One of the biggest fantasy surprises this year has undoubtedly been left-hander Jeff Locke of the Pittsburgh Pirates. After getting shelled in his first 12 big-league appearances to the tune of a combined 5.82 ERA in 2011 and 2012, the southpaw has suddenly burst on the scene with a 2.15 ERA in 109.0 innings and has been a top-20 fantasy starter in most formats.
It took a while for Locke to gain the trust of fantasy owners. He’s only recently achieved 100% ownership in ESPN leagues. The uncertainty has centered around his 3.81 FIP, 4.56 SIERA and (mostly) his obscenely-low .228 BABIP. Locke is viewed as someone who’s merely riding an intense wave of good fortune, but he’s ultimately destined to crash and become the fringe back-end starter he’s always been perceived to be.
I was one of those owners. Locke went unclaimed on the waiver wire in a couple of my leagues in which I wanted to upgrade my starting rotation, but I couldn’t pull the trigger. I couldn’t buy into the fact he may be able to outpitch his peripherals throughout the entire season. Now that he’s no longer available in any of my leagues, I’ve actually come around to the fact that he may be the perfect pitcher for the environment in which he plays and perhaps has a (slight) chance to sustain a high level of success.
Locke works primarily off his fastball. He throws it 66.6% of the time, which ranks 10th amongst qualified starters in the entire league, and he generates a myriad of ground balls with that pitch. His 52.3% ground-ball rate is the 12th-highest percentage amongst starters. While that’s obviously beneficial for limiting home runs, his lofty ground-ball rate has actually proven even more beneficial because of the Pirates’ defense.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have an above-average infield defense with Clint Barmes (+4.1 UZR), Jordy Mercer (+3.8), and Pedro Alvarez (+2.1). Even Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are roughly league-average at first. That above-average defense has actually caused the Pirates to be the most efficient defense in the league at converting ground balls into outs. Their .196 BABIP on ground balls is by far the best in the league.
Of course, part of that ridiculous ground-ball BABIP feels like it has to be attributed to luck, but that’s significantly softened by the Pirates’ quality infield. Above-average infields should be better at converting ground balls into outs than their counterparts across the league.
Jeff Locke has greatly benefited from the Pirates’ defense. He’s generating a ton of ground balls, and the Pirates are converting the most ground balls into outs. That seems to be a very powerful combination. Combine that with the fact that Locke gets to play in the spacious PNC Park — which should keep his home-run rate suppressed — he’s essentially in the perfect environment to find success on the mound.
I’m still not ready to buy Locke as a top-20 fantasy starter. He doesn’t strikeout many batters, and he also brings along the baggage of a higher walk rate. His entire value hinges on his ability to limit hits and continue to sustain a low BABIP. I no longer believe he’ll necessarily experience a total implosion in the second half, as long as he keeps the baseball on the ground and the Pirates play above-average infield defense, but he still profiles as a very limited fantasy starter.
That may not be a ringing endorsement, but for the first time this season, I’d grab Jeff Locke off the waiver wire. Too bad he’s no longer available in any leagues.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).