It was an unexpected breakout campaign for a variety of reasons, including a long developmental process in the minor leagues and the struggles he experienced in his two previous stops in Pittsburgh, posting a 1-6 record with 5.82 ERA during his first 51 innings with the Pirates. Locke was never expected to lead the rotation, intended more to sop up innings and give the team a chance to win.
But, in 2013, with injuries spreading among Pirates pitchers like a zombie plague, Jeff Locke gave the team so much more. People pointed to Locke's low strikeout totals, his pedestrian walk rate, and his low-90s fastball, expecting each start to be the one that broke him, and he just wouldn't.
Well, in the second half, it's finally happened. Since the All-Star game, Locke has gone 1-2 with a 5.71 ERA, batters hitting .329/.426/.414. Each batter is essentially Joe Mauer with a little less power. His walks have spiked, going from 3.88 per nine innings to 6.49. And, yes, while his strikeouts have jumped up as well, going from 6.0 per nine to 8.6, it's nearly impossible to win games when putting that many men on base for free. Already, as is, Jeff Locke is fifth in the game in walks per nine, behind only Jason Marquis, Lucas Harrell, Ubaldo Jimenez and Erik Bedard -- not the company a command and control left-hander wants to keep.
But Locke's struggles don't just affect the Pirates on the days he pitches. Since July 31, in five starts, Locke has failed to complete six innings, not making it beyond the fourth in three of them. Fortunately, for the Pirates, they managed to win two of those games, dropping only a 15-5 decision against the Arizona Diamondbacks when Locke gave up 10 hits and eight runs in 2 2/3 innings of work. With the bullpen having to pick up extra slack in Locke's starts, and the Pirates having played 12-, 14-, and 16-inning games in the past two weeks, the bullpen has been overworked, requiring GM Neal Huntington to start a trolley service to AAA to keep a fresh arm in the bullpen.
(As an aside, the story of Kris Johnson could be a sad one. The 28-year-old minor league veteran was called up and pitched six effective innings during the August 18 marathon against the Diamondbacks, giving up two runs and taking the loss, only to be sent back down the next day when the team was in need of another arm. It could very well be his only trip to the major leagues.)
But there's hope for Locke. For one, his recent bout with wildness is new for him. In the minors, Locke walked only 2.5 per nine innings. And while his first-half performance was largely supported by a .231 batting average on balls in play, which would have tied for second in the majors with Clayton Kershaw, his second half BABIP of .407 is equally unsustainable, especially with a defense as strong as the Pirates. If batters had truly figured Locke out, you would expect to see more than two home runs surrendered over his last 34.2 innings. Instead most of the contact has been the same kind of grounders that were gobbled up by defenders in the first half. Locke also hasn't experienced much loss in velocity from earlier in the season, an indication that he's not tiring down the stretch.
With only 31 games left in the season, and the Pirates tied for the NL Central lead with the St. Louis Cardinals, a mere 2.5 games ahead of the Cincinnati Reds, the team doesn't have time for Locke to slowly return to his true self. While he's probably not the Cy Young-caliber pitcher that fans saw in the first half of the season, he's also not the Pitcher Who Cannot Get Outs that we've seen over the last six weeks.
But with another setback for Wandy Rodriguez and rumors that Gerrit Cole's innings may be limited down the stretch, Clint Hurdle doesn't have many options when it comes to replacing Locke in the rotation. Locke should expect to see fewer grounders skip by the infielders gloves, so if he can keep his free passes to a minimum, he should return to be the pitcher the Pirates need. Namely, one that can eat innings and give the offense a chance to score. He'll get his chance to prove it tomorrow night when he takes the mound against the Milwaukee Brewers.
If the Pirates want to win the division, they'll need an effective Jeff Locke. And they should get it.
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