September 7, 2010
Checking the Numbers
On the first day of September, Tim Lincecum dominated the Rockies, allowing just one run over eight innings. He walked one batter and tallied nine strikeouts. This was the prototypical Lincecum game in the previous two seasons and one that would produce more, “yeah, that looks about right” reactions than anything else. After all, Lincecum was a strikeout machine with impeccable control and a devastating fastball-curveball-changeup repertoire that kept hitters off-kilter. He won, and deserved, two straight National League Cy Young awards and was presumably not even at what would normally be considered a pitcher's peak. The 2010 season has been of a different variety for “The Freak,” however, and his great performance against the Rockies elicited a different reaction—a collective sigh of relief from the Giants’ faithful. See, at a very crucial juncture with the wild card within reach and the NL West seemingly up for grabs, Giants fans were more worried than confident that their ace would deliver the goods.
Why, you ask? Well, in August, Lincecum made five starts and never lasted more than six innings. His peripherals were relatively poor, and his general run prevention skills were on the fritz. Overall, Lincecum pitched in just 25
Yes, the Giants were in contention for much of last year, but as I explained at the time, their offense was so historically poor that it would have been the worst offense to ever qualify for the postseason. In other words, their record may have indicated there was a chance, but it was very, very slim. This season is another story, as the Giants are currently just one game behind the Padres for the NL West title, and two games behind the Phillies for the wild card. Because of their current status in the playoff picture, struggles by any of the Giants' major contributors are going to be all the more magnified. But is this the first time Lincecum has ever gone through a rough patch? He may be a dynamite pitcher, but if Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee can surrender runs over a stretch, Lincecum really should not be expected to be perfect every time out.
To find out, I computed his RA over every five-game stretch from 2007-09. Here are his worst spans:
What should immediately stick out is that all five of these spans occurred in 2007, when Lincecum was still getting his feet wet as a rookie. The 8.17 RA on display lately does raise a red flag in the sense that it is way worse than any five-game stretch since the 2008 season. Over the last two seasons, his worst spans consisted of 4.65, 4.15, and 4.09 RAs, which are in no way awful. Essentially, during his two Cy Young runs, at his worst he resembled a slightly above average pitcher. But, these results are not exactly concerning Giants fans. Instead, the cause for concern is the inputs leading to that output—his repertoire and pure stuff. Simply put, his fastball is slower this year than it was last year, which marks a more substantial downturn in velocity compared to the 2008 campaign.
People have noticed, too, as a Google search for a discussion of the matter generates a bevy of links of articles and posts wondering exactly what is happening to one of baseball’s best. Earlier in the year it didn’t matter much as Lincecum was still mowing batters down, keeping balls in play on the ground and while his walk rate had risen a bit, it was right in line with his 2008 mark. Add in that Lincecum himself openly admitted to his desire to use off-speed pitches more in an attempt to help preserve his arm for the long haul and there was no reason to panic. Lincecum had simply evolved into a different pitcher. Instead of throwing flames at hitters, he offered a slightly slower heater but with plenty of movement, which likely looked even faster to the hitters due to the added off-speed pitches. One of the tenets of perceived velocity is that showing the batters slower perceived pitches—which can be breaking balls, changeups, or simply fastballs located on the outside corner—can enhance the perceived velocity of other pitches, like inside heaters. He had become a different pitcher with similar results.
But when the results started to move south over the last few weeks, and Lincecum went so far as to alter his windup—which was reportedly unalterable all throughout his high school, college, and minor-league days—everyone took notice. As one scout told me, “That's usually the sign of a guy who doesn't have an answer to his problems and is just searching for something, especially in this case where his mechanics are so different than the norm.” With regards to the decline in Lincecum’s “stuff,” another scout had this to offer: “His stuff doesn't look the same as the past two seasons. Hitters seem more comfortable in the box against him and are taking better swings. He's also not throwing as hard and his off-speed stuff lacks bite and movement.” The decrease in velocity has already been established, but are his off-speed pitches really being delivered with less bite?
The table below shows Lincecum’s PITCHf/x information over the last three seasons:
I grouped the table by pitch and year so it is easier to examine the trends. First off, it should be noted that Lincecum’s fastball is very confusing. As Josh Kalk pointed out a couple of years ago, he actually throws a two-seam fastball, even if the pitch boasts movement and velocity characteristics inherent in four-seamers. The PITCHf/x algorithm recently began classifying two-seamers as separate pitches, categorizing approximately 12 percent of Lincecum’s pitches this season as such, but since we have photographic evidence that he has thrown a two-seamer all along, I am going to lump what the system classifies as a fastball together. With that in mind, his usage of the pitch has dropped off from the 2008 season, but he is throwing it at a rate similar to last year’s. The velocity is down, sure, but a dropoff of one mph isn’t deadly, and we don’t truly know yet the magnitude of such a drop from a value or production standpoint. The real issue with the heater is the movement. Not only is Lincecum throwing the pitch slower, the numbers here confirm the scout’s take that his pitches lack bite.
His off-speed pitches, however, are not showing any signs of a substantial drop. His slider, though thrown less often, is showing more movement. The curve is showing less vertical movement, meaning it is dropping less, but that isn’t likely to be enough to make a severe difference. The changeup could be perceived to be less effective due to the compounding effect of a half-inch drop in both movement components, but again, these changes are not as substantial as the drop in horizontal movement for the fastball. What seems to be happening is that the off-speed pitches are ever so slightly less effective, while the fastball is no longer as intimidating. This could lead to hitters becoming more comfortable in the box, especially if their confidence goes through the roof when they see an ace changing his mechanics to help solve a perceived problem.
What happens now? Well, it seems clear that the Lincecum we saw in 2008 and 2009 isn’t around right now. That isn’t to say that the current version is ineffective, because he is still fantastic, but rather that if the velocity and movement are wont to return, he will need to continue his development as a pitcher. The best attribute of Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez was their pitching intellect, their ability to adjust to whatever they had left in the tank and make it work. In only his third full season, Lincecum doesn’t need to adjust to being a pure balls-in-play pitcher relying on guile, but he also can’t throw his new fastball thinking it is just like the old one. It will be interesting to see how he finishes the season, as very strong performances from here on out could help alleviate all of this concern and show that he has adapted to a new form of his repertoire. Either way, it is very intriguing to watch a young pitcher develop at the major-league level. Pitchers, by nature, are fickle. That Lincecum had a poor five-game stretch is not all that interesting when taken alone. That his inputs could have been broken is a much more important question, and one that this data can only begin to answer.