Lincecum not only has a spiffy new haircut, but his body has changed as well. After dropping 30 pounds last winter, he's back up to 170 pounds via a new offseason strength training regimen.
Time will tell if the offseason conditioning has had any effect on his declining fastball velocity. The increased weight Lincecum carried in 2011 helped him bump his fastball up to 92.3 mmph from an average of 91.3 mph the season before. After shedding weight last winter, his fastball averaged only 90.4 mph in 2012.
Yet velocity is not the most significant factor for Lincecum. Even with the velocity drop last season, he still managed to induce hitters to swing and miss over 11 percent of the time, which is right in line with where he was during his two Cy Young campaigns. He has a deceptive delivery and good enough off-speed stuff to get strikeouts without needing to rely on top-of-the-line velocity.
The biggest problem facing Lincecum is not velocity, but command. When Lincecum got ahead in the count with a first pitch strike last season, opponents hit only .220/.270/.373 off of him. When he fell behind in the count, opponents blasted him, hitting .298/.428/.493. Despite throwing a full-season career low of 186 innings last year, Lincecum walked a career-high 90 batters.
The key for Lincecum in commanding the ball and throwing quality strikes within the zone to set up his disappearing changeup is in the delivery.
General manager Brian Sabean summed up the main issue with Lincecum last October. He told John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle:
This is more of a function of willing to accept the delivery he’s going to use to be a successful pitcher...A lot of it is the delivery. The better the delivery, the better the arm action, the better the ability to make quality pitches with pitch to pitch control.
Lincecum spoke about the improvements he's made to his delivery on Friday (via Andrew Baggarly, CSNBayArea.com):
Just trying to get my body into more of a explosive and dynamic motion, that I had before, where I was getting down the mound, following through over that front leg...I feel like mechanics were a big issue with it and I feel like my lack of strength led to that...Last year I didn't feel like I was landing on my front foot very well, and I felt like I wasn't even following through well. With that, the more stable my body is, the more I'll be able to uphold my mechanics...I feel like my lower half is below me now and I'm not trying to create too much with my upper half, which is not creating an out-of-whack motion. It's more just in sync and on time.
Will Carroll wrote an excellent article about Lincecum's mechanical issues last month. In that article, Carroll quoted Baltimore Orioles pitching coordinator Rick Peterson on some of the same issues Lincecum discussed on Friday, notably sync and timing. Carroll wrote:
According to Rick Peterson...the sync between landing with the front foot and having the ball in the 'high ready position' is imperative. "If there is one thing I can explain, it's that this is black or white, proper or improper," said Peterson, in an interview with Bleacher Report. "Even an amateur can see this once they know what to look for. The arm needs to be up at the time the front foot lands."
From watching Lincecum last season, it appeared that he had a hard time getting the ball in that high and ready position when his front foot landed. His late timing with his arm prevented him from driving the ball downhill, so he continually made mistakes up in the zone.
Hitters were certainly able to take advantage of Lincecum's mistakes last year. After hitting only .222/.302/.344 with 15 home runs off of him in 2011, they hit .257/.341/.426 with 23 home runs against him last year.
His regular season was a disappointment, but he managed to salvage his season by converting into a dominant reliever during the postseason to help propel the Giants to another championship.
That wasn't the first time that he overcame adversity to help the Giants win it all. In August of 2010, he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA. He bounced back to put up a 1.94 ERA in September to help the Giants win the NL West, and then he went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA in the postseason to carry the Giants to the World Series title.
Lincecum has bounced back from his struggles before, and he's going to bounce back again in 2013 as long as he can find a consistent delivery. Lincecum sounds confident that he's going to get back to being one of the game's elite pitchers (via Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com):
My perspective is, I want to be a starter and I want to get back to that elite status that I was at...Last year I had a lot of questions. I was trying to change a lot things at once. Getting my mind back to a stable point where I know what I'm doing and I know why I'm doing it, I feel like my confidence is back.
That's good news for the Giants, and bad news for the rest of the league.