Jeff Locke & Thanking His Defense

One of the biggest fantasy surprises this year has undoubtedly been left-hander Jeff Locke of the Pittsburgh Pirates. After getting shelled in his first 12 big-league appearances to the tune of a combined 5.82 ERA in 2011 and 2012, the southpaw has suddenly burst on the scene with a 2.15 ERA in 109.0 innings and has been a top-20 fantasy starter in most formats.

We can talk about Chris Davis and Yasiel Puig as fantasy surprises, but no coherent, reasonable person would have predicted Locke’s level of success prior to the season.

It took a while for Locke to gain the trust of fantasy owners. He’s only recently achieved 100% ownership in ESPN leagues. The uncertainty has centered around his 3.81 FIP, 4.56 SIERA and (mostly) his obscenely-low .228 BABIP. Locke is viewed as someone who’s merely riding an intense wave of good fortune, but he’s ultimately destined to crash and become the fringe back-end starter he’s always been perceived to be.

I was one of those owners. Locke went unclaimed on the waiver wire in a couple of my leagues in which I wanted to upgrade my starting rotation, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I couldn’t buy into the fact he may be able to outpitch his peripherals throughout the entire season. Now that he’s no longer available in any of my leagues, I’ve actually come around to the fact that he may be the perfect pitcher for the environment in which he plays and perhaps has a (slight) chance to sustain a high level of success.

Locke works primarily off his fastball. He throws it 66.6% of the time, which ranks 10th amongst qualified starters in the entire league, and he generates a myriad of ground balls with that pitch. His 52.3% ground-ball rate is the 12th-highest percentage amongst starters. While that’s obviously beneficial for limiting home runs, his lofty ground-ball rate has actually proven even more beneficial because of the Pirates’ defense.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have an above-average infield defense with Clint Barmes (+4.1 UZR), Jordy Mercer (+3.8), and Pedro Alvarez (+2.1). Even Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are roughly league-average at first. That above-average defense has actually caused the Pirates to be the most efficient defense in the league at converting ground balls into outs. Their .196 BABIP on ground balls is by far the best in the league.

Pirates .196
Braves .212
Orioles .215
Rangers .216
Indians .216
Rockies .217
Dodgers .218

Of course, part of that ridiculous ground-ball BABIP feels like it has to be attributed to luck, but that’s significantly softened by the Pirates’ quality infield. Above-average infields should be better at converting ground balls into outs than their counterparts across the league.

Jeff Locke has greatly benefited from the Pirates’ defense. He’s generating a ton of ground balls, and the Pirates are converting the most ground balls into outs. That seems to be a very powerful combination. Combine that with the fact that Locke gets to play in the spacious PNC Park — which should keep his home-run rate suppressed — he’s essentially in the perfect environment to find success on the mound.

I’m still not ready to buy Locke as a top-20 fantasy starter. He doesn’t strikeout many batters, and he also brings along the baggage of a higher walk rate. His entire value hinges on his ability to limit hits and continue to sustain a low BABIP. I no longer believe he’ll necessarily experience a total implosion in the second half, as long as he keeps the baseball on the ground and the Pirates play above-average infield defense, but he still profiles as a very limited fantasy starter.

That may not be a ringing endorsement, but for the first time this season, I’d grab Jeff Locke off the waiver wire. Too bad he’s no longer available in any leagues.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

12 Responses to “Jeff Locke & Thanking His Defense”

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  1. Retirenutting says:

    Good article. Locke’s got to be one of the most defensive dependent pitchers in the league. One nit…well maybe two. No mention of Pirates as team that uses more aggressive infield shifts than any other team in the league. Would be interested in more info/thought on that, personally. Also, Neil Walker plays in that infield — and should be back after ASG break (0.0 UZR thus far)

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    • FeslenR says:

      yeah, but he’s using his teammates to the maximum. Some guys still are terrible even with a spectacular defense behind him.

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      • Retirenutting says:

        I didn’t mean it as a slight. Pitching to contact is a skill, too, in my opinion. Bucs pitching coach Searage has the staff working under the philosophy “make something happen in 3 pitches”. Locke + maybe Morton are probably taking that to the extreme.

        One thing Locke’s really done this year that he hasn’t done in the past is improved his pitch location and learned to pitch inside. I honestly think, if he keeps at it in this way, he won’t regress that much.

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    • FeslenR says:

      replying to your below comment, since apparently I can’t reply to it for some reason….I know what you meant. I was just pointing out that some pitchers still are bad even when they have great d behind him.

      Locke has the good fortune of learning how to use his team well. Hopefully for my purposes and to a lesser extent, the Pirates, he continues to succeed. (yes, I picked him up in roto leagues).

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  2. Benzedrine says:

    I think we are seeing a similar thing with Tyler Chatwood. His groundballs have been helped by Arrenado (+12), Tulowitzki (+4.7) and LeMatheiu (+5.3).

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  3. AtlantaCrackers says:

    Locke’s season screams fluke, there’s just no way around it. He’s been highly hittable over his career (.300 – .350 BABIP typically) dating back to his minor league days with the Braves. And while the Pirates’ infield defense may be better than average, it’s easy to show that Locke has been incredibly fortunate with respect to luck on balls in play – here are the BABIPs of the Pirates’ starters: Locke (.228), Wandy Rodriguez (.255), A.J. Burnett (.270), Francisco Liriano (.293).

    Locke’s FIP sits at 3.81 and xFIP at 4.25. He’s rocking a craptacular 1.55 K/BB rate, and his career to date shows no special ability to limit hits on balls in play, limit HRs, or strand runners. I see no reason to believe he isn’t a ~4.25 ERA guy going forward.

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    • 2009 J.A. Happ says:

      I don’t see why more people aren’t all in here. I’m sold..

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    • U Mad says:

      Don’t get me wrong, I love the analysis we get on this site. Stats are almost always useful… But, Locke keeps battling and winning games. He’s not a master up there by any stretch, but the kid deserves credit for his season.

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  4. Alex says:

    I just landed a trade in a keeper league where i’m floundering a bit of Locke for Verlander (I landed Verlander)..

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  5. Brian says:

    Good article. I have a similar feeling regarding Locke – that he’ll regress, but not as drastically as people think.

    Everyone has been pointing to Locke’s peripherals as evidence that he will regress drastically. Mostly, that his 2.11 ERA doesn’t look “real” given his 3.76 FIP. However, his FIP was 5.31 in March/April, and 33% of all his earned runs this season were allowed during that time frame. Since then, his FIP has been 3.13, 3.29, and 3.37 in May, June and July, respectively. So obviously March/April skewed those results quite a bit. His xFIP has a similar trend, although it is high for the month of July thus far (SSS).

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  6. Jon says:

    It seems like Locke has added a knuckle-curve to his repertoire. Could this be a reason for his newly found success? it also seems like he is keeping pitches out of the zone more. Im in a dynasty league and don’t really know if I should trade high after those 9 strikeouts he just had or keep him for the long run.

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