A few years ago, DC killed Batman. I mean, they didn’t really kill him; they shot him with a time-bullet or something and sent him hurtling back in spacetime so that he’d face to fight his way back to the present wearing a ridiculous pilgrim costume or whatever. The end result, though, was that Bruce Wayne was “dead” in the DC Universe for maybe a year or so and so in his absence Dick Grayson was forced to don the cowl. This sounds ham-fisted and ridiculous and it was, but anyone that’s spent any amount of time reading comic books (and in particular, superhero comic books published by The Big Two) can tell you that sometimes ham-fisted and ridiculous set-ups produce really interesting results.
And this is how maybe the two most interesting Batman comic books to come out in the last five years or so are both about Dick Grayson as Batman and not Bruce Wayne. In Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin, Grayson dons the cowl and takes Bruce’s son (which is its own thing that we won’t get into here if you are unfamiliar with the concept of Bruce Wayne having a child, because, again, comic books) , Damian, in as his sidekick. Having a somewhat light-hearted Batman (being a little more carefree and a little less dark and mopey than Bruce has always been Dick Grayson’s thing) and a dark, brooding, brutal Robin (Damian is his father’s son, obviously) flips the dynamic of the duo and that creates interesting questions about the “Batman and Robin” tropes that we’ve all come to accept.
As Morrison’s run on Batman and Robin was wrapping up, Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francisco Francavilla took over Detective Comics and began an 11-issue arc called The Black Mirror, which was all about the relationship of Batman with Gotham City and how that relationship changed when Batman changed. If Joker, Riddler, Penguin, etc., are all twisted reflections of Bruce Wayne, what happens when Bruce isn’t there anymore? And how does someone other than the grim, brutal Bruce Wayne handle what the city throws back at him? On top of it all, that run gave us one of the greatest comic book covers in recent memory.
Both arcs asked the same sorts of questions of Dick Grayson and of Batman: Is Batman something that’s unique to Bruce Wayne? How does someone else handle being Batman? Specifically, how does Batman’s long-time protege handle being Batman without him around? Does being Batman change you? Is it a good change? It was an interesting way to turn the Batman mythos just slightly enough to tell different stories than the typical Bruce Wayne story that’s been told ad nauseum for the last 40 or so years, and that made for a much more compelling Batman than DC is usually capable of giving us. The same thing held true when (uh, spoiler alert for Captain America 3, probably) Steve Rogers got shot by a
sniper magic time bullet (huh, funny how that works: for the sake of it, this happened in Captain America first) and his troubled sidekick took the shield and had to deal with being Captain America despite having A Troubled Past. BuckyCap has always been much more interesting to me than Steve Rogers as Cap for all of the same reasons that Dick Grayson as Batman was. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to accept that characters get stale after decades and changing things up a bit is a good thing.
This is all a long intro into today’s AJ Burnett/Jeff Locke pitching matchup, as Burnett and Locke had a well-publicized Batman and Robin thing going on in Pittsburgh last year. I don’t ever want to downplay the importance of the role that Burnett had with the young pitchers in Pittsburgh in 2012 and 2013: Burnett has seen and been through a lot of things in his career, and it’s obvious that he embraced the teacher role with guys like Locke and Cole. It also seemed obvious to me that he wore out his welcome in Pittsburgh by the end, and as much as the Pirates could have used him this year, I’m still not 100% convinced that the team really wanted him back (Please note: The Pirates needed to sign pitching this winter and could/should have spent more money than they did, but we Pirate fans have this habit of acting like Burnett was the be-all-end-all on that front and he was not coughScottKazmircoughcough).
A funny thing has happened with Jeff Locke this year without Burnett around: he’s been a much better pitcher. Locke’s one big stumbling block at almost all points in his career has been his control. He was struggling quite a bit with walks when he was traded to the Pirates and even though he got his walk rate under control with the Pirates in the upper minors, you can see that his BB% was still a bit on the high side (MLB average tends to be ~8%). It was that control that got him into trouble in his early stints with the Pirates in 2011 and it was the control that really got him into trouble in the second half last year. This year, though? Locke’s not walking anybody this year. He’s only issued five walks in 41 2/3 innings, going along at a 3.1% clip. There’s been a lot of talk about his changeup this year, but in some cursory glances at the PitchFX, it looks like the same pitch as last year to me. My guess is that his improved command has made him a little more fearless with his secondary stuff, and so we’re noticing it more.
Obviously we’re only a few starts into this iteration of Jeff Locke and we’ll have to wait and see if it sticks, but I’m honestly quite a bit more encouraged by this Jeff Locke than I was by All-Star Jeff Locke last year. Sometimes, though, there’s only so much for a mentor to teach you. Sometimes you’ve got to get out on your own to figure out what really works for you.
The Pirates have locked down the “11 wins in 16 games against awful teams” that I requested at the beginning of this run. I would still like to see them complete a sweep. I will continue to point out that 12 would be better than 11, even if 11 is pretty good. First pitch today is at 1:35.