The Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitching staff has had an adventurous start to the 2016 season.
After posting the second-best ERA in baseball last season, the Pirates find themselves with a current ranking of 19th on the backs of a 4.21 staff ERA. The reasons for this are myriad, but the fulcrum of Pirates fans’ angst continues to be Jeff Locke.
For better or worse, Locke’s career resume to this point has left him as the designated punching bag for fans. Though the optimism that permeates the team every spring, coupled with a new delivery this year, brought fans a second wind of hope, seeing another All-Star caliber year from the left-hander seems far out of reach.
Were those expectations realistic in the first place? Is it fair to ask for that level of performance from a clear number five starter?
The term “number five starter” is one of the loosest in all of sports. MLB teams can – and often do – end up with several different “number five” starters. Injuries, ineffectiveness, spot starts or even team needs can affect the last man up in a team’s starting rotation. The “position” is a fluid one. As such, many often look upon a capable back-end starter as an “innings eater” or perhaps a rookie or younger hurler with considerable upside.
All hyperbole aside, Jeff Locke’s ceiling is considerably closer to innings eater than it is to anything approaching an All-Star level player. After establishing that as a baseline, how does he compare with other “fifth starters” among National League contenders?
|Kyle Hendricks – CHC||23||19||4.75||7.8||1.6||7.4|
|Carlos Martinez – STL||34.2||28||3.5||6.0||2.1||7.3|
|Jaime Garcia – STL||31.1||35||2.5||6.3||4.1||10.1|
|Jake Peavy – SFG||23||17||2.43||15.3||2.7||6.7|
|Ross Stripling – LAD||27||21||3.0||10.1||2.5||7.6|
|Bartolo Colon – NYM||31.2||28||9.33||9.4||0.9||8.0|
|Joe Ross – WSH||22.2||14||2.0||6.0||2.8||5.6|
A few notes on my comparison – For each contender, I visited its official team pages and peered at the pitchers listed as the number five starter on the depth chart. Hearkening back to the fluidity of the designation, even that could be futile, as is the case with St. Louis’ duo of capable starters.
I also chose to leave ERA and even FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) out of this comparison, as rate statistics such as hits, walks and strikeouts per nine can give us a better indicator than early-season rates would. Though it seems longer, the season is but just a month old, giving “bad starts” a more pronounced effect on run-based metrics.
The first thing to notice from our comparison is that Locke is one of three fifth starters to have the dubious distinction of allowing 10-plus hits per nine innings. His comrades in the undesirable trio come with built-in excuses for the mark – Jake Peavy is holding on to what little time he has left in MLB while Ross Stripling is a rookie who has made all of his five career starts in 2016. Stripling deserves extra credit for being able to keep his walk rate low while he figures out major league hitters, a trait he shared with the 2013 first-half form of Locke, who had a 2.9 BB/9 rating.
Against the Cardinals’ duo of Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez, Locke compares rather unfavorably. Both have much better strikeout potential than Locke, and do very well to limit the free passes. Garcia in particular flashes very good swing-and-miss stuff, something that Locke has never truly had even considering his newfound approach of attacking more and nibbling less.
Kyle Hendricks represents what the ceiling could be for Locke if everything clicked for him. A third-year player, Hendricks had a 3.95 ERA in 2015 but tempered that with good control and an ability to keep the ball in the park. These traits have continued for Hendricks in 2016, while Locke’s career trajectory has gone in the opposite direction.
A quick note on Bartolo Colon. The man is inhuman. Turning 43 on May 24, Colon knows what kind of pitcher he is at this point and puts a premium on not putting himself in a bad position. We can’t be entirely sure that he didn’t make a deal with the devil; all we can do is acknowledge that this season is happening for the veteran and tip our cap. Locke, and many many other pitchers, would be very lucky to have half of the career that Colon has had.
Our last fifth starter on a contending team is an interesting case. Joe Ross is a well-regarded, second-year starter who has shown great progression over a middling 2015. Last year saw Ross get acclimated to major league hitting while taking his lumps. In this way, he mirrored Jeff Locke’s second half of 2013, yet took that promise and ran with it in a way that Locke did not. Once again, control is the name of the game, with Ross maintaining a very good BB/9 rate despite not having much strikeout ability.
It has become painfully clear that the problem plaguing Locke is the same one that has plagued him since mid-to-late 2013: control. Locke is not the type of pitcher who can allow free passes, yet he hands them out liberally. He has just enough swing-and-miss stuff to keep hitters honest, but this gets hidden by high hit totals.
When framed in the light of other fifth starters on contending clubs, Locke doesn’t pale in comparison as much as previously thought, but the gap between him and the other names above could be an indicator of just how little the Pittsburgh Pirates are getting from him.