Locke isn’t as good as first half or as bad as second

BRADENTON, Fla. – The most surprising player in baseball the first half of last season just so happened to have one of the biggest dropoffs in the second half.

What happened to Jeff Locke?

How did he go from being so good that he posted a 2.15 ERA and 8-2 record to make the All-Star team, then so bad that he couldn’t even finish the season in the Pirates’ rotation or on the playoff roster?

“I almost feel like I lost my identity,” Locke said. “It was just a lot of things.”

Locke is not expected to be on the Pirates’ opening-day roster, instead going to Triple-A Indianapolis. There’s not a spot for the 26-year-old lefty in the Bucs’ rotation, plus he was slowed for a couple of weeks this spring by an oblique injury.

But there’s a good chance that at some point this season, Locke will have an opportunity to prove himself again in the majors. If one of the Pirates’ starters goes down or struggles, Locke might be the first guy called up and could turn out to be a big part of whatever success the team achieves.

For that to happen, he doesn’t so much have to recapture his 2013 first-half glory as much as just avoid a complete meltdown like he had in the second half.

“I just want to help the team win games,” said Locke, one of the nicer guys on the Pirates and someone who’s easy to root for. “And down the stretch in the second half when I wasn’t pitching as well, that was the part that bothered me the most because there are 24 other guys in here, too, that are counting on you.”

Locke put up some outstanding numbers early last year, including holding opposing hitters to a .202 batting average before the break. But there was one glaring weakness in his numbers that was overshadowed by all the impressive stats.

He walked 47 while striking out just 73 in 109 innings. That’s a mere 1.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is, quite frankly, lousy.

The control issues remained in the second half as he walked 37 with only 52 strikeouts (1.4-to-1) in 57 1/3 innings. Couple that with getting hit at a much higher .308 clip, and he must have felt like there were runners on base even before he took the mound.

When a pitcher doesn’t have overpowering stuff and also walks a bunch of guys, that’s a recipe for disaster – or exactly what happened to Locke.

He suffered a back injury lifting weights just prior to the all-star break last year, and if there’s any one thing to point to for his tailspin, that would be it. The nagging injury impacted his work routine between starts, and since pitchers are creatures of habit, that can be a bigger issue than most people realize.

We can analyze it until we’re blue in the face, but the only thing that matters is Locke was not an effective major league pitcher the second half.

The same kind of disastrous dropoff happened to James McDonald with the Pirates in 2012, but that was an entirely different situation.

McDonald is not a smart pitcher, doesn’t have the best mental makeup to recover from bad outings and doesn’t seem to trust himself on the mound.

Locke is very smart, has good makeup, understands how to pitch and does trust his stuff. So it’s really not an apples-to-apples comparison.

The bottom line is Locke’s really not as good of a pitcher as his first-half numbers suggested. A 2.15 ERA, are you kidding me? Only a handful of guys in the majors are that dominant.

“Everything just really clicked, and it would be a dream come true to repeat something like that ever again,” Locke said of his amazing first half.

He’s not as bad as he looked in the second half, either, not with an ERA that ballooned to 6.12.

Locke is probably somewhere in between at this point in his young career, maybe a 4.00 ERA guy, and that should be enough to accomplish some good things.

Whether or not that will be with the Pirates is in doubt because just this week his name came up in trade speculation. The Bucs are interested in Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorious, and Arizona needs pitching, so Locke could be the return.

If he does stay put, Locke will be a good insurance policy to have in the minors until a spot opens up in Pittsburgh.

At that point, it will be up to him to show everyone what kind of pitcher he really is, because it’s anyone’s guess after his wild ride a year ago.

Cory Giger will have Pirates and Curve updates from Bradenton all this week.