Jeff Locke says he has “gotten much better” over the last two years.
Jeff Locke, let’s talk.
Jeff, your pitching has played a role of significance in the Pirates’ 26-18 start and a spot in the playoffs if Bud Selig took ether and ended the season on May 21. You have pitched five quality starts in your last six outings in the last month, allowing an average of fewer than four hits per start. Combine those with your earlier starts, and you find yourself 11th of 59 qualified NL pitchers with a 2.73 earned run average. I’m not being tongue-in-cheek when I say you should be proud.
It just won’t last.
Nothing personal, Jeff. You are still 25 years old and have a long career ahead, hopefully in Pittsburgh’s rotation instead of some other team’s. You were great in Triple-A last year, and you have definitely earned the spot in the rotation you were so happy to get at the start of the year. If you continue to pitch well, there is no reason you can’t keep that spot when guys like Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton are ready to join the team.
But your performance won’t continue to match the performance of the NL’s best pitchers. You just won’t keep your ERA below the ERA of guys like Stephen Strasburg, Cliff Lee and Madison Bumgarner. That doesn’t mean you won’t continue to pitch well, but the run-prevention numbers will start to go north. Here’s why, and remember the words “regression to the mean” –
1. You can’t maintain such a low ERA with such a high FIP. No one can.
Let’s start with the basics, Jeff. Your FIP this season is 4.47 compared to your 2.73 ERA. We know that FIP is a better predictor than ERA of future run-prevention ability. Look at it this way, the five pitchers since 2000 with the lowest ERA compared to FIP over a full season:
Ryan Franklin, Mariners (2003): 3.57 ERA, 5.17 FIP (1.61 difference)
Elmer Dessens, Reds (2002): 3.03 ERA, 4.61 FIP (1.58 difference)
Al Leiter, Mets (2004): 3.21 ERA, 4.76 FIP (1.55 difference)
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (2012): 3.10 ERA, 4.60 FIP (1.50 difference)
Jeremy Hellickson, Rays (2011): 2.95 ERA, 4.44 FIP (1.49 difference)
Out of the 1,132 pitcher seasons since 2000, not one starter has maintained your 1.74 difference in ERA and FIP over the whole year. Jeff, that alone should be an indicator that your ERA won’t stay this low.
Let’s look at Hellickson, who shows up twice there. In his brief career, the Tampa Bay starter has been a true outlier in outperforming his defense-independent numbers and flouting BABIP-based regression. Why? R.J. Anderson says it has been “some combination of weak contact, defense, infield flies, and park.” It all checks out. Hellickson those a crapload of changeups that induce weak contact, pitches in front of a good Rays defense, draws plenty of pop-ups and plays about half his games in pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field.
Despite all that jazz, Hellickson still can’t keep an ERA more than a run and a half below his FIP. And sorry Jeff, but you’re no Jeremy Hellickson.
Locke’s Response: “I don’t understand what all those things mean anyway, because the people that made them up didn’t play. I just know that if you attack and be aggressive and do what you can do every outing… yeah, maybe the hit totals have been down, but the walks have been up a little bit. It all evens out somewhere. A baserunner’s a baserunner, no matter how they got there. I don’t worry about anything like that.”
2. Your BABIP won’t be that low, even with the Pirates’ great defense.
This season, the Pirates replaced their players’ gloves with high-powered vacuums. Given there was no rule expressly forbidding vacuums, and the fruitful endorsement deal with Hoover, the Bucs have turned an MLB-best 71.6 percent of balls in play into outs.
But bad news, Jeff. Bud Selig found out about the vacuums and has banned them from future games. I had to tip off the Commissioner’s Office. Now your .224 BABIP (third-lowest in the NL) is set to go back up. Since 2000, only one starter has ever kept a BABIP that low over a full season. Can you guess who? Jeremy Hellickson? You’re good at guessing.
You have also stranded more than 82 percent of your baserunners, this year, a number just as unsustainable. You know who pulls that off over a full season? Pedro Martinez, Curt Schiling, Roy Halladay, Randy Johnson, Johan Santana, Jered Weaver, Roger Clemens and young Jake Peavy. I don’t think you will take any offense by my saying you are not those guys.
Locke’s Response: “That’s why there are seven guys behind me. I like to use them all. [The defense] is efficient all the time, a lot of speed in the outfield… You just gotta trust the guys, because they trust you.”
3. You will face tougher opponents.
Jeff, we have all had a lot of fun in May watching you control teams like the Nationals, Mets and Astros, all in the bottom quarter of the league in run creation. Problem is, they are all outside your division, and you have faced the 15th-easiest schedule of 142 eligible starters.
If the rotations holds up as scheduled (which it won’t, but play along), you’ll face the Brewers at the Miller Launchpad, the power-packed Tigers, and the above-average Braves and Giants. These teams can score runs in bunches, Jeff. Godspeed.
It’s Not So Bad!
All of this doesn’t necessarily mean you will go back to the same fringy starting pitcher of the last two years. Pitchers evolve. You appear to have a higher release point on your pitches, you are throwing more sinking two-seam fastballs and getting a few more ground balls hit toward those quality infielders.
Catcher Michael McKenry certainly thinks highly of you, Jeff, and he loves catching you.
“He knows what he needs to do, knows what he can do and he puts his trust in us,” McKenry said. “We’ll go back there and we’ll improvise and change some things when we need to, but most of the time he’s gonna attack with the gameplan he has… Once he starts to learn himself and grow a little bit, his possibilities are endless.”
Endless, Jeff! So take heart: your run-prevention numbers will go in the wrong direction. I’m almost certain of that. But you’re a young pitcher still entering his prime. You have a great defense behind you. You are showing good deception with your pitches. And you’re a left-hander in a ballpark that helps you get outs and swallows potential home runs from right-handed hitters. I think you will be okay in the end.
And sorry for telling Selig about the vacuums.