When camp broke, Jeff Locke was the default fifth starter.
Kyle McPherson, the pre-season favorite, had imploded (and had an bad elbow, to boot; he hasn't thrown since early April). Jeff Karstens went down in March, and he hasn't returned yet. Jeanmar Gomez did enough to win a long role in the pen, while Francicso Liriano and Charlie Morton were in rehab mode.
It's not that Locke didn't have a decent spring, putting up a 3.38 ERA. But his hold on the back end of the rotation was tenuous at best. Even Jonathan Sanchez was slotted ahead of him. Funny what a difference a few weeks makes.
Sanchez is gone and pitching minor league ball for LA. James McDonald is out, too, and looking at another month before he returns. Locke has established himself behind the veteran trio of AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez and the now active Liriano. The lefty is 4-1 with a 2.73 ERA, and in five of his last six starts has surrendered four hits or less, going six-to-seven frames in all but one outing. Yep, same guy who went 1-6 with a 5.82 in 2011-12.
The difference is confidence leading to more aggression behind his game. Now he works the inside half and keeps the ball down most of the time. His pitch mix hasn't changed; he still throws about 2/3 fastballs in the 90 MPH range, though using more two seamers this year, and splits the remainder fairly evenly between his curve and change. The ball-in-play results haven't changed that much, either.
Locke still gets 48-49% of his outs in the dirt, and his fly ball numbers have dropped some while his liner rate has gone up a few points to 22%. His swing-and-miss is around 8%. But his change is becoming more of a weapon, and he's been picking up pointers from guys like AJ Burnett on how to set up and attack batters, so he's maturing in the role.
Most strikingly is his strong reverse split; he holds righties to a .213 BA while lefties hit 50 points higher. It may be sample size or maybe a nod to his change, but he's shown that split throughout his brief MLB career (.251/.281). His WHIP is 1.22, which means he only has to deal with six baserunners every five innings, helping him to an excellent 82.5% strand rate
Can he sustain those numbers? His FIP says no; it has him pegged with a 4.47 average. That number doesn't bother us; it's based on walks and K's, with hits (7 per 9 innings) out of the equation. His K rate is under 6 per 9 innings, but he's not a strikeout guy and his success this year has been in part because he's learning to pitch to contact. But he does have some other numbers that cause some concern.
As noted, his strand rate is 82.5% and his batted-ball-in-play average is .224; those are due to regress (The MLB back-of-the-envelope averages are 75% and .297). If he doesn't get his liner rate down some, that BABIP rate will climb. He throws 3.8 pitches per batter; that could come down, too; the fraction at the end should be closer to three than four.
His walk rate is 3.76 per nine, high from a guy that came up with a rep as a control pitcher and especially one who doesn't collect K. Locke has worked 52-1/3 innings so far; he's never tossed more than 153
as a pro at any level, and workload may became an issue as the grind goes on.
The question is whether he can improve faster that his numbers regress; while his results have been good, his performance can still go up another level. He throws too many pitches off the plate, and that's where he can step up. We acknowledge that's part of his new aggressive stance, to not give in to guys, but you have to work on the black, not outside it. Strike throwing and pitcher's counts - command and control - will determine his eventual effectiveness.
Locke has so far proved that he belongs as at least a back-ender, and we think that his pitching will improve the more he trusts his pitches. That doesn't mean that the results will improve; regression almost always rears its ugly head. More worrisome from Locke's view is the oncoming number crunch.
Morton will be back; Karstens will be back; McDonald will be back, and Gerritt Cole is a hot month at Indy away from the show. More than performance may enter into the roster juggling in June; roster spots will be at a premium. And Locke still has an option...
Based on performance, Locke should stick, with the two disclaimers: he works a little more within the strike zone, and he doesn't lose out because of that option when the pitching musical chairs begins in earnest.