Last Friday, the Pirates and Jeff Locke agreed on a 2016 salary of $3.025M in Locke’s first trip through the potential arbitration process. Approximately 98.7% of Pirates fans sighed. The level of hate/dislike/agita towards Locke has reached some sort of critical mass. It’s become nigh-sentient, a proxy construct for virtually all of Pirate fans, coagulated into some grumbling ball.
To stake out my personal feeling on Locke, I believe he is a solid #4 level pitcher. His final 2015 line was:
168.1 IP, 6.90 K/9, 3.21 BB/9, 51.0% GB rate. He had a 4.49 ERA/3.95 FIP and put up 1.6 WAR.
I don’t think Jeff Locke is a great pitcher. When I go to a game, it seems like I see Locke far more than statistically normal and I feel my shoulders slump ever so slightly. But he is a solid pitcher that is making just a shade over $3M this year. For what he provides, that is an absolute steal. Perhaps next year when he’s looking at maybe $5M to $6M, Locke won’t be such a great bargain and we’ll have to have a different discussion.
One of the things that gets brought up about Locke is his perceived inability to pitch deep into a game. Below is a snip of Locke’s game log from Fangraphs. If this doesn’t embiggen enough for you when you click it, just check out the original link:
To sum this chart up, in his 30 starts Locke pitched:
- Less than 5 innings in 5 starts
- Into or through the 6th in 16 starts
- Into or through the 7th in 6 starts
- Into or through the 8th in 3 starts
If you sift through the lines of those 30 starts in the chart above, I could make the case that he did his job and pitched well in 15 starts. He pitched poorly in 9 starts and so-so in the other 6. That’s a pretty good ratio for a back-end starter. To put an even finer point on this, Locke completed at least 6 innings in 13 of his starts. This allowed Clint Hurdle to potentially use his standard 7th-8th-9th inning pitchers by the book.
Locke was handled with kid gloves by Clint Hurdle and the coaching staff, as he only threw 100 or more pitches in four of his starts. In his cleanest start of the year, against Cleveland on July 4th, Locke pitched 8 innings with 2 hits allowed, no walks, and 6 strikeouts. He threw just 89 pitches and still had enough in the tank to complete the game, but it was a 1-0 game and Hurdle is wedded to getting saves for his closers. There were probably 5 other games where Locke could have gone another inning or so, as well.
The problem is that Pirate fans have a different perception of what Jeff Locke is and what he should be. Rather than accepting what Locke is and what he is not, fans are still trying to project him for growth potential that he simply does not possess. By adopting a more Zen-like mentality towards Locke, perhaps the general fanbase could alter their viewpoint of him. It’s not Locke’s fault that he’s not the same caliber as, say, Jason Hammel or John Lackey who may be the Cubs’ #4 starters this year. Or Mike Leake and Carlos Martinez from the Cardinals.
To me, it’s the fact that there is a gaping hole at the #3 spot in the Pirates’ rotation. After Cole and Liriano, Jon Niese is more of a #4 and Jeff Locke is either a low-end #4 (as I feel) or a higher-quality #5 in a deeper rotation. But it appears as if the Pirates are going to try and use the Ray Searage magic to spruce Niese up to a #3-level and keep Locke at #4, with Vogelsong/Nicasio battling it out for the #5 spot. This isn’t meant, entirely, to be a screed about the Pirates not spending enough money to acquire a legitimate #3. Because to do that would be to completely ignore the recent history of JA Happ, AJ Burnett, and other rehabilitated pitchers. But it does keep applying pressure to the organizational staff to continue to work this magic.
My end statement to you is this — Jeff Locke is like brussel sprouts. Both get a bad rap from a groupthink mentality, but if you give them a second chance, and if they are properly prepared, you may just find yourself saying “not too bad”. And then you can go back to enjoying far more interesting vegetables and pitchers.