For those of us this year that drafted Tim Lincecum in the early rounds of our fantasy draft or used a nice chunk of our auction budget to pick him up, we are all probably asking ourselves the same question, “Will the real Tim Lincecum please stand up?”
Through 12 starts so far this season, Lincecum’s ERA (5.83) is almost double what his career ERA (2.98) was coming into this season. His number of walks issued are 45% higher this season (4.75/9 IP) versus his career number (3.32/9 IP). One of Lincecum’s BIGGEST problems in 2012 has been the BIG inning. In 8 of his first 12 starts, he has given up at least 3 ER’s in one inning. In 5 of those 8 starts, he has given up 4 ER’s in one inning. These BIG innings have accounted for 29 of the 43 ER’s he’s allowed this year. If we drill down a little further, we can see why this is happening. Coming into 2012, Lincecum’s career Batting Average Allowed (BAA) w/ Runners In Scoring Position (RISP) was .212; so far this season it is a whopping .329. Not only is he allowing more run-producing hits with RISP, but the percentage of these hits that have gone for extra bases has increased by a staggering 75%. Based on overall plate appearances with RISP, Lincecum’s career percentage of extra base hits allowed in this situation has been 5.6%. So far this year, extra base hits represent 9.8% of the hits allowed with RISP. As a result, runs are being scored in bunches during these big innings. Furthermore, he has been unable to “put out the fire” with the same strikeout prowess he’s had in previous years. From 2007-2011, Lincecum has struck out 30.7% of the hitters he has faced with RISP. This season that number is down to 17.8% which has allowed more runners to advance on balls in play and possibly score. So what gives?
Diminished velocity on his fastball has many people wondering if Lincecum is hiding an injury. After meeting with the team’s head trainer two weeks ago, Giant management declared that there was nothing physically wrong with him. As a matter of fact, his fastball averaged 91.8 mph during an outing on May 25th against the Miami Marlins, which was much closer to his velocity from last year, though his fastball had averaged 90.2 mph on the season. Having watched Lincecum during all 12 starts, I don’t think the slight loss in velocity is as important as his location of the fastball, which has gotten progressively better in his last few starts. The pitch that opposing hitters have been absolutely punishing is Lincecum’s changeup, which he has used to get the majority of his strikeouts in seasons past. So why has Lincecum’s best strikeout pitch become his most hittable one? I believe that there are two reasons why this is happening:
Most baseball people say that the changeup should have at least an 8-10 mph differential from the speed of the fastball to be effective. The closer these two pitches are in speeds, the less of a changeup it becomes. With Lincecum’s fastball averaging 90 mph this season, a changeup thrown at 85 mph has allowed opposing hitters to adjust to its speed in the middle of their swings. After recognizing the downward break in the pitch, hitters are keeping the upper half of their bodies, including their arms, back for a split second even though their legs have started to turn during the swing. This slight hesitation allows them to stay back on the changeup and come through the hitting zone at the right time making contact with the pitch on the fat part of the bat. It’s really only something that’s detectable in a slow motion replay of the swing but it’s an amazing thing to watch and only confirms that hitting a baseball is truly a work of art.
With hitters having made the adjustment to Lincecum’s changeup this year, it becomes even more important that he keep this pitch down so that it induces either a ground ball or strikeout from opposing hitters. Having watched all of Lincecum’s 12 starts so far this season, he has failed in keeping this pitch down and has caught way too much of the strike zone with it, causing it to get hit hard. Since it has been such a successful pitch for him in the past, he has continued to throw it up there only to have it smacked into the outfield on most occasions.
So, if this is all true, then why is my article titled, “Don’t give up on Lincecum just yet?” After watching his last two starts closely, I believe he has turned the corner. Here’s why:
During his next to last start at home against the D-Backs, Lincecum was “effectively wild.” He gave up just an earned run on 4 hits in 7 innings pitched, qualifying him for only the second quality start of the season. You might ask, “Well, what’s so wild about that?” Here’s the thing. He walked 5 batters and, get this, bounced 13 of his 26 changeups in the dirt, though he was only charged with one wild pitch. Buster Posey earned his keep defensively in that game! Anyway, it made me think about how poor his control was that night and how that shouldn’t surprise me given the increased number of walks he’s allowed this year. The next day I wondered if the reason why he only gave up 4 hits that night was because half of his changeups, his most hittable pitch, were in the dirt, making him “effectively wild.” By the way, one of those four hits was a go-ahead home run in the 6th by none other than Paul Goldschmidt on, you guessed it, a changeup.
Fast forward to his next start which came in San Diego this past Tuesday night. Lincecum has a 1-2-3 first inning, but then runs into trouble during the 2nd. He gives up a lead-off HR to Carlos Quentin, who has just been clobbering the ball since being activated off the DL 10 days ago. Chase Headley follows with a double on a high changeup. After a fly out to center, he issues a walk to Logan Forsythe, setting up runners on 1st & 2nd for the light-hitting Everth Cabrera. On a 3-1 fastball, Cabrera slaps a ground ball to center scoring Headley. Lincecum then gets a chance to get out of the inning after pitcher Anthony Bass’s attempt at a sacrifice bunt results in a force out at 3rd. Now with runners on 1st & 2nd and two outs, the batter is Cameron Maybin. After bouncing a 1st pitch fastball to Maybin, Lincecum gets a swing and a miss on a changeup! Lincecum & Posey must have thought, “There it is, that’s our strikeout pitch. Let’s try it again.” Maybin promptly hits the next changeup down the left field line for a 2-run double. I, along with other Lincecum owners, were all thinking the same thing, “Not again!” He managed to get out of the inning, leaving us to wonder will this Tim Lincecum ever regain the form of the Tim Lincecum we drafted. What would happen in the next 4 innings of this game gives me the confidence to say that the old Tim Lincecum is just around the corner.
Tim Lincecum’s grip on his changeup is similar to the way one would hold a splitter. Some people say it’s actually a splitter he’s throwing, which is just another off-speed pitch. Over the next 4 innings, Lincecum’s changeup or splitter was unhittable. The pitch was not crossing the middle of the strike zone. He was throwing it just below the knees with some real downward bite to it. All of a sudden it dawned on me, he was actually trying to throw this splitter during his last start by trying to bury it. That’s why he bounced 13 of his changeups in the dirt. He’s making the adjustment needed to keep this pitch from being so hittable. He would go on to record 8 strikeouts, including 7 on the splitter, in 4 innings. He actually had a total of 10 swings and misses on the pitch. He also started locating his fastball for strikes on each side of the plate and at the knees. Mixing all his pitches well, he even threw four 1st-pitch curveballs for strikes. It was vintage Lincecum. He retired 11 in a row at one point and ran the count to 0-2 on 8 out of 10 hitters as well. In his last inning, he did give up a double to Quentin on a 3-2 changeup and immediately ran a 3-0 count to the next hitter, Headley. I was starting to wonder if the momentum he had built up was about to go out the window. He promptly threw Headley 3 fastballs in a row to strike him out. He would get the last out on a ground ball to short. His last 4 innings was the best 4-inning stretch I’ve seen him pitch all year. Now you may say, “Well, that’s a pretty small sample to go on.” It may be, but for a pitcher who has been so dominant in his career up until this season, I think he’s done disappointing us, and, more importantly, done disappointing himself. If you have other owners in your league that are trying to “buy low” in a trade for Lincecum, my advice to you is, “Don’t give up on Lincecum just yet.”