Despite his epic regression the past two seasons, Tim Lincecum remains a fan favorite among San Francisco Giants fans. Whether it be his formerly long, flowing hair or his more recent prepubescent-looking mustache, Lincecum’s endearing qualities seem to resonate with fans far beyond the Bay Area. Fresh off re-signing to a two-year, $35 million deal, Lincecum hopes to relinquish the “team symbol” label and get back to earning his money on the mound. But can Lincecum regain his Cy Young form?
The short answer to that question is yes. But it’s not going to happen overnight. Lincecum’s recent struggles have been well documented, especially pertaining to his alarming increase in walks. While his 2012 regular season campaign was a disaster by all accounts, his 2013 numbers are actually not too far off from his Cy Young years in terms of his control. Comparing last season to his 2008 season, Lincecum’s walk rate was 9.0% and 9.1% and his walks per nine innings was 3.5 and 3.3, respectively.
Lincecum’s drop in velocity is no secret to fans throughout the country. It’s certainly no secret to the nine hitters in the opposing lineup each time he takes the hill. Lincecum sadly just doesn’t have the speed on his fastball to blow it by hitters anymore. While the luxury of being able to overpower hitters was undoubtedly one of his weapons, the loss of that ability is not what troubles Lincecum in regards to his drop in velocity.
The most detrimental aspect of his withering fastball is the difference in speed compared to his changeup. The once 11 mph difference between his fastball and changeup has dropped to a paltry 6 mph. Lincecum’s lethality stemmed from the indecision he placed in hitter’s minds. Batter’s pretty much had to guess which pitch was coming next. If they looked fastball and guessed wrong, they would be so far out in front they almost fell over. If they looked changeup and guessed wrong, the fastball would be in Bengie Molina’s glove before they even started their swing.
Now hitters don’t have to guess pitch type. They can just sit on one speed. Lincecum still has devastating movement on his changeup and slider, but pitching is as much about timing as it is about movement and location. Lincecum’s o-swing% (the percent of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone) has actually increased from 27% to roughly 32%, which showcases the lasting quality of his off-speed pitches. However, the decrease in velocity is evident by the increase in o-contact% (contact rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone) from 49% in 2009 to 57% in 2012. Pitches that hitters used to swing over the top of are now being poked through the 5-6 hole for a single.
Growing up with an arsenal of some of the filthiest pitches in history caused Lincecum to develop a strikeout mindset. This mindset has allowed him to remain one of the league leaders in every strikeout category even through his struggles. The problem is that when he does not strike out his opponent now, the outcome is often unfavorable.
Lincecum’s transformation from a thrower to a pitcher has been a slow, frustrating battle. But he has the tools and resources to complete the process. So how does Lincecum finally turn into a pitcher?
For one, Lincecum needs to attack hitters more. In 2013, his 56.5% first pitch strike percentage was the third lowest percentage among qualified starters in the National League. When a pitcher consistently falls behind in the count, it doesn’t matter how good his stuff is, it’s going to catch up to him. It’s a difficult habit to break, but always pitching for the strikeout often produces negative results.
If Lincecum needs guidance, he should look no further than his locker neighbor Tim Hudson in regards to both his repertoire and his approach. First pitch strikes have been a priority for Hudson his entire career. Hudson threw 65% of his first pitches for strikes in 2013. His elite sinker gives him the confidence to attack hitters. He pitches to contact and invites hitters to swing knowing the result is a groundout more often than not.
The ideal scenario involves Hudson teaching Lincecum how to throw his sinker. Yet even if Lincecum can’t master the sinker, he can still adopt Hudson’s aggressive mindset with his two-seam and four-seam fastball. Attacking hitters requires increased accuracy, though. Lincecum seems like he hasn’t evolved past being able to blow his fastball by hitters, when location didn’t matter as much. Pitching to contact doesn’t mean throwing up belt-high batting practice fastballs. Lincecum needs to throw knee-high darts on the corners.
Another option for Lincecum to improve is to pitch backwards. By dropping in an unexpected breaking ball, he can steal strike one and get ahead in the count. Lincecum entered the league as a fastball-curveball pitcher, but as he has progressed he has become increasingly more reliant on his changeup and slider. For good reason I suppose. However, his curveball is now arguably underutilized especially considering it’s now the one pitch that can throw off a hitter’s timing.
Luckily, the Giants possess three of the top ten pitchers with the highest percentage of off-speed first pitches. According to SB Nation’s Beyond the Box Score, Ryan Vogelsong led the entire league by starting counts with an off-speed pitch 59.8% of the time. Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain were 5th and 8th in the league, respectively. Lincecum should pick the brains of his peers in the rotation and learn how they keep hitters guessing and off balance.
While it is unclear whether he will utilize the aforementioned resources, Lincecum seems motivated to improve on his recent string of lackluster seasons. His traditional offseason routine consists of completely shutting down his arm and not throwing until spring training. However, for the first time, Lincecum rented out a warehouse in his hometown Seattle to begin throwing before pitchers and catchers report. Contrary to his typical springs, Lincecum has looked fresh in 2014, allowing seven hits, two walks, and two runs in 9.1 innings pitched. It’s difficult to determine whether his current success is a result of small sample size or predictive of things to come this season. Giants fans should hope for the latter as Lincecum arguably holds the keys to their championship potential.
Unless otherwise noted in the text, all stats courtesy of Fangraphs.com