Pitchers’ Duel Diary: Jeff Locke vs. Bronson Arroyo

Welcome to this new series for pitching junkies, in which we anticipate one excellent matchup per week and diarize it to learn something about the practitioners of the Mound Arts. In the process, we also discover meaningful things about ourselves and our lives through the lens of baseball. There is always a lesson at the end. Each pitchers’ duel receives an official 1-10 rating on the Marichal-Spahn Scale, named after the greatest pitchers’ duel ever.

This Week’s Pitchers’ Duel

Jeff “Pad” Locke (PIT) vs. Bronson “Old Monsoon” Arroyo (CIN)

The Basics

JEFF LOCKE

Bio: Age 25, lefty, 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, born in North Conway, New Hampshire, no college

2013 Stats: 6-1, 2.19 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 6.56 K/9, 0.7 WAR

Pitches: The four-seam fastball is his most prominent pitch (50 percent usage), though in June he’s used it far less. His change and his sinking fastball hover around 90-91 mph, and his other two pitches — a curve and a change — average 80-82. (FanGraphs, which uses the MLB Sportsvision Pitch f/x data, doesn’t distinguish between his fastball and sinker — at least not much — and has him with the third-most-horizontal movement in on lefties, but they concede that Dan Brooks and Harry Pavlidis’s system is more reliable, so I’ll take their word for it.) The four pitches obey a similar trend — not special in velocity, movement, whiff percentage, or anything, really, except a decent ground-ball percentage.

Therein lies the Locke mystery: The peripherals say he’s an average pitcher, and yet he’s top six in league ERA. He doesn’t strike out many batters, he’s not particularly great at avoiding walks or home runs, and all he really does well is force ground balls. Is this guy super lucky, or is he the next Greg Maddux?

Fun Fact: His nickname, “The Redstone Rocket,” is a reference both to his neighborhood and to a ballistic missile. Solid double-service moniker.

BRONSON ARROYO

Bio: Age 36, righty, 6-foot-3, 197 pounds, born in Key West, Florida, no college

2013 Stats: 6-5, 3.27 ERA, 4.13 FIP, 5.09 K/9, 0.8 WAR

Pitches: Four-seam and changeup (rare), cutter (so rare that we can ignore it), sinker, and curve (prominent). The curve, which he throws almost 40 percent of the time, has nasty horizontal action, and is a strange pitch in that relative to a spinless ball, it doesn’t drop. As you see here, Arroyo’s curve “rises” more than any other pitcher in 2013 (again, that’s in comparison to what a spinless pitch of the same velocity would look like; compared to the fastball, which has backspin, it still drops). One of the reasons Arroyo has lasted so long at such a … competent level, is because of the way his curve contrasts with his four-seam and sinker. While the curve darts sharply left, both fastballs run in on right-handed hitters and stay high. Oh, and the velocity? Not great.

Fun Fact: Arroyo, a guitarist, released an album of covers in 2005 called Covering the Bases. Also, he and A.J. Burnett have appeared as slacker buddies in several stoner films. (One of these two facts is true.)

The Diary

First Inning: Bronson starts Starling Marte with three straight curves for the fly out. No surprise; when he’s ahead on a right-handed batter, he’s throwing the curve 55 percent of the time. This is also our first introduction to the Arroyo leg kick, which flies out straight and high toward third base, like a robot attempting a karate move. He’s out of the inning with only a double conceded to Russell Martin, but not before the Reds announcing crew comes through with an interesting tidbit: Arroyo has the fewest pitches per plate appearance in baseball. Just over three. ESPN tells me he’s also tied for the lowest in pitches per inning at 13.5. This man pitches to the bat.

On to Locke. The first stat to look at to see if a pitcher (or hitter, really) has been lucky is BABIP. That’s batting average on balls in play, and it doesn’t include home runs. The stat has a tendency to be pretty variable, independent of a pitcher’s actual skill, and so it’s thought of as a measure of luck. So, what about Locke? Well, he’s got the third-lowest BABIP in baseball at .233. Now, sometimes certain pitchers can put up consistently low numbers, particularly if they elicit a lot of grounders. A good way to check is to look at previous years. In Locke’s case, he was .313 last year and .305 in 2011, but his innings pitched were too small to be significant. In the minors, though, he’s always been above .300, so my initial guess is that he’s been reallll lucky.

The first two batters reach base — walk, error — and that brings up lefty Joey Votto. Three straight fastballs greet him, which is standard for Locke — against lefties, he’s throwing the four-seamer at a 70 percent rate. Votto is all over him, knowing he can sit dead red. But it’s good placement by Locke, who gets a grounder to third. Then it’s curve after curve to Brandon Phillips; despite the assessment above, it seems to dive nicely, and it produces a double-play ball.

DOUBLE SHUTOUT!

Second Inning: I think Arroyo just threw a cutter to strike out Neil Walker! If I’m right, it’s the first he’s thrown since June 3. But it might just be a normal tailing fastball. He hangs the hell out of a curve to Pedro Alvarez and gets quite fortunate to see it caught at the warning track. That’s the issue with Arroyo; he lives up in the zone, even with his curve, and gives up a lot of fly balls. But you give up enough, some of them become home runs. He’s not terrible at preventing them, necessarily — 31st-worst among qualified starters in home run rate — but he’s not good. He got away with it here, but he’s allowed six dingers in his last five starts.

Locke’s curve to lefties is dying a little too quickly at the moment, but the 2-2 fastball to Jay Bruce produces a pop out to short. And I’ll say this — for a guy who throws a ton of fastballs, he doesn’t get hit very hard, and you have to think location is a big part of that. He’s pinpoint right now with the four-seamer, and a great curve to Todd Frazier ends in a weak grounder. He gets Zack Cozart to swing and miss on what I think is his first changeup of the game, but loses him with his second walk. And yeah, I know the walks contradict my spiel about location, which I guess is another Locke mystery. A hanging curve is ripped down the line by Ryan Hanigan, but with the pitcher up next, the third base coach sends Cozart home, and he’s toast at the plate.

DOUBLE SHUTOUT!

Third Inning: This is neat — look at Arroyo’s walk percentage throughout his career. It’s a steady downward progression, just another reason why he’s still active and … competent at age 36. Jordy Mercer pops out, Locke strikes out, and then Marte rips a high curve to the gap and just motors for a triple. It seems sad to me that Russell Martin is Pittsburgh’s no. 2 hitter, but it works this time; a grounder takes a deflection off Arroyo’s glove, Martin reaches, Marte scores. Shutout over — always a tough moment.

In the Reds’ half of the inning, Locke follows K’ing Arroyo by mixing four-seamers and sinkers to Derrick Robinson to keep him out of sorts. Lock is living on the inside corner, but as it ends up in the third walk of the night, he’s also living on the edge. But … he gets back on safe ground by picking off Robinson. Damn those sneaky lefties! Speaking of that, here’s a weird stat — Locke’s splits against righties are actually better than against lefties; the northpaws (?) are hitting .191 compared to .224 for lefties. The trend continues as Shin Soo-Choo grounds out to second on a four-seamer.

Fourth Inning: I guess what amazes me most about Arroyo is that he can throw high, looping curve after high, looping curve, and somehow he doesn’t give up 15 runs per game. Garrett Jones rips a single on his third straight bender, but Arroyo fights back from 2-0 on Neil Walker to get another flyout. A great 0-1 sinker to Travis Snider yields a grounder to second, but with Mercer on the ropes at 0-2, he keeps the curve well outside the zone, knowing that Locke is up next. “This is the biggest difference between the American and National League,” the announcer points out, and Locke predictably grounds out to the pitcher. The Ole Competent Workhorse is out of another jam.

It’s worth noting here that Cincinnati has the third-best run-producing offense in the NL. What Locke is doing, so far, is no joke. The Reds are also a half-game up on the Pirates in the Central, so there are those implications, too. Locke makes Phillips look absolutely silly with a gorgeous 3-1 sinking changeup — a pitch he should throw more often — before punching him out on a straight 92 mph fastball. Just before a Jay Bruce fly out, we get another great stat: With the bases empty, Locke’s opponent average is .223. With men on, it’s .162. With runners in scoring position? .102. I’m not necessarily backtracking on the whole luck issue, but after watching him pitch tonight and seeing stats like that, there’s evidence that he’s just really smart. With men on first and third, facing his first real jam, he makes Cozart chase a lovely diving curve, and then absolutely freezes him with another fastball on the inside corner.

Fifth Inning: Apparently there’s an ongoing beanball war between the Reds and Pirates, and everyone’s worried that Arroyo just stoked the fire by hitting Russell Martin on a 2-2 pitch that was clearly unintentional. Anyway, a 1-0 change to Andrew McCutchen produces a pop to left, and with men on first and second, a sick spinning pickoff move busts Martin, who was getting too bold. Not a veteran move, Russell!

I’m thinking that maybe Locke’s high walk rate is a sign of how careful he is with location. Because when he misses, he doesn’t miss by much. In fact, with a more permissive umpire, he’d have a few more strikeouts looking tonight. His changeup remains solid, fooling Ryan Hanigan into a groundout, and you have to wonder why he seems to be using it less as the year goes along. Another flaw — he overthrows the curve too often, sending it into the dirt, where it wouldn’t even tempt Vlad Guerrero on one of his eager days. A high 2-2 fastball gets Robinson to fly out, and Locke is through five innings with 80 pitches and three hits allowed.

STILL 1-0, PIRATES.

Sixth Inning: I didn’t have high expectations for this duel, but this is solid stuff. The announcers inform me that Arroyo didn’t become a big league pitcher until he was 27, but amazingly, has not missed a start since. He’s 130-120 in his career, and if those aren’t workhorse numbers, what are? Cozart makes a really terrible play, spearing a line drive and choosing to try to sell it as a catch rather than making an easy throw to first to get Alvarez. The umps rightly rule that it hit the ground, and then Snider rips a double. Second and third, one down, a walk to Mercer, and then Locke comes up with his .040 average. He grounds to short, and the run is cut down at home. That brings up Marte with two outs in the biggest at-bat of Arroyo’s night. A gorgeous sinking fastball brings him to 1-1, and you know what that means. The first high curve is fouled off, Marte barely ticks a sinker, and a lower curve becomes an inning-ending groundout to short. WORKHORSE!

Locke gets a boon from Martin, who makes a sick play to keep a tapped ball by Choo in fair territory for an easy out. Locke’s location against Votto is beautiful — all sinking fastballs, all in or away. It ends in a grounder to the mound, and the announcer says it best: “Locke has got the Reds twisted in knots.” Here’s how good he’s been — only five balls have left the infield. Phillips makes good contact on an inside fastball, but Alvarez makes a diving stop for the third out. Locke is still under 90 pitches. If you’re curious, he looks like the kind of guy who could play Romeo in a Shakespearean film adaptation. He’s got those curls going.

Seventh Inning: Arroyo has been using his change less and less, just like Locke, but he throws a beauty to Russell Martin before jamming in on a sinker to get a pop-up. McCutchen catches up with a hanging curve, but Jay Bruce robs what might have been a home run in right, and then Arroyo gets Jones on curve-change-sinker. That’s a mighty quick inning! He’s still in this thing!

Frazier seems to have Locke’s number, poking a curve into right field for his second straight hit. After Cozart flies out to right for the second out, Locke faces his own biggest batter of the night in Ryan Hanigan. This is his big chance to secure the duel win, and he starts with a perfect fastball on the inside corner for strike one. Then it’s a low, low curve, and all Hanigan can do is flail and fly out to left. That one almost dove too early, like the ones before, but it was just far enough to tempt. Brilliant.

Eighth Inning: Ahhhh, Arroyo’s done. Well played, Ole Competent Workhorse. Ball’s in your court, Locke.

Hey, Locke’s current ERA is 2.01, up to third-best in Major League Baseball. One out, and he’ll be in the ethereal one zone! This is so exciting.

BUT WAIT, WHAT? HE’S BEEN YANKED? NOOOOO!!!!!

THUS ENDS THE DUEL. LOCKE WINS. (Unfortunately for him, the Pirates do not. Jay Bruce’s game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth sends things to extra innings, where Brandon Phillips wins it for the Reds in the 13th.)

Marichal-Spahn Score

8.4. Falls just short of the current high-water mark, Cobb-Fister, but a great one nonetheless.

This Week’s Lesson

Glory belongs to youth, not the workhorse.

Filed Under: MLB, Pittsburgh Pirates, Shane Ryan

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Shane Ryan is a contributing writer for Grantland. His book about the young stars of the PGA Tour will be published by Random House in early 2015.

Archive @ ShaneRyanHere