It’s time to let go of the Freak, and accept Tim Lincecum

Source: George Nikitin/AP
Source: George Nikitin/AP

I know what you’re thinking, didn’t he just throw 5 no hit innings the other day? Yes, but as I’ll show later, even something like leaving the game with a no-hitter intact can be deceiving. While the 5 no-hit innings is still somewhat impressive, the game ultimately highlighted Lincecum’s pitfalls, and showed us why he’s been so frustrating to watch.

As a diehard Giants fan, and someone who was in attendance for Lincecum’s first ever big league start (an appearance in which he routinely touched 100 mph) it pains me to say that there are few indicators that Lincecum can ever become the strikeout machine we once knew. Read more to see what the future looks like for Big Time Timmy Jim and don’t forget to follow me on twitter @TheOriginalBull.

I’ll start by addressing Lincecum’s most recent outing as I’m sure that’s the most confusing part of what I’ve said so far. How can a guy who didn’t allow a hit for 5 consecutive innings, and who as recently as July 13th completed a no-hitter be a bad pitcher? The first misconception here is that it takes a good pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Now I don’t want to make it seem like throwing a no-hitter is easy per se, but there are certain elements of luck to these things and even decent, and borderline bad pitchers run into some amazing moments. Take Phillip Humber, the author of a perfect game* in 2012, for example. If you’re a fan of traditional old school metrics, his career win-loss record is currently 16-23 (.410%) to go along with a 5.31 ERA. However if you’re a fan of the newer tools, his career ERA+ stands at 81, 19 points below MLB average, and owns an FIP of 4.60. No matter what stats you use to evaluate a pitcher, Humber is just flat out not good, yet belongs to one of baseball’s most exclusive fraternities. The point is, even mediocre pitchers get lucky and can have incredible stuff on a day where the team he’s facing is in the midst of a horrible slump.

Let’s get back to Lincecum. The first red flag about his last start was that it was against the Cubs, who currently rank 29th in MLB with a team batting average of .231. The second issue is that in 2014, the Cubs have played 24 games (47% of their season) in which they were held hitless for at least 5 innings; so the fact that Lincecum was able to do it in 5 consecutive innings isn’t all that impressive. These problems, along with the fact that he walked 4 and took 96 pitches to get through 5 innings, make his last start much less notable than the media outlets made it seem.

One start doesn’t really tell enough of a story however, so let’s move on to some bigger sample sizes. In 2014, Lincecum currently ranks 15th in the big leagues for K/9 rate, but among those pitchers ranks 14th in average fastball velocity (89.7 mph), and last for the highest 2014 fastball velocity (92.4 mph). What this suggests to me is that Lincecum is still trying to pitch for the strikeout. While he stated earlier this spring that his, mindset’s been to try and stay within the zone a lot more”, his zone% numbers show us that he hasn’t been able to do that.

Attacking zone

As you can see from the chart, except for a small bump in 2013, he’s generally gotten worse at throwing pitches in the zone, and has reached an all-time career low in 2014. This alone doesn’t make Lincecum a bad pitcher, but it adds to a worrying trend for the diminutive right-hander. While he stated that he “feel[s] like I’m making that evolution a little bit more, I’m buying into it, which is the biggest part — the mental agreeing thing”; again, the evidence shows otherwise. Take a look at his 2013, and 2014 heatmaps for where he throws his pitches.

As you can see, there’s no notable improvement between these heatmaps, and in some cases actually

Source: Fangraphs
Source: Fangraphs

shows regression. While he’s attacking the strike zone less often overall, when he does throw a pitch in the zone, it’s right down the heart of the plate. Not only is this true for the highlighted  seasons, but rather it’s a trend that’s existed throughout his entire career. This reinforces the idea that Lincecum still thinks of himself as the power pitcher. Early in his career when he possessed a fastball that reached 95 and above, he could get away with mistakes over the plate; but 89 MPH tends to get hit a long way when left up in the zone. While his overpowering repertoire is no longer there, he’s unfortunately retained the mindset that he can blow it by anyone in the league.

Source: Fangraphs
Source: Fangraphs

One of the biggest problems for Lincecum is that his once deadly combination of a fastball followed by a change-up is no longer a real threat. In 2008 his average fastball velocity was 94 MPH with his change-up sitting at 83.3 MPH, resulting in a difference of 10.7 MPH. In 2014 however, the difference between pitches sits at only 7.2 MPH, a staggering difference in a game where fractions of seconds matter. However, for some strange reason Lincecum hasn’t adapted to this change. Common logic would dictate that since the difference in velocity is no longer as sharp, it should be used less often; however that’s not what has happened. In 2008, Lincecum’s fastball usage was 65.5%, while he used his change-up only 15.3% of the time. If we take a look at the 2014 version of Lincecum, we see that his fastball use is at an all time low of 47.4%. Seeing a percentage that low for fastball usage would be worrisome for any pitcher, but for Lincecum it’s heightened due to his plethora of other issues. Oddly enough, as his fastball usage has decreased over the past seven seasons, he’s actually increased the number of times he throws his change-up (22.3%). With hitters seeing more and more change-ups from Lincecum, and seeing more off-speed pitches from him in general (52.6%), it seems that his once great pitch has lost it’s shine. The graph below is a visual representation showing the decline in the difference between fastball velocity and change-up velocity.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 12.39.54 AM

Interestingly enough, this chart seems to model Lincecum’s last 7 years almost perfectly. While his career began at the top (2008-2009), he ran into trouble (2010), which was then followed by a slight rebound (2011) and another decline (2012-present). Although the difference between fastball velocity and change-up velocity is not a guaranteed marker for success, this graph does mirror Lincecum’s career path almost perfectly. In fact, if we look at a graph of his ERA+ over the past 7 seasons, it seems that the FB-CH velocity might be pretty important after all.

Screen Shot 2014-05-30 at 5.25.30 PM

While this graph has much steeper slopes, the same general path exists. It begins high up, with a sharp decline and slight rebound; followed by another decline and slight rebound.

As you can see, Lincecum has yet to truly make the adjustment from flamethrower to pitcher, and holds little value until he does. My advice for all owners and former fans is to let go and move to the 5th stage of the Klüber-Ross model; acceptance. Unfortunately there’s no telling what stage Lincecum is at right now (denial, anger, bargaining, or depression), but the one thing we can be sure of is that he hasn’t completed his transformation. If you know of someone in your league who’s still holding out hope that Lincecum can make a comeback, I highly recommend completing a trade as quickly as possible.

* One fact I want to make clear is that no matter how bad a pitcher’s career stats are, a perfect game is arguably the hardest thing to do in all of sports and as such deserve all the credit in the world for their achievement.