Can Jeff Locke keep it up?

Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez, two left-handed hurlers, were handed the final two starting rotation spots after injuries to Francisco Liriano, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton. Locke had been less-than-impressive in a batch of big league starts, while Sanchez bounced around between San Francisco, Colorado, and Kansas City due to inconsistency. These two had to be sharp to keep their spots; through seven weeks of the season, it’s pretty evident who got the job done. Sanchez absolutely flopped, while Locke has pretty much done the opposite.

Locke, 25, was terrific again on Sunday afternoon, tossing seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball. He improved to 4-1 on the year, and lowered his ERA to 2.73. It was one of his most impressive starts of his young career. In fact, he posted a Game Score (stat developed by Bill James) of 73, matching his career-high set on April 28th.

Check out his last six outings:

Rk Date Opp Rslt Inngs Dec IP H R ER BB SO HR ERA
4 Apr 23 PHI W,2-0 GS-6 W(2-1) 6.0 2 0 0 2 6 0 3.74
5 Apr 28 STL W,9-0 GS-7 W(3-1) 7.0 3 0 0 2 4 0 2.83
6 May 4 WSN L,4-5 GS-6 5.0 3 4 3 3 3 0 3.21
7 May 9 NYM L,2-3 GS-6 6.0 3 1 1 3 3 0 2.95
8 May 14 MIL W,4-3 GS-6 6.0 7 3 3 1 6 1 3.15
9 May 19 HOU W,1-0 GS-7 W(4-1) 7.0 3 0 0 2 4 0 2.73
52.2 39 17 16 22 32 5 2.73
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/20/2013.

He’s looked good on the mound so far, albeit a small sample size. That being said, can he keep it up?

Locke has been getting pretty lucky on balls in play. Opponents have posted just a .213 BABIP against him, which is the third-lowest mark among National League pitchers.

Keep in mind that he mostly pitches to contact, only boasting a 5.47 K/9 (9th lowest in NL, among qualifiers) and a small percentage of whiffs. Eventually, these batted may find some holes and drop in for hits.

A popular metric that accounts for balls in play and how that would affect a pitcher’s ERA is Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP). According to FanGraphs, “xFIP is one of the best metrics at predicting a pitcher’s future performance.” Locke’s xFIP sits at 4.44 (as opposed to his 2.73 ERA), suggesting that he could be allowing more runs than he actually is. His 4.44 xFIP is the highest of any current Pirate starter; Jeanmar Gomez (who could also be facing regression in the near future) sits at 4.40.

Pitching has been a huge key to the Pirates success – among NL teams, they are first in batting average against (.225), first in strikeouts (362), second in ERA (3.33), etc. Good stat from Rumbunter this afternoon:

Guys like Jeff Locke are doing their job out there, nailing down win after win. The pitching staff may falter eventually, but the Bucs just need to keep riding their arms to victory for now.

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