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April 26, 2012
A Tale of Two Timmys
Tim Lincecum is in the midst of one of the worst stretches of his career, laboring through the first month of the season and entering Monday's outing in New York with an ERA in the double digits. Many pitchers struggle to coordinate their delivery out of the gate, and we have seen the Freak lose his mojo before, though there have been only two calendar months in Lincecum's career in which he pitched to an ERA above 5.00. He had very similar issues back in August 2010, with diminished velocity and a weakened delivery that threatened to derail the Giants' title hopes, but Lincecum rediscovered his mechanics down the stretch and simply dominated into the playoffs.
The first frame of Monday's outing was encouraging, and though his timing was off with the first few deliveries, Lincecum spent the rest of the inning mixing low-90s fastballs with an assortment of breaking balls and splitters that found Buster Posey's targets. Giants announcer Mike Krukow gushed about the right-hander's newfound ability to reach his full extension at release point, an element that had eluded Lincecum in previous outings. His splitter was rolling off the table, and the early strikeout of Daniel Murphy (top) summoned memories of Timmy's better days, such as when he was striking out fourteen Braves in the 2010 NLDS (bottom).
Lincecum's first pitch of the second inning was a well-timed fastball located for a strike up and away from Ike Davis, but the next three pitches were a progression of under-rotated pitches that drifted further away from the lefty, foreshadowing issues to come. Timmy regained his composure to strike out Davis, finishing him off with a pair of vicious 85-mph splitters, the last of which caught Ike looking for the backwards K. Lincecum continued to impress with his pitch command, though Buster Posey was establishing a pattern of squatting on the outside edge of the zone against left-handed batters. Lincecum did battle with his timing late in the second, allowing a walk to Ruben Tejada (who promptly stole second) and then watching Mike Baxter pull an outside breaking ball down the right-field line for a run-scoring double.
The scoreboard may not have shown it, but things began to unravel for Lincecum in the bottom of the third. Posey continued to set up camp outside the zone, a spot that was nigh impossible for Timmy to locate against right-handed batters and which resulted in a bevy of under-rotated fastballs versus lefties. The pitch command of the first couple innings evaporated, and Lincecum's momentum was inconsistent as he toyed with the timing of foot strike, disrupting the rotation of the shoulders, which rely on foot-strike timing to fire in sequence. The third-inning plate appearance by Lucas Duda was a prime example, with Lincecum over-rotating on an inside breaking ball that found dirt (picture on the left) before sailing an under-rotated fastball for ball four (picture on the right).
No more runners would cross home plate against Lincecum, but his struggles were apparent to everyone wearing orange-and-black, with numerous full counts and missed targets masquerading as a strikeout-heavy stat line. The levee was on the verge of breaking in the bottom of the fifth, when Timmy walked Duda again to load the bases with one out. At this point, Posey had all but abandoned setting up any target that was not on the outside edge to a lefty, and after four straight pitches on the outer half (three of which were fastballs), Lincecum caught too much plate on another heater that Davis ripped to the right of the second-base bag. Emmanuel Burriss showed great range before dishing the no-look flip to Brandon Crawford, who bare-handed the reception and tossed to first for the rally-killing double-play. Another 6-12 inches to the left, and Timmy would have been staring down the barrel of a 6-3 game with one out and runners on the corners.
Lincecum was a different pitcher in the fourth and fifth innings. His velocity was down in the 88-to-90-mph range, and yet his pitch selection became increasingly fastball-heavy, with the split nearly disappearing from his arsenal (Gameday classifies his split as a changeup). According to the fantastic resource at Brooks Baseball, Lincecum tossed 17 of his 21 splitters in the first three innings, and he went to either the 4-seam or the 2-seam fastball 56.7 percent of the time during those frames. The fastball percentage shot up to 78.0 percent over his final two innings, the splitters virtually disappeared, and his breaking ball rate went down from 17.9 percent early to 12.2 percent over the last six outs. The trend was completely backward, as most pitchers will lean on the heat early in the game before unveiling a growing diet of secondary pitches after the first time through the order. However, Posey trimmed the options once Lincecum lost the reins on his delivery.
Mechanics Report Card
Lincecum has been the poster boy for elite momentum throughout his career, breaking the 80 ceiling to establish an insanely deep release point, but inconsistencies plagued him on Monday to the point of weakening his greatest strengths. Even lacking his fifth gear, his momentum is far above average, but his own previously established baseline leaves him short of a perfect score. Never known for strong posture, Lincecum's considerable glove-side spine-tilt is a fixture of his delivery and an element that can further suffer as the right-hander becomes fatigued, acting to stunt his release distance and deter pitch command. His delivery is at its best when balance and posture are maximized, but dynamic balance was a weak link in Lincecum's delivery this week, with a head that trailed the center of mass throughout his performance against the Mets.
His depth of release point is greatly aided by a long stride that results from both the outstanding momentum and his technique of gliding the lead foot along the slope of the mound to delay the impact into foot strike. Lincecum has excellent hip-shoulder separation when everything is clicking, including a pronounced shoulder-load and a good delay of rotation, but the relative misfiring of hips and shoulders limited his torque in his most recent outing.
Monday's start was a step in the right direction, with glimpses of the dominant Tim Lincecum obscured by relentless battles with his mechanics. Lincecum has historically been a player who visibly wears down during a game, with balance and posture that gets worse as the game progresses, and the fatigue set in early against New York. He has a very complicated delivery that is high in kinetic energy and which requires precise coordination to execute. Lincecum needs to have outstanding functional strength and flexibility to preserve his mechanics with consistency for 100 repetitions every fifth day, and based on his most recent performance I have to make the same prognosis as in August 2010, that perhaps there is a conditioning solution at the core of his mechanical woes.