Hold the press, Jeff Locke’s ERA is approaching 3.00. Yes, 3.00, and the Pittsburgh Pirates and a handful of pundits have seemingly hit the panic button.
We do know a few things, including the fact that Locke has a 2.90 ERA this year in 139.2 innings. Pretty impressive for a guy who mustered a mere 5.50 ERA in eight games (six starts) last year and a 6.48 the year before. Frankly, the lefty’s success has been of the year’s best stories, at least from a “didn’t expect that” standpoint.
As for why we’re even talking about Locke in a negative tone, well, I’ll let you pondering a handful of hand-picked stats: 18 IP (four starts), 8.00 ERA, 32 hits and an opponents’ OPS of .936. One couldn’t sugar-coast those numbers with a sparkly K/9 rate or miniscule H/9 rate. There’s just no silver lining to it.
But I can’t emphasize this enough: Locke’s struggles are in the context of a short sample size. Four starts isn’t much, neither is 18 innings.
Still, the Pirates are pondering various routes to get Locke some rest after the Arizona Diamondbacks battered him around for eight runs on 10 hits in 2.2 innings Saturday, according to Tom Singer of MLB.com. Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune reported Sunday, however, that Locke will remain in the rotation for the time being.
So that’s that.
It’s hard to see the merit in the proposition of shutting down a southpaw currently sporting a 2.90 ERA. He is indeed struggling, and his workload is far beyond anything he’s ever endured at the major league level–although, Locke’s minor league totals have been north of 140 since 2010. He’s no stranger to the 100 innings mark.
The bigger question leans more on the side of “what’s gone wrong.” And with that said, it’s time to dig a bit deeper into Locke’s struggles…
More Ground Balls, Less Fly Balls, More Hits
A good rule of thumb to go by: If a pitcher induces ground balls, there’s more margin for a hit–weak infield hits, choppers, speedsters running down the line. Scenarios of that variety easily look like a line drive in the box score the next day.
With fly balls, there’s less margin for error. Either a hitter crushes it into a gap, down the line or over the fence, with the occasional bloop hit mixed in. But more than not, the out is recorded.
Well, the latter is an approach Locke lived by in the first half-plus, and it served him well. The chart below will sum it up.
Right on cue, you can see the spike in infield hits, ground balls and just to throw it out there, line drives. Now, Locke’s control of where and how his pitches are hit only goes so far. A pitcher can try to induce a grounder, but that’s not always something that involves flicking a switch.
However, there is a particular pitch that’s been less-than-effective since July 30, and in turn, there’s been a ripple effect.
What Happened to His Fastball?
It’s tough to define exactly what Locke calls his fastball because his arsenal also consists of a sinker. Confusing the matter, both pitches check in with similar velocity readings. Some consider the sinker and fastball to be in the “fastball group,” for what it’s worth.
But let’s roll with what Brooks Baseball provides us, and that is some interesting data.
A chart really isn’t needed here to paint the picture; from April 1 (beginning of the season) to July 29 (just before Locke started to struggle), Locke through his fastball 65.2 percent of the time (sinker-1.2 percent) with an average velocity of 90.98 mph. Now, here’s the kicker: From July 30 to August 19, Locke has thrown his fastball just 10.6 percent of the time and his sinker 51.5 percent of the time.
Maybe it’s a slight movement that has altered Brooks Baseball’s data. Given the dramatic disparity, that could very well be the case.
Even if that’s the case, though, both pitches are getting smacked around pretty well. Per Brooks Baseball, Locke’s fastball has yielded a .600 average, while his sinker has yielded a .310 average.
What all of this does is throw off his off-speed stuff. Locke works off of his fastball-sinker combo, and if those two pitches wane in effectiveness, the rest of his arsenal suffers. The results would concur.
Walks Are Starting to Catch Up to Him
If there’s been something fishy about Locke’s early-season success, it was his ability to walk a lot of batters and strand them. That’s a dicey trend, one that isn’t sustainable, and Locke’s LOB% (Left on base percentage) has nosedived since the second half started.
First Half LOB%: 83.3
Second Half LOB%: 71.4
It’s simple: More base runners, more of which aren’t stranded, equals more runs. Again, it’s not rocket science. I’d also factor in the spike (3.9 in the first half, 6.2 in the first half) in his BB/9 rate because, well, that’s the biggest contributing factor to LOB%. If Locke wasn’t issuing as many free passes, this problem probably wouldn’t even be a point of discussion in the first place.
So, What’s to Make Of Locke’s Rough Patch?
In the bigger picture, the chances of Locke sustaining a low-2.00 ERA were pretty low. The sabermetricians asked “how is he doing it,” knowing that a regression seemed to be inevitable. It looks like the naysayers got their wish, to some degree at least.
I call Locke’s regression anything but a surprise. Given his FIP (Fielding Independent Percentage) of 3.85, xFIP of 4.18, high walk rate and low strikeout rate, a regression was predictable. What those four stats basically do is predict future performance, in case you were wondering.
Still, some pundits, and perhaps fans, are blowing Locke’s tumble out of proportion. He has regressed, but who really expected him to sport a 2.90 ERA entering late August? And on that note, how many pitchers sport a sub-3.00 ERA? Not many.
So, take it upon yourself not to blow this situation out of proportion.