In a move that does make sense logistically, but has some shock value when looking at it at face value, the Pirates sent Jeff Locke to Double-A Altoona yesterday to clear space for new acquisitions Marlon Byrd and John Buck.
The deciding factor of the move was what Neal Huntington said would give Locke a “short break” while the Pirates could maintain a full roster until Altoona’s season ends next week. Huntington said Sept. 3 is when Locke, and fan-favorite Tony Sanchez, will be recalled to Pittsburgh.
Jeff Locke has been sent to Double-A Altoona to press the “pause” button. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Meanwhile, the Pirates continue to stress they are still committed to Locke. Manager Clint Hurdle said he and pitching coach Ray Searage did take some positives out of Locke’s last start and will continue to work with him.
“I do think there were some positives, enough to, you know what, we’re just skipping a start,” Hurdle said. ”No way are we unplugging, we’re just skipping a start, catching his breath.”
The main positives from Locke’s start came with his glove-side command, something that helped him attain monumental (and unexpected) success early in the season when he posted a 2.15 ERA in 18 first-half starts.
“He was able to get strikes to the glove side. He was able to go in off[-speed] also when he wanted to,” Hurdle said. “The command was so much better, much more effective to his glove side.”
But, while Locke took a step forward in terms of working the ball on the inner parts of the plate, he also took a step (or two) back when it came to repeating success.
“He did get some balls in on right-handers, he did throw some better breaking balls,” Hurdle said. “The overall consistency wasn’t there.”
To put Locke’s last start in perspective, though, he encountered a lot of bad luck in tandem with a few defensive miscues that even Clint Hurdle uncharacteristically expressed. The Brewers got a run in the first inning Tuesday after an infield hit by Nori Aoki and a bunt by Jean Segura led off the game.
Jonathan Lucroy then walked, and Aramis Ramirez grounded into a double play that scored Aoki from third.
From the standpoint of Fielding Independent Pitching, you know, the stat everyone loved to use to talk about how bad Locke would get as the year progressed, only the walk to Lucroy was Locke’s fault. The rest was out of his hands.
“If we defense better on a couple balls, the things that happened early in the season, the soft-hit ball the guy’s out by half a step at first base, now he’s safe,” Hurdle said. “The perfect bunts put down sometimes, things were just a little bit off.”
Ramirez hit a home run in the fourth inning, which is Locke’s fault via the responsibilities assigned to a pitcher via FIP.
Then in the fifth, when the Brewers chased Locke from the game, Locke could’ve just as easily escaped his jam with having allowed no runs instead of three in the frame. And, if he had completed the inning with a pitch total somewhere in the 70s (he exited at 70), that would’ve saved Hurdle at least one reliever and maybe two had Locke made it through the sixth.
Scooter Gennett scored on a ball hit to left by Lucroy that Jose Tabata threw home, and was a split-second behind Gennett at the plate. One can’t say for sure that if Marte was in field, Gennett would’ve been out, but it might’ve been closer.
Ramirez followed with a double to left that glanced off Tabata’s glove, bounced off the wall, and scored two more Brewers runs. With confidence, it can be said that if Marte was in left for that play, Milwaukee leads 3-o, not 5-0.
As Hurdle has said all season, feelings are not facts. And that’s the nature of the discussions he and pitching coach Ray Searage have with Locke.
“We always, in our sit down, Ray usually has one and if I catch up with him I talk about feelings and facts,” Hurdle said. ”I wondered what he felt out there, and what facts did you see, did you feel. The couple of facts were a couple of runs, if we defense better in one inning, I don’t know if three get put on the board in the fifth inning.”
Besides the luck issues, there’s also the matter that Jeff Locke is one of two pitchers to have pitched all season long from spring training until now without a legitimate break, Gerrit Cole being the other. Charlie Morton, A.J. Burnett, and Francisco Liriano have all had significant periods of downtime with Burnett missing time with a calf injury, Liriano beginning his season in May, and Morton in mid-June.
At 25 and in his first full season in the major leagues, Locke has thrown 148 and one-third innings. The only season in which he threw more was between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis in 2011 when he threw 153 and one-third innings and finished 8-10 with a 3.70 ERA.
Gerrit Cole, the vaunted No. 1 overall draft choice in 2011, can have an innings limit or whatever way the Pirates want to spin how they’ll control how much he throws this year. Why can’t Jeff Locke?
After posting an ERA of 8.10 in his last eight starts, it’s probably necessary.
“That can come from just the overall usage of a season,” Hurdle said. “There’s layers of physical toughness and mental toughness we’ve all got to acquire throughout our career. I do think that’s as much of it as anything.”
On the bright side, Locke has shown the mental toughness required for someone to succeed at this level. Hurdle cited Locke’s continued determination, and confidence level in contrast to the level of misfortune that’s come his way in the second half.
“I see him meeting the challenges mentally,” Hurdle said. “I’ve seen a guy that’s got as much self-confidence you would hope a man would have going through what he’s going through because there’s times when it’s hard to be confident.”
Buck gets the start
John Buck makes his debut for the Pirates tonight, catching and hitting seventh. Nothing more than a standard off-day for starter Russell Martin.
“John Buck is a veteran receiver,” Hurdle said. “He’s been doing this for a very long time, has handled some very good pitching staffs, and just brings us more depth, another couple areas of experience.”
Other lineup wrinkles include Pedro Alvarez shifting back to the clean-up slot against the right-hander Yovani Gallardo, and Marlon Byrd hitting fifth. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker re-take their spots atop the batting order, and Jordy Mercer moves back to eighth.
NL Central race
The Pirates (77-55) have an opportunity to re-join the lead atop the National League’s Central Division. Cincinnati (75-59) shellacked St. Louis(78-55), 10-0, last night, and the Pirates pulled to within a half-game of the lead with their 7-1 win last night. Both teams are off tonight, so a win tonight would pull the Pirates into a tie with the Cardinals in first place, and extend their wild card lead to 3.5 games over Cincinnati.
Jose Tabata LF
Neil Walker 2B
Andrew McCutchen CF
Pedro Alvarez 3B
Marlon Byrd RF
Gaby Sanchez 1B
John Buck C
Jordy Mercer SS
Gerrit Cole P
Scooter Gennett 2B
Jean Segura SS
Jonathan Lucroy C
Aramis Ramirez 3B
Carlos Gomez CF
Khris Davis LF
Caleb Gindl RF
Juan Francisco 1B
Yovani Gallardo P