Everyone remembers when the man fans call "J Mac" fell off the face of the earth last season and became the goat for angry fans inconsolable after another collapse.
Rest assured, this Pittsburgh Pirates team is not the version fielded in years past. This team will not share the same fate as those that came before them. The playoffs are on the horizon, and the Pirates will be there when they start.
But that doesn't mean Jeff Locke's descent into mediocrity isn't a cause for concern. Let's be honest: Nobody saw it coming when the 25-year-old lefty came rushing out of the gates and pitched his way into the All-Star game.
His 2.15 earned run average before the break represented one of the lowest in all of baseball as the Pirates shot up the standings in the National League Central. Sound familiar? McDonald pitched to a 2.37 earned run average before the break in 2012, and fans were outraged at the perceived snub when he was left off the All-Star roster. Locke gave up 76 hits in 109 innings pitched this year before the break. McDonald last year gave up 76 hits in 110 innings pitched before the break.
And then the bottom fell out and, in a sense, is still falling out. Locke's ERA has ballooned to 6.18 after the break, while McDonald finished with a 7.52 earned run average in the second half. Locke has already given up 54 hits in 39 innings pitched since the break, while McDonald gave up 71 hits in 61 innings last year. In both scenarios, their opponents' batting average spiked by more than 100 points in the second half of the season.
Maybe Locke needs to miss a start to rest. Maybe all of the sabermetricians clamoring earlier this season about Locke's eventual downfall were correct. Most people assumed he was due for a regression. Not many people saw this coming.
Maybe James McDonald did. He's certainly had a good seat in the dugout, watching the games while he sits idly on the 60-day disabled list. Or maybe he didn't while he was busy posting a 6.39 earned run average in 31 innings pitched in the minors. That includes his last start on Aug. 19 when he gave up two runs in only two-third of an inning while pitching in the Gulf Coast League. That's the Pirates' rookie-level team, for those keeping score at home.
Regardless, Locke giving up five runs in 4.2 innings against Milwaukee on Aug. 28 didn't do much to sooth concerns. In fact, it likely bolstered the growing sentiment that Locke needs to sit down for a start or two, regain his composure and work the cobwebs out of his head. Or, more simply, he needs to figure out how to stop walking so many batters. His 74 free passes are tied for the most in baseball.
At this point, at best, Locke simply cannot be trusted for consistency in the playoffs. That won't be a problem if the Pirates find themselves in a one-game wild card game. It will be a problem if the Pirates advance and need to call on other arms to help carry the load.
Luckily, options exist if Locke must be replaced. Jeanmar Gomez has put together a stupendous season both in the rotation and out of the bullpen. Let's hope, for now, he stays there and Locke can regain his magic from the first half of the season.
Jared Stonesifer has covered the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.com on a freelance basis since 2010. He lives in Pittsburgh.
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- Jeff Locke
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