The downturn of Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Jeff Locke over the past several weeks has been well-chronicled.
Beginning with a July 31 start against the St. Louis Cardinals, the 25-year-old lefty hasn’t made it past the sixth inning in six turns through the rotation. His best effort over that span was a two-run, three-hit outing Aug. 11 in Colorado, while his worst was clearly the next time out, when Locke allowed eight runs on 10 hits in 2 2/3 innings against Arizona on Aug. 17.
Tuesday night’s struggle fell somewhere in between, especially when you consider that Locke was a missed Russell Martin tag or a misjudged liner by Jose Tabata away from getting the Pirates into the sixth inning down a couple of runs at most. Instead, Locke was charged with five runs and eight hits, only avoiding a loss when his teammates rallied to tie the game.
Looking at the breakdown of hits allowed, Locke isn’t getting slugged around the ballpark. With the exception of his start against the Diamondbacks, he has allowed two or fewer extra-base hits in every game during his “slump.”
The reason for his struggles? Primarily a reversal of batted-ball luck – more grounders are getting through and fly balls are falling in – and an elevated walk rate. Locke’s stuff (velocity and break) hasn’t looked dramatically different from when he posted a 2.15 ERA through his first 20 starts; however, his location, both within the zone and out, has suffered.
These types of problems could derive from fatigue, although Locke is still about 10 innings shy of his career high of 153 set two years ago. A mechanical glitch could also be the culprit, which might better be fixed by an extended break between starts rather than continuing the usual routine.
Locke is penciled in to face the Cardinals this Sunday at PNC Park (EDIT: He has been optioned to Double-A Altoona until Sept. 3), but if the Pirates would like to “reset” their young starter, there are many options available, both in Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis. Jeanmar Gomez would seem to be the best option for a spot start, especially considering his eight previous starts this season and his continued rate of success in varying roles. His three hitless innings last week in San Francisco – after Locke couldn’t get past the fourth – provided another example of his utility.
Kris Johnson figures to be another possibility for a start or two in September. The 28-year-old southpaw made his memorable MLB debut Aug. 18, tossing five scoreless frames in relief before Arizona broke through for a decisive two runs in the 16th.
Also, if the Bucs are just thinking about the Cardinals matchup this Sunday, Brandon Cumpton put together seven innings of three-hit, no-run ball vs. St. Louis in the second game of a doubleheader July 30. Cumpton, 24, has started four times for the Pirates in 2013, probably making him a more comfortable option than Johnson at this point.
There are long shots like Stolmy Pimentel and 2011 first-overall draft pick Jameson Taillon available in Triple-A, but Gomez, Cumpton and Johnson give the Pirates more than enough talent to select an effective replacement for Locke – or rookie Gerrit Cole, whose innings are being monitored closely.
Locke has fallen back, but the Bucs won’t be out of luck if he continues to falter.