The perception of Jeff Locke among the majority of the Pirates’ fanbase is fueled by unrealistic expectations. Locke is viewed through the same prism as the rest of his rotation mates, which is doing him quite a disservice. He does not and will never have the pure stuff of Gerrit Cole. At 6 foot tall and looking like a neighborhood kid who offers to cut your grass in the summer, he doesn’t have the intimidating presence of mentor A.J. Burnett. Unlike fellow lefty Francisco Liriano, Locke doesn’t have that one killer out pitch. He’s not even like Charlie Morton, who for all his issues at least excels at generating groundballs when he’s on top of his game.
Jeff Locke is a #4 starter. Many refer to him as a #5, but maybe they aren’t sure of how poor and transient most #5 starters are. The way I break down what’s a #1 pitcher, what’s a #3, etc. is by innings, strikeouts per 9 innings, walks per 9 innings, hits per 9 innings, and ERA.
- #1 pitcher — 220+ innings, less than 1 hit per inning, greater than 9 strikeouts per 9 innings, less than 2.5 walks per 9 innings, ERA around 3.00
- #2 pitcher — 200 innings, less than 1 hit per inning, right around 9 strikeouts per 9 innings, less than 3 walks per 9 innings, ERA around 3.50
- #3 pitcher — 180 innings, right around 1 hit per inning, around 8 strikeouts per 9 innings, around 3.5 walks per 9 innings, ERA around 4.00
- #4 pitcher — 160 innings, over 1 hit per inning, around 7 strikeouts per 9 innings, less than 4 walks per 9 innings, ERA around 4.50
- #5 pitcher — 140-150 innings, over 1 hit per inning, around 6 strikeouts per 9 innings, less than 4.5 walks per 9 innings, ERA around 5.00
This year, Locke has started 23 games. Most people sigh or anxiously wait for his downfall, but in reality for a #4 starter, he’s been pretty good. There are some teams, contending teams mind you, that have been trotting out some hot garbage this year. I’m not going to use the outdated “Quality Start” metric of 6 innings, 3 earned runs, but by my estimation Jeff Locke has had 8 good/great starts, 6 so-so starts, and 9 bad starts. For a #4 starter, you can’t ask for much more than that.
As of this writing, the Pirates’ post-season rotation (assuming they get past the Wild Card game that will most likely be started by Gerrit Cole) is in flux. Cole and Liriano are definites, but if A.J. Burnett does not come back healthy, it will be one of Locke/Charlie Morton/JA Happ. I have to believe that of those three, Morton has the inside track due to his ability to have dominant starts at times — at least two times through the order. And that’s the key if Burnett does not come back. Clint Hurdle has to be willing to go shorter stints with that third starter and have more of a “bullpen game”. Run Morton/Locke/Happ for two times through the order and then be willing to switch — maybe to one of the remaining starters — or go with a series of 1-2 inning relievers like Blanton, Caminero, etc.
The more interesting question is what is Jeff Locke’s standing in the rotation for 2016? Again, Cole and Liriano are set in stone. Morton has a guaranteed $8M salary in 2016, so unless he’s traded, he’s not going anywhere. But after that, there are two openings. It appears that Tyler Glasnow will be knocking on the door around June/July, but that’s also what was said about Jameson Taillon this year and you know how that story ended.
Locke will be entering arbitration for the first time. The team and the player will submit 2016 salary estimates by January. If the two sides can’t agree on a salary based off of the exchanged figures, the parties can go to arbitration in February where one of the two figures will be selected. The arbitration side of things is based around old-school counting stats like innings pitched, wins, and ERA. It’s not a perfect measure of a player’s true worth; at times it resembles a study in rewarding a player who stuck it out this far. I haven’t done formal estimates for the Pirates’ arbitration-eligible players yet, as that’s part of a larger offseason article, but here’s Locke’s career stats to-date are 478 innings, 24-26 W-L, 4.09 ERA. His 2015 line, which is weighted a little more for obvious reasons, is — 129 innings, 6-7, 4.31 ERA
Let’s say Locke gets 8 more starts and gets 44 more innings (5.5 innings/start) and logs 173 innings of 4.31 ERA with 9 wins. His career stats will move to approximately 522 innings, 27 wins, and about a 4.11 ERA with 6.65 K/9. Here’s two halfway decent comparables of pitchers that entered arbitration for the first time this past offseason and their stats prior to 2015:
- Jordan Lyles ($2.3M in 2015) — 503 IP, 21-33, 5.08 ERA, 6.21 K/9
- Miguel Gonzalez ($3.3M in 2015) — 436 IP, 30-21, 3.45 ERA, 6.36 K/9
Locke blends in somewhere between the two of them at the similar points going into the first year of arbitration, so for now let’s earmark him at their midpoint of $2.8M. No matter how much he may frustrate you from time to time, that is a pittance to pay a major league starting pitcher that has any modicum of success. So Locke will be in the rotation in 2016, barring the Pirates going out on the free agent or trade market in an effort to incrementally upgrade on the #4/#5 spots in the rotation.