Not Even Close: Mets 11, Pirates 2

06.16.16 Posted by

There was no point at which the Pirates felt like they were in this game. The Mets took a 3-0 lead in the first and it only got worse from there. They led 11-0 going into the ninth when the Bucs finally scraped together a couple of runs. Locke failed to go even five innings again, and has now given up 18 runs in his last 9.2 frames. And Syndergaard nearly shut them out, allowing five hits, no walks, and 11 Ks through 8.1 innings.

There’s virtually nothing to like in this game. Caminero was the only Pirate pitcher not to allow a run, and he allowed a walk and two hits instead. John Jaso went 3 for 4, but only one other starter had even one hit.

It’s an awful game, at a pretty bad time, and it really feels like the Bucs are hurtling towards a stretch of very tough opponents at a time when they’d probably struggle against mediocre ones. If they come out the other end of this over .500, it’ll be very pleasantly surprising.

Speaking of .500, the Bucs are on pace to win 82 games. Remember when that was a thing?

Filed under: Arquimedes Caminero, game recaps, Jeff Locke

Pirates at Mets: Locke Looks to Rebound

06.15.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Syndergaard, 7:10 PM

You never know which Jeff Locke you’re gonna get. For over five weeks, Locke was good or very good in nearly every start (the biggest exception coming against the Merciless Cubs). Then he got kicked around in Colorado, albeit because of a horrendous cross-country flight in the middle of a homestand, and because he was probably left in the game as a sort of sacrifice at the alter of bullpen preservation. That doesn’t explain why he was bad, just why he was allowed to be bad long enough to give up 11 (!) runs.

This time, he faces the Mets, and the Pirates have done an exceptional job of shutting down their offense this year. And that’s been good, because the Mets’ rotation has been about as good as billed; they’ve been losing despite getting quality starts from their starters nearly every game. The last time the Bucs faced Syndergaard (tonight’s starter for New York), they scored three runs (two earned) off of him in six innings, and that was nearly enough, as the bullpen blew a late lead and lost the game in extra innings. As modest as that result was, I think you’d have to seriously consider taking it again, if offered.

It seems weird to say we should beat up on the Mets before the going gets tough, because the Mets are pretty good. But that’s the situation the Pirates are in: it only gets harder from here. It’s entirely possible they could play fairly well and still be under .500 after the seven games against the Cubs and Giants that come after this series is over.

First pitch is at 7:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Rocky Mountain Jet Lag: Rockies 11, Pirates 5

06.10.16 Posted by

I’m not going to say that the Pirates lost (and badly) yesterday just because they had to suddenly fly cross country in the middle of what otherwise would’ve been a nine-game homestand, but I did express worry about this exact thing in yesterday’s preview. And I’m worried about today’s game for the same reason.

Jeff Locke got rocked, no pun intended, not just because he pitched poorly but because the Bucs seemed to want him to sacrifice his ERA to eat up more innings than his performance dictated, more or less writing off the game to spare the bullpen. This kinda made sense when the Rockies jumped out to a 6-1 lead, but it made less sense when the Bucs cut the deficit to 6-5 in the third. But they kept trotting Locke out there and he allowed five more runs, putting the game out of reach.

It’s already hard to know what to think of a pitcher struggling in Coors Field, but throw in the schedule nonsense and it’s even harder. I think Locke’s recent stretch was good enough and long enough to think he’s going to be useful the rest of the year, but he’s still going to have blow-ups like this.

And that’s okay if they’re effectively concentrated, which they have been: Locke has given up 43 earned runs this year, and 44% of them have come in just two starts. We saw this same thing happen with Charlie Morton last year:

Some of you are now saying “well, okay, but lots of people’s stats look better if you take out their worst games.” True, but for a starting pitcher, how you give up your runs matters a great deal. Technically, a guy who throws ten shutouts and then gives up 90 earned runs without recording an out the next game has an ERA of 9.00, but he’s actually more valuable than someone with a 4.50 ERA who gives up a run every other inning consistently.

You can only lose each game once, so a guy that puts up a sub-3.00 ERA in nine starts and gives his team a chance to win each, but completely blows up in one other, is probably helping his team a lot more than his ERA would suggest.

As I pointed out on Twitter, Locke dropped his ERA almost 1.20 runs from mid-May to early-June, and yesterday he almost entirely wiped those gains out. But he did it in the best possible way: being very good for four or five starts and then horrendous for one. I don’t know if this is a repeatable skill or not, but it’s worth noting, because I would absolutely co-sign for a Jeff Locke who’s good for three weeks and then totally gives a game away by himself.

A brief note about the hitting last night: uhhh, the Bucs continue to hit. Seven hits is less than they usually manage, but they scored five runs and David Freese hit a big three-run homer. The Pirates are going to score 4-5 runs a lot, so a quality start is usually going to get the job done.

Filed under: game recaps, Jeff Locke

Pirates at Rockies: More Schedule Shenanigans

06.09.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Bettis, 5:10 PM

After an impromptu doubleheader that seems to have seriously affected the outcome of yesterday’s game, the Pirates now fly from Pittsburgh to Colorado for one makeup game, and then immediately back to Pittsburgh for another home series. This is, of course, absurd: the Pirates don’t play the Rockies again, so they can’t tack this on to an existing series, but you have to imagine they could’ve tacked it on to an existing road trip, rather than having two cross-country flights slicing up what would’ve otherwise been a nine-game homestand.

But fair or not, sensible or not, that’s how it’s going down.

Jeff Locke throws for the Pirates, and the dude’s just been flat-out good for the last few weeks. The Bucs have won his last four starts, and he’s gone into the 7th in all of them. He started to turn his season around against these very same Rockies, also Colorado, by throwing six shutout innings and striking out eight. This came immediately after his implosion in San Diego.

The Rockies counter with Chad Bettis, who’s been about as good as Locke, but pretty unlucky. He started opposite Locke in the turnaround game I mentioned above, too, and the Bucs got to him for four runs in six innings, even though he induced 16 ground balls.

Normally I’d like this matchup plenty, but that flight has me worried. First pitch is at 5:10 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

…And One Step Back: Pirates 8, Angels 7

06.05.16 Posted by

It was nice to see the Pirates get the offense going yesterday after four straight lackluster efforts at the plate. Unfortunately, this happened at the same time their pitching got back to where it was earlier, too: highly unreliable. Better than neither of them working, and a win’s a win, but it would’ve been nice to keep some of those pitching gains at the same time the offense started hitting again.

Locke was actually good again, giving up just three runs in seven innings (and apart from putting up good results, his propensity for getting past the 5th or even the 6th inning is almost as encouraging in and of itself). Tony Watson, however, gave up four earned runs while only recording one out, turning an 8-3 romp after the Bucs put up five runs in the 7th into an 8-7 nailbiter almost immediately. Two of the runs that scored were runners inherited by Feliz, though one of those game on a ground out.

Kang, Polanco, and Joyce all homered. Polanco’s homer was an absolute bomb, and Joyce’s was a pinch hit homer. There’s been talk that Joyce’s ridiculous performance is down to a completely revamped swing, though it’s hard to say if that’s the direct cause, or just the most convenient retrofitted explanation for what might still be pretty random. My thinking is that at least part of this is real, though. If it is, it’s not clear how the Bucs can find too many more at bats for him: all three outfielders are All-Star caliber (and much better with the glove and on the base paths), and even if you stick him at first, Jaso’s having a great year and is a lefty just like Joyce. So all they can really do is continue to spell guys on a regular basis and pinch hit with him often. Joyce is on pace for 200 ABs and he’s slugging almost .700 (he’d be #1 in the league if you dropped the plate appearance minimum a bit, with Kang at #2, by the way). If he keeps doing this long enough, something’ll have to give, even if the Bucs just end up using him as trade bait. But my guess is this player rotation thing is a big part of the team’s analytics, which means they’re most likely to just keep finding room where they can, even if you’d ideally give him a chance to play regularly at this point.

Yesterday’s win snaps a four game losing streak and, with Cole on the mound this afternoon, gives them a good chance to take the series before the gauntlet the schedule is about to throw down.

Filed under: game recaps, Jeff Locke

Pirates vs. Angels: I’m Actually Excited Jeff Locke Is Pitching

06.04.16 Posted by

Locke vs. Chacin, 4:05 PM

It’s weird to dread a Francisco Liriano start and look forward a Jeff Locke start, but here we are. @cantpredictball.

I’ve been talking about Jeff Locke’s performance improvement in pretty much every preview of his starts for the past month, and somehow, in his last start, he was even better. He threw a three-hit shutout, the best game of his entire career.

Unfortunately, whereas a few weeks ago a decent Locke (nevermind a good one) felt like gravy. Now, with Liriano falling apart and the offense stymied the last four games, it seems more like a necessity. And while using Locke to play with house money is fun, having to actually rely on him to keep your season afloat is terrifying.

Locke throws against Jhoulys Chacin, who’s also coming off a complete game: he gave up just one run and struck out 10 against Detroit on May 30th. Chacin’s been pretty good this year: okay K rate, decent BB rate…and that’s about it. None of his peripherals stand out much in either direction. The only encouraging thing I see is that, to complete that game against the Tigers, he had to throw 114 pitches, which is the most he’s thrown since 2011. Unless the Bucs let Chacin cruise through these innings, they should get three or more cracks at a pretty average Angel bullpen.

I like the Pirates’ chances to right the ship today. They could really use a couple of wins headed into the difficult stretch of schedule in front of them.

First pitch is at 4:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Locke Shuts Miami Out: Pirates 10, Marlins 0

05.31.16 Posted by

Welcome to the bullpen, Juan Nicasio.

Jeff Locke threw a shutout last night. And not only was it the first shutout of his career, it was the first complete game, too. He struck out only one, but allowed just three hits and walked none. Needless to say, the Game Score of 82 was a personal best. He was only a few pitches shy of a Maddux.

Of Locke’s last seven starts, three have been very good or excellent, two have been decent, and only a couple have been at all disappointing. And of those two, one was against the Cubs, and in the other he allowed a ho-hum four runs in six innings. I said this in yesterday’s preview:

I was pretty surprised when I glanced at Jeff Locke’s stats while writing this and saw that he has a 5.08 ERA. Obviously, he was getting shelled early on, but over the last month he’s been much better. One thing I’ve learned writing these previews, though, is that “good” starts do a lot less to improve a starter’s overall numbers than really good ones. It’s those seven scoreless innings that really drag that number down: 6 innings and three runs looks great in isolation, but it’s a 4.50 ERA.

Case in point: last night’s game dragged his ERA down to 4.33.

The Pirate offense gave Locke more than enough to work with, scoring 10 runs on 14 hits. As those two numbers probably suggest, they got their share of extra base knocks: five in total, including home runs from Gregory Polanco and Sean Rodriguez. Let’s talk about both for a moment: if you told me Gregory Polanco was going to hit his first career grand slam, and that I somehow wasn’t going to use an image of his swing’s follow-through for the recap to this game, I probably would’ve sarcastically replied “what, is Locke going to throw a shutout or something?” So I’m as surprised as you are to have anyone else at the start of this post.

As for Rodriguez: what on earth is going on? Rodriguez is slugging .597. He has six home runs in 77 ABs. I know we’re playing with house money here, but I thought that three homers ago. His BABIP’s a little high, and his K rate is up…but his walk rate is at a career high. Last year, it was at a career low, which means it’s over six times as high this season as it was last season. Obviously, you can only run from the regression monster for so long, but it’s reasonable to entertain the idea that, even if he’s much worse going forward, he might not be a massive offensive liability. One can hope.

One other hitter that needs to be singled out is Freese, who went 4 for 5 last night. The big picture story this year has been the offense, but zooming in on it, the story within that story is that the Pirates are rotating two or three bench guys into the lineup on a regular basis, and seemingly paying no production penalty whatsoever for doing it. We talked a little last year about the Pirates’ conditioning research, and I’m hoping to write a bit more about this, but this might be an example of it paying dividends.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke, Sean Rodriguez

All At Once: Pirates 5, Diamondbacks 4

05.26.16 Posted by

The thing you hear most about this lineup from its fans is that it “just keeps coming.” It’s relentless. There are some exceptional hitters here, to be sure, but the Pirates have had exceptional hitters before: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, and Andrew McCutchen. They still didn’t win, because they surrounded those guys with mediocre players, and most games were trotting out one or more offensive black holes. What’s different about this lineup is that it’s deep, both top to bottom (Jorder Mercer hits eight and is OPSing over .750), and back to front (it hasn’t been a huge downgrade when Freese or Rodriguez spell a starter).

Case in point: Jung Ho Kang and Josh Harrison took a seat last night, and both of their replacements—Freese and Rodriguez—hit home runs. Rodriguez’s was a solo shot, and Freese’s was a two-run bomb to center. That’s what made this win a little more interesting than most: it didn’t come from wearing the starter down and getting into the bullpen, or by steadily accumulating runs throughout the game. The Pirates scored all of their runs in two consecutive innings, and four of them in fifth.

Preceding Freese’s homer was another Polanco double (it seems like he’s basically allocated a double per game), which was preceded by a scorching McCutchen single. All of the starter, De La Rosa, who handled the Pirates so effectively the last time they met.

Jeff Locke was shaky, giving up four runs in 6.1 innings, but this is exactly the kind of start you’re usually expecting from someone in his position. If he can work through six, and even a little past it, while keeping the game close, that’ll be plenty most nights. That extra inning means the Pirates can bridge the gap to the end of the game without cycling in some of their less reliable relievers, though Tony Watson was on paternity leave tonight, so Hughes had to get a couple of outs (which he did without incident). I wouldn’t call this is a “good” start for Locke, but it was an acceptable one, and he’s been acceptable or better every time but once since that blowup in San Diego.

This is the third straight series the Pirates have won, and they’ll be heavy favorites to sweep this afternoon with Cole on the mound.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke

Pirates vs. Diamondbacks: “Will the Real Jeff Locke” Etc.

05.25.16 Posted by

Locke vs. De La Rosa, 7:05 PM

Jeff Locke has been good (or very good) in four of his last five starts, and the fifth was against the Cubs, in Chicago. We still don’t know who’s getting bumped from the rotation in a couple of weeks, but Locke’s recent improvement combined with Nicasio going the other direction the last few starts makes for a pretty good case that it should be the latter. The bullpen has stabilized a bit, which weakens one of the best arguments for keeping Locke (that Nicasio’s profile looks like it would translate well to the bullpen), but the flip side of that is that the Pirates might be one good reliever away from having a—gasp—good bullpen again.

A month ago, I felt strongly Locke should be the odd man out. I’ve started to change my mind, at least to the point where neither decision would cause me much consternation. It’s close enough, at least in my head, that I’m glad we get a few more starts from each to make the decision.

Locke’s opponent us Rubby De La Rosa, who shut the Bucs down for six innings a month ago. He gave up just one run, but more notably, he allowed only three hits. He’s been excellent in three of his four starts since then, too, and his numbers are artificially inflated by a terrible start to open the season (which, echoing the above caveat about Locke, was against the Cubs). Remove that, and he’s sporting a 2.48 ERA. He’s got an unsustainably low BABIP, but he’s striking out more than a batter per inning. He’s a good pitcher, in other words, and paired against Locke this represents Arizona’s most favorable matchup of the series.

The pitching still looks shaky overall, but both the bullpen and the rotation have managed to be decent far more often than not, and as we saw last night, that’s usually enough for this offense.

First pitch is at 7:05 PM.

Filed under: game preview, Jeff Locke

Job Done: Pirates 8, Braves 2

05.20.16 Posted by

I said before this series started that the goal was three of four, and most in fairly definitive fashion, and I think we achieved that. One close loss, one blowout, one blowout that turned kinda close, and a solid four-run victory mixed in. +10 run differential. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

It was particularly nice that the pitching got its act together these last two games. Two nights ago it was Liriano, unsurprisingly, who stopped the madness, but last night it was Jeff Locke, who gave up two runs in seven innings.

Let’s talk about Locke for a second. His peripherals still aren’t good (the last two years his xFIP has been under .400, indicating he’s actually been pretty useful, but this year it’s closer to 5.00), but he’s looked much better as of late. Take out the Cubs start (I know, I know) and he’s got a 2.77 ERA over his last four outings. He’s walked exactly two batters in each of them. His K rate isn’t great, but it’s weirdly erratic: six last night, six against Cincinnati, eight against Colorado, but just one against St. Louis.

The joke with Locke is that he’s terrible until it’s about to cost him his job, and then he figures it all out, like a guy who crams for an exam at the last minute (an analogy that works in large part because he looks so very much like a stoned college student). This might really be his last semester, though: Pirates’ fans are hashing out whether or not Jameson Taillon should replace him or Nicasio in the rotation (the argument being not that Locke’s been a better starter, but simply that Nicasio has more value in the bullpen). But that’s just what happens in a few weeks: one would think even marginal control improvements from Tyler Glasnow would land him a spot shortly afterwards, in which case, well…he’s probably not beating out Jonathan Niese, for all his struggles. This really might be it, and in true Jeff Locke fashion, he might end up looking pretty good leading up to his exit.

The offense was tremendous again. Gregory Polanco homered and tripled and I’m honestly asking myself if I expect him to be more valuable than McCutchen next season. I don’t think it’s a ridiculous question any more.

The Cubs lost again. That’s three of four and five of their last ten.

Filed under: game recaps, Gregory Polanco, Jeff Locke