A couple years ago, the San Francisco Giants would have been more than willing to trot Tim Lincecum out to the mound to start a must-win game in the playoffs. He was their ace, after all.
After the season Lincecum just went through, however, there has to be more than a little doubt in Bruce Bochy's mind every time he puts the ball in Big-Tim Timmy Jim's hands. The fact that Lincecum has been limited to the bullpen this postseason says a lot about Bochy's trust in him.
But no longer. Bochy needed to pick a starter for Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, and he made it official after Wednesday's 3-1 loss that Lincecum will be his guy:
So after not starting any of the Giants' first eight games these playoffs, Lincecum will now start a game they absolutely have to have, lest they find themselves dealing with a 3-1 series deficit.
No pressure or anything, dude.
There's room for optimism for Giants fans, however. Lincecum pitched two hitless innings against the Cardinals in Game 1 of the series. Overall, he's made three appearances out of the 'pen in the postseason, and has racked up 8.1 innings while allowing only one earned run on three hits and a walk with nine strikeouts.
If Lincecum can pitch this well out of the bullpen, perhaps he can pitch the Giants to a victory in Game 4.
It just won't be very easy. Lincecum has most certainly found new life in the playoffs, but this Cardinals offense isn't a good matchup for him. The smart money is on them making Lincecum battle, rather than the other way around.
Many were quick to chalk Lincecum's struggles in the regular season up to his diminished velocity, and that definitely was a factor. Per FanGraphs, Lincecum went from averaging a little over 92 miles per hour with his fastball in 2011 to averaging a little over 90 with his fastball in 2012.
It's hard to throw a fastball like that by hitters, so it's no wonder that opponents went from hitting .226 off Lincecum's fastball to hitting .267.
But velocity wasn't Lincecum's only problem. He set a new career-high with a 4.35 BB/9, and that was largely a result of his inability to hit his spots with men on base. Opponents had a .319 average against Lincecum with the bases empty, and a .370 OBP when he had to pitch out of the stretch. Patience was generally rewarded against Lincecum.
This is partially what makes the Cardinals such a tough matchup for Lincecum. They led all of baseball with a team OBP of .338, and they further frustrated pitchers by not striking out. They posted a third-lowest K rate in the National League at 18.8 percent, according to FanGraphs, and a big reason why they were able to do that is because they were one of the best teams in the league at not swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. They were also adept at not swinging and missing, period.
The Cardinals showed off this tendency against Lincecum in Game 1, as he got only one swinging strike in his two innings of work. To put that in perspective, he was able to get four swinging strikes against the Cincinnati Reds—a much more free-swinging team—in the two innings he logged in Game 2 of the NLDS. He got eight swinging strikes in 4.1 innings against the Reds in Game 4.
Just as important is the way in which Lincecum got those swinging strikes. To illustrate the point, I'll have you head on over to MLB.com to check out the video highlights of Lincecum's Game 4 performance. Once you get there, go ahead and count how many third strikes he got on swings at pitches out of the strike zone.
Did you count five swings-and-misses on pitches out of the strike zone?
So did I, and those third strikes followed a certain pattern. They were either on fastballs above the belt or changeups below the knees. Once he got to two strikes, Lincecum was looking to beat Reds hitters high or low.
Lincecum's high-low approach worked just fine against the Reds, but the Cardinals are a horse of a different color. They're a more patient club, and to beat them Lincecum is going to have to try and emulate what Ryan Vogelsong did in Game 2 and Matt Cain did in Game 3.
Vogelsong shut down the Cardinals through seven innings in Game 2, and you can see by looking at his out distribution over at BrooksBaseball.net that he did it by beating the Cardinals within the strike zone. He only struck out four, and all but a handful of the outs he recorded came on pitches within the zone. He got a lot of outs by coming inside against the Cardinals' righty-heavy lineup, and he was able to do that because he was setting them up away consistently throughout the entire game.
Though he didn't have the same kind of success that Vogelsong did in Game 2, Cain was also looking to work both sides of the plate to set Cardinals hitters up for the pitches he wanted to throw once he was ahead in the count. Had he not hung a slider in the zone to Matt Carpenter in the third inning, we'd probably talking about Cain as a big winner right now.
Working both sides of the plate to set hitters up for pitches that he wants to throw inside the strike zone isn't really Lincecum's style. He'll be looking to get ahead of the count and then get Cardinals hitters to chase fastballs up or changeups down.
Lincecum's changeup, in particular, has become even more of a go-to out pitch than usual ever since the start of the postseason, as Mark Simon of ESPN.com discovered when he was pouring over the numbers from Lincecum's appearance in Game 4 of the NLDS. If he has his druthers, he'll get Cardinals hitters to swing over the top of it once he has two strikes on them.
If Cardinals hitters stick to their usual pattern, however, they're not going to oblige Lincecum by going fishing for his changeup down out of the zone. They'll patiently lay off of it and wait for Lincecum to challenge them within the strike zone. That's not Lincecum's forte, as he's at his best when he's expanding the zone and getting hitters to go along with his plan of attack.
If Cardinals hitters refuse to play Lincecum's game, things could go south in a hurry. The big inning was a huge problem for Lincecum during the regular season, and the Cardinals have both the patience and the power to put together a big inning if Lincecum proves incapable of making adjustments on the fly.
I'll say right here and now that I don't think there's going to be any in-between for Lincecum on Thursday. He's either going to have the Cardinals in his back pocket the entire game, or he's going to be done after four or five innings. Maybe even sooner. His best hope is that Carlos Beltran's knee injury will keep him out of the lineup and that the rest of Mike Matheny's starting nine will feel Beltran's absence.
If it's any consolation to you Giants fans out there, I will at least say that the Giants stand a better chance in Lincecum's hands than they would in Barry Zito's.
Of course, you already knew that, right?
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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