The Video History of a Prospect Legend

Let’s take a trip back to 2006. All anyone could talk about was a hot new video-sharing website called YouTube. For the first time, baseball fans could access at will clips of players they couldn’t watch every day. Fans and scouts who had traveled to minor-league games and showcases could take short clips—often only a few seconds long—and post them on the Internet for a wide audience. People who had once settled for what scarce minor-league box scores they could scrap together (or, perhaps at best, receive as an e-mail from some guy with a Prospect Report) could now spend hours poring over grainy video taken from unstabilized handicams. It was truly a breakthrough.

Legends, tradition has it, are either oral or written. Both forms lend themselves to hyperbole, embellishment, and exaggeration. By way of contrast, visual proof, whether still or moving, is something of an evidentiary gold standard. That is to say, video evidence is presumptively true and impeachable only with very careful proof. So it was very difficult for those of us who were just for the first time seizing upon the Internet video revolution to watch prospect clips at odd hours of the evening to accept what we began seeing in 2006. But there it was—proof of something that appeared to the untrained eye to be legendary.

Early in 2006, clips began appearing of a short, sinewy pitcher with a funky rotation and a push-off that left him momentarily and all but impossibly off the ground. He pitched for the University of Washington and clips of his odd delivery soon began to be passed around. Some aspiring home Dede Allens slowed down the video to show just how unorthodox the wiry kid was.

After being selected 10th overall by the San Francisco Giants in the 2006 draft, Tim Lincecum’s YouTube profile increased drastically. By the offseason, after compiling a 48/12 K/BB ratio in 27 ⅔ innings in his pro debut, Lincecum was an Internet video sensation. By the time he was called up in May of 2007, Giants fans weren’t the only ones eagerly anticipating the day.

Throw Hard Or Go Home

Part of what made Lincecum’s delivery so sensational was the velocity it allowed him to generate from his relatively slight frame. Upon his arrival in the big leagues, Lincecum’s velocity (no doubt aided by some hot guns and eager broadcasters) was clocked at 99 mph. He gave the impression that he threw upper 90s heat all the time, snapping off blazing heat with every pitch. It was a great way to set expectations high, especially because it apparently confirmed what everyone had already been told.

But hard-throwing righties are not especially remarkable commodities, and ones who are short of stature are typically considered oddities. What made Lincecum worth getting excited about was his complete dominance at every level of baseball. That, of course, did not come just from the gun reading on his fastball. For one thing, his delivery allows him to deliver the ball in an exaggerated, over-the-top fashion that hides the ball until the very last second—an effect reinforced by the push-off leg kick that causes him to leave terra firma with each toss. For another thing, Lincecum complemented the fastball with several off-speed offerings, most notably a yakker of a curve ball.

But since his debut, evidence suggests the velocity on Lincecum’s fastball has been declining gradually. Some commentators have begun to take notice. What could possibly explain this phenomenon (“Dance Hall Days”?), and why hasn’t it affected Lincecum’s performance?

In New-Wave Magazines

Using available Pitch F/X data from 2007-09, I gathered data on all of Lincecum’s pitches thrown at home. (Big thanks to Jeff Zimmerman for data assistance.) Two important explanations apply here. First, the data from 2007, and to a lesser degree 2008, is not complete. In other words, not every single pitch was accurately recorded by the Pitch F/X cameras. However, the sampling of pitches is more or less random and therefore ought not to affect the analysis. Second, I have chosen only to use data from home because of concerns about park effects, which do not bias batted ball data exclusively.

That being said, there were a total of 583 such pitches from 2007, 1,751 from 2008, and 1,855 from 2009. Of those, I classified 374 fastballs in 2007, 1,152 fastballs in 2008, and 1,013 fastballs in 2009 (I am using my own pitch classifications due to issues with Gameday’s classification algorithms, which continue to be improved). What is patent from that data is that Lincecum’s average fastball velocity did decline from 2008 to 2009. In 2007, Lincecum’s average fastball velocity at home was 92.9 mph. In 2008, it was 93.3 mph. Last year, it dropped to 92.1 mph. However, we’re dealing with a large number of pitches and these readings are certainly capable of fluctuation.

What if, instead of average speed, we looked at percentage of fastballs that exceeded a certain velocity. That is exactly what this chart does:

The effect is most dramatic if you focus on the percentage of fastballs that were faster than 94 and 95 mph. Whereas in 2007 and 2008, approximately 30 percent of Lincecum’s fastballs were faster than 94 mph, last year only about 10 percent were. Additionally, the 96-plus mph fastball effectively disappeared from his arsenal last year, as he threw just one in the sample I am using. This, it would seem, would not bode particularly well for the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s future.

It’s Not How Many It’s How

Of course, no mistake of analysis is worse than looking at only one category in isolation. To understand the effectiveness of Lincecum’s fastball, we must also look at its other characteristics, particularly since we know he throws predominantly two-seam, rather than four-seam, fastballs (something he has been doing since his debut). Although Lincecum may occasionally throw four-seamers as well, I have grouped all fastballs together for the purpose of the analysis, for reasons that should become clear below.

Looking merely at horizontal movement (in Pitch F/X jargon, that is the distance in inches the final location of the ball differs from a hypothetical straight-line path), his fastball last year had more movement than it did in the past. The average (really average of the absolute values) horizontal movement on his fastballs was 3.6 inches. In 2007, the same mark was 2.2 inches, and in 2008 it was 1.9 inches. But would it really be wise to trade a tick or two off the fastball in exchange for a measly inch and a half of break?

Well, it’s actually even more interesting than that. Because not only has the average break on Lincecum’s fastball increased over the past two years, the amount of variance from pitch to pitch in the break has been increasing steadily from 2007 through 2009. To calculate this fluctuation from pitch to pitch in the tail on Lincecum’s fastballs, I calculated the standard deviation of the horizontal movements for all the home field fastballs. Here are the results:

2007: 1.8
2008: 2.2
2009: 2.6

The steady increase in the standard deviation suggests Lincecum’s fastball is moving more and is also less predictable for batters. It is likely a safe assumption that unexpected movement is harder for a batter to pick up than expected movement, and the wider range of horizontal movement on Lincecum’s fastball would likely be unexpected even to a batter who had faced him in years past.

There is undoubtedly an optimal point in the tradeoff between velocity and movement, and one variable in calculating that optimal point may well be how long it is possible to maintain. Though Lincecum’s unique delivery effectively put him beyond the realm of even the top mechanics experts, it may well be the case that the lower-velo, higher-movement Lincecum fastball is a recipe for longevity.

Question of the Day

Is there any reason to believe that Lincecum’s declining velocity is a cause for concern? Have you noticed the increased movement on Lincecum’s fastball?

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
I remember Barry Bonds commenting when Lincecum first came up that his fastball was pretty straight. It looks like Lincecum has made some adjustments since then. I haven't looked at the pitch/fx numbers, but it seems like aside from extra movement on his fastball, Lincecum is throwing a lot more changeups than he used to.
I saw his start against the Dodgers the other day and his radar gun reading was around 90... really bad velocity reading. Contrary to the number, the pitch actually look really fast and buried into the RHB like crazy.
You should not take the absolute value of the horizontal movement before averaging it. Otherwise, pitches at +3 and -3, two very different pitches, end up contributing equally to the average.

Same for the standard deviation.

Also, does the SD of the speed vary year-to-year, as well?

And finally, is there a correlation on a per-pitch basis of speed and horizontal movement?
Oh, where are my manners? I liked the piece quite a bit. Thanks.
I did not take the absolute value before calculating the standard deviations. The averages without taking absolute values are:

2007: -2.0
2008: -0.8
2009: -3.4

The standard deviations for the speeds are:

2007: 1.9
2008: 1.6
2009: 1.5

So in fact the standard deviation on the speed has been declining. I will check on the correlation.
There is basically no correlation between speed and horizontal movement on a per-pitch basis, which is pretty interesting I think. I must admit I'm not sure exactly what that means.
interesting; my gut reaction would have been to assume that a slower speed results in greater horizontal movement (or perhaps I'm confused and thinking about vertical movement); do you have any data on that and whether that has changed at all?
I am surprised. So the conventional wisdom that a pitcher takes a few mile off for movement doesn't hold water...?
Well, it may be true for other pitchers, or for pitchers in the aggregate, but it doesn't seem to be true of Lincecum's fastballs.
Tim Lincecum's fastball has clearly lost velocity. But I don't believe saying that it lacked movement when he first came up is validated by PITCH/fx. That's not to say he doesn't have even more movement now.

Although Giants' announcer Mike Krukow maintained that Tim didn't develop his change up until after the 2007 season, he actually struck out three batters with the pitch in his first 2007 start with Fresno. By the end of the 2007 season, Tim's change was already his most effective pitch.

Tim's change up was the most effective pitch in baseball last season according to Fan Graphs. In 2008 his fastball was graded by Fan Graphs as his best pitch (with his change up being very close on a per-pitch basis).

This year despite Tim's giving up a booming home run to Brian McCann when the Giants threw four straight fastballs to the wrong hitter, his fastball has been rated a +3.4, as has his change up. On a per-pitch basis, his change up is easily ahead, but it is surprising how effective his fastball has been given his continuing dropoff in velocity.

I think the primary reason Tim's fastball has gotten him better results this season is that he seems to be able to throw it for strikes more consistently. Even though nearly half of Tim's 2010 pitches have been off-speed, he has the best strike percentage of his career, by about 4%.

More than ever, Tim seems to be confident throwing any of his four pitches in any situation.

In addition to more change ups, he is endeavoring to throw more sliders and curve balls this season. Coming out of college, Tim's curve ball was his best pitch. He didn't use a slider until 2008, but it too has been effective. In fact, what the Giants' announcers sometimes call Tim's change up has actually been his slider.

Any way you look at it, the guy just keeps getting harder to hit. To top it off, he has cut his walk rate significantly since he reached the majors.

Tim is as hard as any starter to hit, and because most of the hits he yields aren't hit very hard, he is the best in the business at limiting opposing hitters' power.
Interesting finding about the SD of the movement (pitchfx) on Lincecum's fastball increasing. While I agree with your reasoning that greater variance in the horizontal movement might make Lincecum a more effective pitcher, I am not sure that having more horizontal movement equates to a better fastball. I'll try my best to get my point across. I don't think hitters are conditioned to hit fastballs with no spin. Rather, they naturally factor in some expected movement and that baseline may not be 0. This is to say nothing of the difference between late life and overall movement (how much does movement translate to late life?). Is there research that suggests higher values of movement means better pitches (lower expected run values)?
As Mark Reynolds said to his strikeout numbers - so what? Maddux topped at 93 during his peak. That worked out ok. Sorry to say but the position is Pitcher, not Thrower.
I have been a fan of Timmy's for yrs. He was a stud in college and only the genius "scouts" claimed he couldn't hold up in the majors with that motion. Clearly they were wrong. This guy has a higher ceiling than just about any pitcher in the majors in the last decade.
I watched his start against the Astros a few weeks ago. Yes I know, it's just the Astros, but still. The thing that struck me most about him in that start is that there were at least 2-3 hitters where he got behind 3-0 or 3-1 and threw a devastating change up for a strike. This pitch has made his fastball still appear as hard as ever. Mixing that change up in more and more I guarantee has made his fastball still appear to be just as fast through the zone.
Everyone knows all pitchers are walking dl cases, but Linc's, like, with his workload in college, ready to crack, what with his known incurable malady -RAS.

Only treatment - CONSTANT pitching. Bad enough in college but with the MLB rotation stich, relief pitchers, and this general sharing the load idea, pretty hopeless.

Maybe if MLB made Linc the resident pitcher, pitched all the games both sides, extended to 20 innings, and hey, a jet plane can survive losing 2 of its 3 engines, so a few holes in the fusalage on flights between games.....

Still, thereotically Linc would be unable to hit 110 mph in 120 years, but, hey, Rocket Arm Syndrome is incurable.