What We Learned from Tim Lincecum's 2014 Giants Debut

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What We Learned from Tim Lincecum's 2014 Giants Debut
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It's time for everyone's favorite game show: Is Tim Lincecum His Old Self Yet Or, At Least, Something Reasonably Close to His Old Self?

One start into the San Francisco Giants former ace's 2014 season, and the answer is the same that it's been for a while now. Something along the lines of: Eh...Sort of.

That's probably evident enough just from Lincecum's line score from Thursday afternoon. Though Lincecum struck out seven in six innings against the Arizona Diamondbacks, he also gave up four earned runs on eight hits. Two of those hits left the ballpark.

That's the sort of result that has become the norm for Lincecum as he's compiled a 4.76 ERA since the start of 2012. To this extent, the Tim Lincecum on the mound at Chase Field on Thursday was the same Tim Lincecum the Giants presumably were hoping not to see in 2014.

But you know as well as I do that this is one of those situations that warrants a closer look. And upon that closer look, it's not all bad. The result says we saw the 2012-2013 Lincecum, but in reality we saw something new.

Just as they said we would in 2014. John Schlegel of MLB.com wrote an article teasing Lincecum as a more studious pitcher. Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote an article that teased a less arrogant pitcher.

One key part of Passan's article was this bit:

...Lincecum realizes he must throw more strikes. He's never going to be Greg Maddux, a corner-painting artiste. He can be a different version of himself, though, Tim Lincecum 2.0, The Freak reborn as the pitcher.

'The mindset is something I come to a lot,' he says. 'I've spun out of control so many times in the last couple years. It's more been a mental thing than a physical thing. I tried to get to a place where I'm happy again. It's not just beating myself up over the critical things in the game. It's accepting the process by which things happen, the way things go.'

"Throw more strikes" is a good goal for pitchers to have. And with Lincecum, it was a necessary one. Between 2008 and 2010, he threw 64.1 percent strikes. But in the last three years, just 62.0 percent.

Behold the good news: It was mission accomplished in Lincecum's first start.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The 2008 and 2009 National League Cy Young winner didn't walk anybody in his six innings on Thursday. That's not surprising given that he threw 71 of 98 pitches for strikes, a Cliff Lee-like 72.4 percent.

Grant Brisbee over at SB Nation's McCovey Chronicles did some digging and found that Lincecum's last game with 70 percent strikes came in May 2012. It's been almost two years since he had such a game.

If you want more encouragement, you can find it in the fact that there can tend to be a strong correlation between strike rate and ERA. Per Baseball-Reference.com the highest ERA among the top 25 strike-throwers in MLB in 2013 belonged to Bronson Arroyo at 3.79.

This is a pretty major positive of Lincecum's first start. And no, it wasn't the only one.

One thing that hasn't been a problem these last couple years is Lincecum's offspeed stuff. Outside of a slider that he hung to Mark Trumbo for a two-run homer, it wasn't on Thursday either. Per Brooks Baseball, Lincecum's 58 offspeed pitches resulted in seven of his eight whiffs. Nine of 12 that were put in play went for outs.

Them's the numbers. If you watch the highlights at MLB.com (they're not letting me embed them), you'll see the visual testimony. Lincecum threw some good sliders and curveballs, and his split-change was characteristically devastating.

In all, Lincecum's offspeed stuff accounted for all seven of his strikeouts, six of which were the swinging variety. 

But now comes the inevitable "But..."

You probably know what's first up: a check on Lincecum's velocity.

If we use Brooks Baseball to make a quick comparison of Lincecum's debut velocity to his 2013 velocity, what we see is this:

A Check on Tim Lincecum's Velocity
Pitch Type 2013 Velo 2014 Velo
Four-Seam 90.9 90.8
Sinker 90.7 89.7
Slider 82.5 82.2
Curve 76.2 76.5
Split 84.1 83.4

Brooks Baseball

Basically: pretty much the same as it was in 2013. Just in case anybody was holding out hope, it still doesn't look like Lincecum's old 95-and-up is walking through that door.

Now, a pitcher can get by at 89-90. He just has to be able to locate, and said location needs to be more advanced than simply "in the strike zone." In the strike zone and down is preferable.

For what it's worth, Lincecum noted that's where he was on Thursday, telling Alex Pavlovic of the San Jose Mercury News“For the most part, I pitched down in the zone."

Since we have tools for this, let's check and see if Lincecum has a good memory:

Image courtesy of Brooks Baseball (with a h/t to Baseball Prospectus)

There are indeed a fair number of pitches at the bottom of the strike zone and just below the strike zone.

...But the majority of those were offspeed offerings. Go looking for four-seamers (black dots) and sinkers (gray dots), and you'll find most of them in the upper portion of the strike zone.

One of those was this four-seamer to Paul Goldschmidt in the first inning:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.
Here's a better look at where that pitch was at the moment Goldschmidt was fixing to give it a ride:

Image courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Well over 400 feet later, it landed.

There's no shame in giving up a bomb to Goldschmidt, what with him co-leading the National League in homers last year and all. And yes, he does have it out for Lincecum, coming into Thursday's contest with a 1.822 OPS and five home runs against him. Those numbers look even better now.

But Goldschmidt's hardly the only player in the bigs who could have walloped that pitch. You can get away with a fastball over the middle of the plate at the belt when you're throwing in the mid-to-upper 90s, but not when you're throwing in the low 90s or slower. That's where pitches like that go to die.

This is something you've heard before if you've read anything written about Lincecum in the last two years. So yeah, that it's something that can still be said is...well, not so good.

Here's where we come to the bottom line of what we can expect from Lincecum going forward.

For starters, the new strike-throwing habit that he teased on Thursday is worth being optimistic about. If nothing else, this should help cut down on his walks. For a guy with a 3.9 BB/9 over the last two seasons, that would mean a nifty decrease in baserunners. 

Combine that with how Lincecum's still-nasty offspeed stuff should help him keep his above-average strikeout habit, and you have two ingredients for a worthwhile pitcher.

But the hits are going to be there. Or at least, they'll be there as long as Lincecum isn't burying fastballs at the knees with any consistency. And given the kind of velocity he's working with, the hits against his fastballs are likely to be hard hits.

If I had to choose a number, I'd say this makes Lincecum a No. 4-type pitcher.

Which, hey, is actually fine. Partially because it's an upgrade, as his numbers over the last two seasons are those of a No. 5 pitcher. It's also partially because he is the fourth pitcher in the Giants' rotation.

Through one start, anyway, there's the reality of Tim Lincecum. He can't be what he was, but he has the goods to be what he is.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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