Sun, Aug 19, 2012
In a baseball season full of surprises — Mike Trout’s historic rookie season and R.A. Dickey’s knuckle ball, to name a few — the implosion of Giants’ ace Tim Lincecum is perhaps the most shocking.
From 2008 to 2011, only Cliff Lee had a FIP better than Lincecum’s mark of 2.81 (which happened to match his ERA). During those four seasons, no pitcher with at least 500 innings had a better strikeout rate than Tiny Tim’s 9.97. His contact rate (74.8 percent) was second-best and his swinging-strike rate (11.1 percent) was in the top four.
Lincecum dominated opposing hitters and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009 thanks to one of the nastiest pitches in the game: a low-80s change-up that disappeared at the last second, diving away from left-handed hitters.
According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, Lincecum’s change-up was the fifth-best pitch in baseball from 2008-2011. Only Cliff Lee’s fastball, Ervin Santana’s slider, Roy Halladay’s cutter and Cole Hamels’ change-up were better.
And now, less than a full year removed from one of the best four-year runs in recent memory, The Freak owns the seventh-worst ERA among qualified starters (5.45).
So what the heck happened?
Well, it’s pretty easy to look at Lincecum’s FanGraphs page and point out the numbers that don’t fit.
His walk rate is up — way up. After walking 3.35 batters per nine prior to this season, Lincecum has given a free pass at a rate of 4.17 per nine in 2012. And while he’s still striking out batters at an incredible rate (9.43 K/9 this season), the percentage of batters he punches out and walks (which is different from K/9 and BB/9) have both trended in the wrong direction — for the fourth straight season.
- 2009: 28.8 K%/7.5 BB%
- 2010: 25.8 K%/8.5 BB%
- 2011: 24.4 K%/9.6 BB%
- 2012: 23.4 K%/10.3 BB%
Likewise, Lincecum’s home runs allowed per nine before this season (0.58) has skyrocketed and is 0.96 this year, a career worst. Same goes for his HR/FB ratio of 12.0 percent.
But wait, it gets much worse.
Lincecum’s average fastball velocity, which topped out at 94.2 and 94.1 mph in 2007 and 2008, has dropped from 92.3 mph in 2011 to 90.4 mph this season — almost two full mph.
Well, after throwing his slider a career-high 15.6 percent of the time in 2011, he’s nearly matched that this year, offering the pitch at a rate of 14.7 percent. And it’s not even a good pitch to begin with — not this year at least.
Lincecum’s slider has a run value per 100 pitches of -1.89, eighth-worst in the majors. (And by the way, the average velocity on his slider has dropped 2.5 mph from last year, too.)
Even Lincecum’s bread and butter, his change-up, has been useless this season. After it’s four-year run as the fifth-best pitch in the majors, it’s run value per 100 pitches this season is -1.03, which ranks 60th among all other change-ups in the bigs.
So, to sum up: Lincecum — who just turned 28-years-old and is three years removed from consecutive Cy Young awards — is now striking out batters less and walking them more, allows more home runs than before AND his velocity is down. AND his best pitch is getting tattooed routinely.
Adam Foster evaluated Lincecum in April, and offered many interesting (frightening) thoughts. The tell-tale quote from that article:
“The biggest difference between 2012 Lincecum and Cy Young Lincecum is that Cy Lincecum could get you out with four pitches, while 2012 Lincecum may only be able to get you out with one.”
Basically, Lincecum’s velocity has been zapped so he can’t blow fastballs past hitters anymore. He isn’t utilizing his curve as much as he used to, which (according to Foster) may be the key to Lincecum rediscovering his success.
There are some positive signs we can point to, however.
Lincecum’s contact and swinging-strike rates, for example, which had been among the best in baseball since 2008, have been even better this season. In fact, his contact rate (74.1) is second-best in the majors, while his swinging-strike rate (12.1) is tied for second-best.
So, he’s missing bats quite often. But when he doesn’t, it seems, he gets pummeled.
Lincecum’s .326 BABIP and 65.1 left-on-base rate seem to hint at bad luck, but his career-worst 25.7 line-drive rate suggests batters are simply squaring him up. FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron weighed Lincecum’s bad luck vs. bad pitches in June, it’s definitely worth the read.
And then there’s Lincecum’s FIP, the stat saber-slanted minds most love to use when evaluating pitchers because it eliminates all the variables that a pitcher cannot control (such as defense behind him, the opposing base runners, the umpires, the stadium and good luck dragons), and measures his performance based on what he can control (strikeouts, walks, home runs and hit-by-pitches).
After posting the second-best FIP in the majors (2.81) between 2008 and 2011, Lincecum’s 2012 FIP is 3.84. While it’s a full run worse than his mark over the previous four seasons, it’s still respectable and certainly isn’t indicative of the beating Lincecum has taken this season.
Lincecum’s 3.84 FIP is actually better than that of Matt Harrison (3.24 ERA, 3.85 FIP), C.J. Wilson (3.32 ERA, 3.87 FIP) and Mat Latos (3.63 ERA, 4.12 FIP). The difference between Lincecum’s ERA and FIP, in fact, is a whopping 1.61 runs, by far the largest margin among qualified starters and suggests Lincecum has been a victim of variables he cannot control.
Again, I refer you to Cameron’s article to balance the bad luck vs. bad pitches theory.
In all reality, Lincecum’s disastrous 2012 season has likely been the result of bad luck and bad pitches, resulting in an unsightly 5.45 ERA that makes even Randy Wolf slightly jealous.
There is some reason for hope, however. Lincecum has been better since the All-Star break, posting a 3.13 walk rate. He’s notched a quality start in five of his seven outings since the break, which matches his total quality starts in his previous 18 outings to begin the season.
The velocity, however, simply isn’t there. And it’s probably not coming back. According to Brook’s Baseball’s Pitch f/x tool, Lincecum’s four-seamer has averaged 91.12 mph this season. In his last seven starts, his four-seamer has averaged 90.36, 90.04, 90.59, 90.69, 90.16, 91.46 and 90.03 mph.
Bottom line is: Lincecum isn’t this bad. No pitcher is. (Well, maybe Chris Volstad.) Lincecum’s short-term value is anyone’s guess. He could provide some quality outings from here out, but he’ll probably turn in some clunkers, too.
His long-term value, however, is perhaps the lowest it’s ever been. Will he ever return to his Cy Young glory? Maybe, maybe not. But he’s much better than this. If you’re in a keeper or dynasty league, now is the time to buy-low on The Freak. Don’t expect a return to a sub-3.00 ERA and 10-plus strikeouts per nine, but if Lincecum can figure out how to pitch without his mid-90s heat, he might still have No. 3 fantasy starter potential looking forward.
Image courtesy of: Dirk Hansen via Flickr
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