Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Young Guns - Jeff Locke

Jeffrey Alan Locke, 24, graduated from Kennett High School in New Hampshire in 2006 and pretty much ran the table for NH prep baseball. By the time he was awarded his sheepskin, he was the career leader in wins for the Eagles, an All-State player and the New Hampshire High School Player of the Year.

He even earned a cool nickname when a local writer dubbed him "The Redstone Rocket," referring to Locke's fastball and his hometown of Redstone. The Rocket picked up an even nicer bit of recognition when the Atlanta Braves selected him in the second round (51st overall) of the 2006 draft, signing him quickly by waving $675,000 under his nose.

Locke was sent to the short-season Gulf Coast Braves, where he went 4-3/4.22. Pitching in 10 games with five starts covering 32 IP, he whiffed 38 and walked just five. That performance earned Locke the nod as the Braves #17 prospect going in 2007 by Baseball America.

He moved up a notch in 2007 to Danville in the Appalachian League and ate up the college-level rookie league, going 7-1/2.66 with 74 K and eight walks in 61 frames. Locke was named to Baseball America's Rookie All-Star & Appalachian post-season All-Star squad. It also bumped him into the Braves Top Ten, as BA ranked him #8 in their system.

In 2008, he continued his journey upward by being assigned to the Low-A Sally League Rome Braves. He met reality there, posting a 5-12/4.01 record. His K's dropped to about seven per game while his walks went up to 2.5/9 in 139-2/3 IP. But his FIP was nearly a full run lower than his ERA and he continued to show fine control, an ability to get ground outs and a tiny home run rate.

The next year, in High A Myrtle Beach of the Carolina League, he was off to a fairly rough start. Locke was 1-5/5.52 into early June and his peripherals were a mess - his walks doubled to 5 per 9 and his WHIP was 1.599, although his whiff rate remained strong. Then came the news.

On June 3rd, 2009, the Braves traded Locke to the Bucs along with Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hern√°ndez in exchange for Nate McLouth. The Pirates assigned him to their High Class A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, also in the Carolina League. He scuffled there too, with a 4-4 record, 4.02 ERA and some shaky peripherals. It sure looked like the Braves soured on him for a reason. But a new year with a new team brought a new beginning.  

In 2010, Locke was assigned to High A Bradenton (which replaced Lynchburg). He found his mojo and anchored the Marauders, ending up with a 9-3/3.54 slash and being named a Florida State League mid-season All-Star. Locke was promoted to the AA Altoona Curve in mid-July.

He looked sharp there, too, and ended the year with a combined 12-5/3.56 line with 139 K in 144 IP with 26 BB. Baseball America ranked Locke #8 on their Pirates Top Ten Prospects list and rated him as having the Best Changeup in the Pittsburgh system, while the Bucs added him to the 40-man roster during the off-season.

Locke returned to Altoona to begin 2011 and was a workhorse, going 7-8/4.03 with 114 K in 125 IP to earn a EL mid-season All-Star spot. He went to Indy, and after five solid starts was called up to the majors in September. He made his MLB debut on September 10th, and started four games. The lefty didn't impress, going 0-3 with an ERA of 6.48 and issuing twice as many walks (10) as strikeouts (5) in 16-2/3 innings of work. Still, Baseball America ranked Locke #10 on their Pirates Top 10 Prospects list.

He spent 2012 in Class AAA Indianapolis, where he posted a 10-5/2.48 line in 141-2/3 innings with his usual solid peripherals (BA chose him as the #9 IL prospect after the season). Locke made two appearances for the Pirates in early August, pitching 4-1/3 scoreless innings in relief as a call-up for Alex Presley, and before that had spent a couple of days in May with the big club, but wasn't called on.

Locke got his expected September promotion to Pittsburgh, and was handed Erik Bedard's old role. He finished the MLB season with a 1-3/5.50 mark, averaging about nine K's and three walks per nine with a WHIP of 1.369. His bane was the gopher ball; he gave up six homers in 34-1/3 frames. The 24 year old did finish on a high note, though, beating the Braves in his last start 2-1 for his first big league win.

He's a three pitch guy. His fastball sits at 90-91 and touches 94. He has a good curve and change, both big-league quality though neither is a consistent plus pitch yet. The lefty uses his off-speed stuff regularly, as 34% of his deliveries are soft serves. He's a groundball pitcher, but has been hurt pretty badly by the longball in the show. His 2012 fly ball/home run rate was 16.7%, and he gave up 1.57 HR/9.

Locke's reliance on off speed stuff has drawn comparisons to Zach Duke, but we think a fairer likeness is to Paul Maholm. Locke’s K rates in the upper minors and from his brief sample in the show are higher than Duke's, and he's shown more swing-and-miss stuff than Maholm, too. Like Kyle McPherson, he probably profiles best as a number four pitcher, although he'll have to become more efficient (his average 2012 line as a starter was was 5 IP, 3.5 ER, 6 H, 2 W, 5 K and 82 pitches) if he hopes to eat some back-end innings.

From an eyeball perspective, he needs to nibble less - he never got past the sixth inning - and trust his stuff enough to start aggressive and get ahead in the count. Locke fell into a rhythm of good game, bad game, and while he'll still be in the mix for whatever open spots there may be in 2013's rotation, that inconsistency cost him a golden chance to break out of the pack before spring camp.

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