In his first two full seasons as a major league baseball player, Tim Lincecum won two Cy Young Awards for the San Francisco Giants. The 5'11", 175-pound righty dominated batters with two sub-2.65 ERA's and more than 260 strikeouts in each award-winning season.
How did such a little fella reach such prodigious heights at the beginning of his career? His funky motion, of course.
Taught to him by his father in his youth, Lincecum's delivery has long drawn the ire of traditionalists who believed he would ultimately fail because of the style he employed. When broken down on a technical level, though, what Lincecum does on the hill isn't that different from many other greats of years past.
Unfortunately, after four rather dominating seasons, Lincecum fell apart in his fifth full season, going 10-15, and posting a 5.18 ERA and 1.47 WHIP (all of those numbers are career lows).
Ultimately, Tim ended up working out of the Giants' bullpen during their run to the World Championship, a massive fall from grace for The Freak. Has The Little Engine That Could finally run out of steam, or was his '12 effort an aberration that can be looked past moving forward?
Off the top: let's be clear. Far too much is made about velocity in this day and age.
The art of pitching isn't about throwing 95 mph, or Edinson Volquez would vie for the Cy Young Award every season.
Pitching is about confusing a batter, ultimately, by messing up his timing. Working up and down, in and out of the strike zone, and mixing in pitches of different speeds and movements leads to success on the hill, not simply pumping high-octane cheese at batters. Jered Weaver's average fastball last season was 87.8 mph, the tenth-lowest in baseball among hurlers who tossed 162 innings. All he did last year was win 20 games with a 2.81 ERA.
Still, when a pitcher loses four mph off his fastball, there should certainly be some concern. This is the case with Lincecum. As a rookie in 2007, his average heater was 94.2 mph. In 2012 that number was 90.4 mph. As noted, that is still hard enough for Lincecum to be a dominating arm on the hill, but he has had to alter how he pitches.
Lincecum threw his fastball 66.9 percent of the time in his first season. Each subsequent year of his career he's thrown fewer fastballs, to the point that he threw his heater only 52.1 percent of the time in 2012. He's also thrown his curveball less as the years have started to pile up. He now relies on his slider about 17 percent of the time and his changeup 20 percent of the time. He's learned to work with “less” and still get batters out, at least until last season.
WHAT HAPPENED IN 2012?
Lincecum just completed the worst season of his career.
He lost velocity on his heater. He lost more games than ever before. He won fewer games than in any of his other full seasons. He was limited to 186 innings, the first time he failed to reach 210 innings since his abbreviated 2007 effort as a rookie. He also saw his ERA go up nearly two full runs from his career mark of 3.31 to 5.18.
As noted above, people will harp on the lack of oomph on his fastball as the main reason Tim surely struggled last season, but his strikeout rate was still better than nine per nine innings.
Not only that, but the percentage of pitches that he threw out of the strike zone that batters swung at least season was 30.6 percent, slightly better than his 29.0-percent career mark. Moreover, the 74.1-percent contact rate produced by batters in '12 was less than a percentage point off his career rate (74.8) and his 11.3-percent swinging-strike percentage was actually slightly better than his career 11.0-percent mark.
So we're left with a guy who still struck out more than a batter per inning and one who in many major categories performed the same as usual.
So what explains the massive drop off in his production? Some thoughts:
1. Lincecum can still strike batters out, but the biggest issue he dealt with last year was his lack of control. Time and time again, Lincecum would dominate the opposition for two, three or four innings only to come unglued as his command deserted him (oddly, he would often bounce back in the next frame, but the damage was already done).
After four straight seasons with a BB/9 mark of 3.57 or less, that number inexplicably jumped to 4.35 in 2012. History and many other measurements suggest that if he were to get this number back down to “normal,” i.e. if he stopped issuing so many free passes, that his performance would stabilize.
2. Lincecum allowed an average of 13.5 homers a season from 2008-11. Last season he was taken deep 23 times, despite a five-year low in innings pitched. The result was a homer-per-nine-innings mark of 1.11, this after three of the previous four seasons of a mark under 0.65.
It's particularly odd to his see his HR/9 mark so elevated, given that he allowed a lower percentage of fly balls than ever before. His home runs-allowed mark should stabilize if he locates his pitches better, and that would go a long way towards bringing his ERA back under control.
3. Lincecum owns a 1.41 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio for his career. The mark has been at least 1.43 in each of his past four seasons, including a 1.51 mark last season. He performed per usual in this measure, despite what the ghastly ERA might suggest to you.
4. Batters have a career .228 average against Lincecum, and only one time prior to last season had they hit .230 in a campaign. Last year they batted .257 against him, the highest mark he has ever surrendered.
Part of the reason for that was an artificially exaggerated line drive rate of 23.8 percent. That mark was in the 19-percent range for each of the previous three seasons, and it too figures to regress in 2013, aiding a potential comeback effort.
(5) After four-straight seasons with a left-on-base percentage of at least 75 percent, the number dipped to 67.8 percent in '12. Using a rolling three-year average as a baseline, it's fair to posit that this number will also return to a more expected level in 2013.
Lincecum isn't without his faults, and the depths he fell to last season are certainly hugely concerning. Still, there is still plenty going on with that right arm of his that makes it seem like a rebound effort is in the cards for 2013.
He isn't likely to return to his former Cy Young levels, but there is simply no way to fathom that his ERA isn't coming down at least a full run in the coming campaign. If that doesn't happen, maybe he can embark on a career as a television star.
Note: The numerical data in this article comes from Fangraphs.