During my chat with BP readers last week, there were a number of questions right out of the gate from panicking Tim Lincecum owners and, on the other side of the coin, owners wondering whether they should take advantage of their league’s panicking Lincecum owner.  I gave a brief response, but I wanted to go into more detail today for those who asked during the chat and for those who didn’t have a chance to stop by.
There seem to be two concerns with Lincecum right now: 1) his ERA is an absurd 12.91, and 2) his average fastball velocity is down 2 mph from 2011.  In regard to the former, Lincecum is posting phenomenal peripherals (he’s striking out nearly 12 batters per nine) and has an xFIP of 2.69, so that ERA will come down.  It’s been only two starts, after all.  The second concern is legitimate, though, especially since that sort of thing could cause his strikeouts to drop and his xFIP to rise (and, subsequently, his ERA to remain worse than preseason expectations).
Last April, shortly before joining Baseball Prospectus, I noticed that Colby Lewis had seen diminished velocity over his first few starts, and I studied (over at The Hardball Times) what this could mean for him.  Given that Lincecum is now in the same boat, much of this is still applicable.
Last year, I found that a pitcher’s velocity explains roughly 20 percent of the variation in his strikeout rate.  Right off the bat, this tells us that while velocity is important, it is certainly not the be-all-end-all of pitcher success.  This is especially true for a pitcher with the deep repertoire of Lincecum, who has plenty of ways to fool a batter.  Lincecum, in fact, throws his four-seamer just one-third of the time, complementing it with a two-seamer, change-up, slider, and curve.  Of course, part of what makes an off-speed pitch effective is the quality of the fastball the pitcher plays it off of, but despite losing velocity, Lincecum’s stuff is still excellent and should help lessen the blow to the heater.
That said, the Freak’s velocity drop-off may be more worrisome than Colby Lewis’ was.  While Lewis’ decline came out of nowhere and was easier to chalk up to a small sample size—thus making regression likely—Lincecum’s velocity was a problem for him last year as well.  As 2011 wore on, Lincecum’s velocity steadily declined from near 93 mph at the start of the year to less than 90 mph by his final start of the season.  As you can see in the chart below, that velocity hasn’t rebounded at all to start 2012:


Given that this was a preexisting problem that wasn’t corrected over the off-season, expecting the type of bounce back we expected for (and saw from) Lewis might not be prudent for Lincecum owners.
Of course, there are still sample-size issues to consider and the possibility that the radar guns in Arizona and Colorado (where Lincecum made his starts) were running cold (as amazing as PITCHf/x is, it’s not 100 percent perfect), but being that he’s already pitched in two separate parks and had the same issues last year, this seems legitimate.
All told, I wouldn’t be panicking if I were a Lincecum owner.  He’s run into a lot of bad luck to this point, and while the velocity drop-off is a bit worrisome, it’s not something that should be damning for him.  He has always been a good pitcher, he knows how to attack batters, and he has a lot of different weapons to do just that.  At this point, he may fall down my starting-pitcher rankings by a few slots, but he’s not a guy I’m looking to sell while I can still get something.  I expect him to be quite good going forward.  In fact, if you happen across an owner who is trying to dump him, I’d look into buying him if he comes for the price of a top-15 or top-20 pitcher instead of a top-10 guy.