s his frustration on not being pitched to/challenged, but even his BB totals are down in first 3 innings.

        • bucs: It is what it is and it is hard to argue with the numbers. I am sure the Cardinal’s advance scouting book has those numbers, just like they have the tendency of Neil to take a first pitch strike. No other reason why he should get a fat 93 mph FB on the first pitch, and then all breaking pitches falling out of the zone after that.

          • Mercer is another one who routinely looks at first pitches right down the middle of the plate. The amazing thing is that when he does swing at a first pitch is usually off the plate and he misses it badly.

    • Locke was good before rain delay. Didn’t look as sharp afterwards. Then again, it could have to do with facing hitters for third time, too.

      Bottom line is he didn’t pitch well enough against Carpenter and Molina. Needed to produce ground ball and couldn’t do it against either guy. Neither guy hit it particularly hard, but both hits were line drives.

      • I’m sure some here will object, but if that 5th inning were Morton’s, we’d be talking about a mental meltdown beginning with Mercer’s error (which was terrible given the situation).

        • The Pirates played, again, too sloppy against the Cardinals. The game should have been 1-0 early, and then should have been 3-0 before the Cards had a chance to score…poor base-running, untimely poor defense, and an inability to stop the bleeding on the mound and the game was immediately over.

          • They are mentally weak against the Cardinals. Going back the past couple of years they have played this type of game against them over and over again mostly in St. Louis.

        • bucs: I have not seen a whole lot of the dreaded double M, and that usually comes after multiple occurrences. He did struggle the other night in the first two innings, but overcame that by going to the curve until he got comfortable with keeping the two-seamer down in the zone. That’s sort of the polar opposite of the double M – very positive.

      • I dont think one should ever call the hit from Carpenter a line drive. It was in the air, but never on a line. Blooper.

    • Problem is it wasnt just weak contact. It was an error and then weak contact. Locke wasnt as sharp after the delay, but even in that 5th he pitched well enough to have 2 outs with a runner on 2nd and no runs given up. Maybe he still surrenders some runs, but its just tough either way to judge it because the defense didnt help him and then STL got some weak contact fortune.

      He was good prior to the delay, and for me its “thats all types of who knows” after.

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