Who is Jeff Locke? Inquiring minds want to know. No doubt, many outside the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ fan base will be asking this question if the 25-year-old from Kennett High School in Conway, NH keeps pitching like he has been this season.
The lanky, baby-faced left-hander has seemly come out of nowwhere this year, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.39 ERA in his 13 starts to arguably take over the role of ace on one of the league’s best pitching staffs. Who’d have thunk it? Only a rejuvenated Francisco Liriano has been statistically better; but with just a half-dozen starts, he needs more time on the hill before seriously being considered for the title.
Locke’s mentor, A.J. Burnett, has continued his stellar performance since coming over from the New York Yankees last season, but even he can’t boast the lock-down numbers Locke has been putting up. Mixing in a stretch of 19.1 consecutive scoreless innings, Locke has not allowed more than three hits in seven of his last 10 starts.
With any kind of offense, Locke could easily be a 10-game winner and is a serious contender for a berth on this year’s All-Star team.
True, Locke has always had solid minor league numbers, posting a career 3.60 ERA in his seven-year journey from rookie league ball to Triple-A and culminating with his being named 2012 Pirates’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year at Indianapolis. But after coming up for a few meaningless September starts over the past two previous seasons and posting a combined record of 1-6 with a 5.82 ERA, he was pretty much an afterthought as far as securing a spot in the starting rotation went.
Without injuries to Charlie Morton, James McDonald and Liriano, even all his minor league accomplishments might not have been enough to keep him from being sent back down to Indy for another season of grooming. He was certainly no lock to make the team, though a solid spring training performance this year raised his stock considerably.
The Atlanta Braves thought enough of Locke to draft him in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft, but Locke seemed to be a throw-in when the Braves traded him in 2009, along with top prospects Gorkys Hernandez and Morton for former Pirate fan favorite Nate McLouth.
Though McLouth has rejuvenated his career with the Baltimore Orioles, Locke is looking like the jewel in the deal as the super-fielding light-hitting Hernandez has since been dealt to the wasteland otherwise known as the Miami Marlins (where he’s subsequently been demoted to Triple-A New Orleans), while Morton recovers from Tommy John surgery.
Lest we get too carried away with Locke’s initial success, it would be prudent to remember the Pirates have had other promising young left-handers that have failed to live up to their initial great starts.
In 2005, a crafty 22-year-old Zack Duke posted a fantastic 1.81 ERA in his rookie season, but finished the rest of his lackluster Pirate career with a near 5.00 ERA while winning just 37 of his 145 starts his remaining five seasons.
In 2004, fastballer Oliver Perez burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old, spinning a 2.98 ERA his first full year with the Bucs. Striking out 239 batters in 196 innings, some were comparing him to a young Randy Johnson; his stuff was that good.
A year and half later, with serious control issues approaching Steve Blass-like proportions, the erratic lefty was sent to the New York Mets for 41-year old jourmeyman Roberto Hernadez and the oft-injuried Xavier Nady. With the exception of one good year with the Mets, Perez never really reached his potential, falling as far as Double-A ball in 2011.
Can Locke can avoid this type of history? Stay tuned. Only time will tell just who Jeff Locke is.