Thursday, August 22, 2013

Locke, Jones, Morris: Hitting Second Half Walls

It doesn't look like the FO is taking a dip into the trade pool as they continue to collect pieces for the future rather than living for the day. If they're to make a  serious push in the post-season, here's a couple of guys that have to pick it up:

Jeff Locke: He was an All-Star in the first half, although several of the key peripheral numbers suggested a melt-down was imminent. Well, the Sabermetric gang was right that regression would rear its ugly head. In his first 18 games, his opponent BA was .202; in his last six outings, it's .325 as his BABIP has climbed from .231 to .406. That's unavoidable; balls can't always be hit at somebody, especially if you're a pitch-to-contact guy.   It doesn't help any that the Pirate fielding has dropped to the middle of the NL pack, hurt by errors and a so-so DP rate.

But what seems to hurt the most is a lack of aggressiveness on the mound. After a mediocre start, Locke began pounding the strike zone, content to keep the ball down and let his fielders do the heavy lifting. But in the second half, he's become a nibbler. He's averaged 6.25 walks per nine compared to a high but much more acceptable 3.9 walks in the first 18 games. It shows in his innings; he hasn't given the Pirates seven frames of work since July 8th.

We'll see if Locke can return to his pitch-to-contact ways. It is his first full MLB season, and both the mental and physical toll is probably kicking in. But a return to his ground ball ways would help a staff that's not particularly deep right now, especially if Wandy can't join the rotation for the stretch.

Garrett Jones: Jones has fallen off the face of the planet in the second half; his .253 BA and 105 OPS+ have flopped into .195/86 for the past 30 games. He was one of the reasons the Pirates didn't go all in to get a RF/1B at the deadline; the FO figured Jones had a big second half in him.

There's hope that he may - his BABIP has been an unlucky .219 over that time, while his K and BB rates have remained fairly consistent. Career-wise, he hasn't shown any split whatsoever in his first and second half performances, so his 0-for-19 streak might just be a small sample aberration dragging down his August numbers.

The Pirates have well documented production problems at first and right field; plugging a productive Jones into one of those spots was the Bucco fix. In April and May, he had 26 RBI, but since then, just 16 with an overall 2013 RISP average of .198. If Jones can't get back on course, Pittsburgh is looking at a huge hole in the middle of the order.

Bryan Morris: Though as crucial a link as Locke and Jones, Morris is showing signs of wearing down in his first full season in the show. His second half ERA is 4.11 after putting down a 2.72 mark in the first half. With Jason Grilli out, Morris was counted on as the RH option in the eighth, though he's been conceding that role to Justin Wilson and Tony Watson.

Part of it is regression; his first half BABIP of .196 has approached league average in this past 15 outings to .286. What is more worrisome is his K rate. It wasn't noticeably strong in the first half at 5.7/per nine, but in the last 15-1/3 frames, he's only collected three punch outs, less than two K per game. His overall 4.6K/nine is the lowest of any Pirate pitcher. That will bear watching over the next five weeks, and could affect his future as a Pirate. he's out of options, and the Pirates like their relievers to be able to blow an occasional batter away.

Possible answers? If Locke doesn't challenge hitters more, he could miss a start or two while Ray Searage tinkers with his approach issues. In ten days, Wandy's status will become clearer, and Kris Johnson, Brandon Cumpton and Stolmy Pimentel will be September additions.

A productive Jones is harder to replace. Both Alex Presley and Andrew Lambo, who can play first, are waiting out their mandatory 10 day stop at Indy, and Travis Snider is on a rehab stint at Altoona. But our guess is that based on his past performance, Jones will have a long leash to work on getting his stroke back.

With Watson and Wilson holding down the set-up role without missing a beat and the possibility of a mid-September return by Grilli, Morris' performance isn't crucial during the stretch run. But it could carry implications into 2014 if he doesn't find a way to get a few more swings and misses.

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