Jeff Locke's latest poor start has Pirates fans wondering about his future. While I don't want to put too fine a point on it, however, I'm not sure much has changed.
Locke's monthly ERA splits suggest he's gone way downhill after a great June and July:
September (one start): 12.27
As we've repeatedly seen with Locke, though, short-term results don't always tell the story. He received an All-Star berth in 2013 on the strength of a strong ERA, but he predictably regressed down the stretch. Just as Locke's good stretches aren't always to be taken at face value, though, his bad ones aren't either -- this May, there were calls for the Bucs to remove Locke from the rotation, but if they'd done that, they wouldn't have gotten to enjoy his good results in June and July. So who's the real Jeff Locke? Here are his monthly splits by xFIP, which irons out some of the variance in his pitch-to-contact game:
September (one start): 2.44
First half: 3.94
Second half: 4.03
Those numbers tell a reasonably consistent story: Jeff Locke is a decent back-of-the-rotation pitcher -- no more, but also no less. His bad months seem really bad, but that's largely due to variance (and to the fact that his baseline isn't that high to begin with). Also, his ERA this year (4.66) is significantly worse than his xFIP (3.97) and SIERA (4.22). In 2013, his ERA was better than his periperhals; last year, it tracked pretty closely with them; and this year, it's worse.
We might be able to dig into the data and find small reasons for the discrepancies, but generally, he's been the same guy for three straight years. He has a below-average fastball that he offsets with a decent curve and a good change. He issues too many walks (especially on the road, because, as Travis Sawchik pointed out today, he gets fewer borderline calls) and doesn't get quite enough strikeouts, but he compensates by getting ground balls. He's okay. Not great. Not even good. But okay. Whatever you thought about Jeff Locke last year, or two months ago, should be pretty close to what you think about Jeff Locke now.
Anyway, Locke's struggles have some commentators and fans wondering about Locke's future with the Pirates.
I don’t know that Jeff Locke’s #Pirates career is over, but I will be very surprised if he pitches a meaningful inning again in ’15.— David Todd (@DTonPirates) September 3, 2015
Jeff Locke is arbitration eligible this offseason. Have to think he's a definite non-tender candidate. #Pirates need to move on— Jason Shetler (@Jason_Shetler) September 3, 2015
Amazing sequence on the post game radio: Caller: "Locke needs to go" @DanZangrilli: "You need to go. And now we welcome in Jeff Locke..."— Brian McElhinny (@rtjr) August 27, 2015
I can't defend Locke, exactly, because like I said, I think he's only okay. A.J. Burnett is supposed to return within a couple weeks, and if everyone's healthy when he does, Locke should probably be bumped from the rotation. Probably the best reason to do so, though, is that he simply isn't that good to begin with, rather than because he's gotten poor results over the past month.
(Of course, the question of what the Pirates should do with Locke for the rest of the season is mostly academic. FanGraphs now gives the Bucs a 99.8 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 91.9 percent chance of being a Wild Card team. There isn't much they can do at this point, good or bad, that's going to dramatically alter their playoff chances.)
Beyond that, the Pirates probably should -- and, I think, will -- tender Locke a contract next year. He'll still be a modest bargain in his first year of arbitration eligibility, since he has some important arbitration indicators (won-loss record, ERA) working against him this year. If the Bucs do boot Locke out of the rotation in the next couple weeks, his relatively low innings total will also help the Pirates keep his salary down next season.
Also, the Pirates will need starting pitching next year. Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton will all be back, and Tyler Glasnow will likely join the rotation in June. But Burnett and Happ will likely be gone, and much of the Pirates' depth will consist of pitchers working their way back from injuries. The Bucs should be able to retain Locke for a few million dollars, which is cheap enough that they can use him as depth and protection against injury. If they don't have a strong need for him, they might well be able to trade him, since a not-great-but-decent starting pitcher is a good value for a few million dollars.
Maybe the best argument against keeping Locke is that the Pirates' pitching factory seems to be able to identify and rehabilitate starting pitchers. Maybe the better course for them is to trade or non-tender Locke and use the savings to find the next Happ, or the next Edinson Volquez. The fact that Locke will again be out of options is another point against him. If they did decide to part ways with him, it wouldn't be a big deal, and it might even be a good thing, since it would suggest they were aiming higher.
In a vacuum, though, Locke should be modestly helpful again next season. He isn't very good, but he's useful, and a useful starting pitcher should always be able to find a home for the right price.