There's terror in the Steel City.
Well, maybe not terror. But panic.
Well, maybe not panic. But there's definitely some worrying!
There's definitely some worrying about Jeff Locke, who couldn't escape the fifth inning Tuesday night against the generally punchless Brewers. After beating the Reds on the 21st of July -- hard on the heels of his stint in the All-Star Game -- Locke's record stood at 9-2 with a 2.11 ERA. He was quite probably the single most surprising pitcher in the National League.
Still, one could reasonably expect rough times ahead for Locke. One could quite reasonably expect some rough times. His strikeout-to-walk ratio? One-and-a-half to one. His batting average allowed on balls in play? Two-twenty-seven.
You can't sustain a .227 BABiP allowed, and an 1.5 strikeou-to-walk ratio won't work without an absurdly low BABiP. Which meant Locke was due for a fall. And so a fall, there has been. In Locke's last seven starts, he's gone 0-2 with a 7.02 ERA. His strikeouts have actually gone up, but so have his walks; his strikeout-to-walk ratio has actually gotten slightly worse during this stretch.
All of which has led some to wonder if it's time to bump Locke from the rotation.
Well, there's some good news and there's some bad news.
The bad news is that a) Locke was never anywhere near as good as his ERA suggested, and b) there's no obviously wonderful candidate to replace him in the rotation.
The good news is that a) Locke isn't nearly as bad as his recent ERA suggests, and b) as fifth starters go, he's perfectly adequate.
That .227 BABiP allowed was ridiculous, but so is Locke's .450 BABiP allowed over these last seven starts. And even in this rough stretch he's still not allowing home runs. The key to Locke's season has been ... well, actually, the key to Locke's season has been good luck. But another key to Locke's season -- and a key to the Pirates' season, for that matter -- has been keeping the ball in the ballpark. Locke has allowed only nine home runs all season, thanks to a ground-ball rate that ranks fourth in the National League. Leaving aside Lady Luck and her many vagaries, Locke seems to fundamentally be a big-time ground-ball pitcher, which helps balance is poor strikeout-to-walk ratio. Assuming he's healthy and getting all those grounders, you keep running him out there unless you've got someone better.
And it's not at all clear that they do have someone better.
Look, it would be fantastic if the Pirates could finish ahead of the Cardinals and win the Central. Nobody wants to play in the Wild Card Death Game. But the Cardinals are the better club, and after going TWENTY YEARS without even a winning season, the Death Game is hardly some booby prize. And the Corsairs own a huge lead over the Diamondbacks in the wild-card standings, so a postseason berth is very nearly a sure thing. Which means all the Pirates really have to do is figure out who's going to start in October, and who isn't.
Unfortunately, they might actually need Jeff Locke in October, because rookie Gerrit Cole's workload might be limited down the stretch. Hey, it might work out; you'd just prefer to have a choice. If not, though, going with Locke as the No. 4 man in the playoffs wouldn't be the end of the world. Jeff Locke might not be good. But he's nowhere near this bad.
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