Another Look at Tim Lincecum

A while ago I wrote a piece on Tim Lincecum’s early season struggles. Since then, not only has he rebounded, but he’s looking like the best pitcher in the National League, sorry Johan Santana, Josh Johnson, and Dan Haren.

Lincecum’s FIP sits at 1.82, almost a full run lower than last year, his strikeout rate is up to 11.77 per nine, and his walk totals are down to 2.64. Oh, and he’s giving up even fewer homeruns The most amazing aspect of Lincecum’s turn around is his BABIP against. It was high before and it’s still high now. His career BABIP against is .312, this year his BABIP against is .368, that’s a lot of regression to go.

As for his pitches, Lincecum’s fastball is still down in velocity, 92.3 MPH instead of 94 MPH. His slider is being used more – or at least pitches registering as sliders – his curve usage is up and his change-up usage is basically static. Per our PitchFx data, Lincecum’s fastball is moving about a half-inch more in to righties, same with his change-up, and his curve is moving more vertically and less horizontally.

In that piece I also showed how Lincecum’s release point had changed, and speculated such as the cause for the lack of control, well, take a look at the release points that first start versus his last home start:

A little more clustered, don’t you think? If Lincecum keeps pitching like this, he’s going to make me eat my words when I wrote he may never top his 2008 season.

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20 Responses to “Another Look at Tim Lincecum”

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  1. John Galt says:

    Part of the reason for Lincecum’s high BABIP is the defensively clueless Fred Lewis, whose inability to read routine fly balls and run decent routes to them has also added at least 5 earned runs to Lincecum’s ERA.

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    • Max says:

      And part of it is the 24.8% line drives, right?

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      • SharksRog says:

        Good point about Tim’s high line drive rate. His line drive rate was up last year, as well, after being quite low in his rookie season.

        Here is my take:

        Tim is throwing fewer fastballs this season, and his secondary pitches are comparatively very unhittable. The increased usage of his off-speed pitches has increased his strikeouts, but meant a higher percentage of his pitches put into play have been fastballs.

        Tim’s fastball can be squared up if he leaves it in the hitting zone. But his secondary pitches are really tough to hit even if he leaves them over the plate. And when he misses with the secondary pitches, it is usually below the strike zone and/or off the plate.

        Tim’s last start was intriguing. He wasn’t at his sharpest (although he walked only one, the first hitter of the game), but he has increasingly pitched backwards. Thus, he stole some early strikes with his secondary deliveries, then got a lot of called third strikes with fastballs when hitters were clearly expecting something else.

        Tim has been at his very sharpest this season in only his third start of the year. In that one he pitched eight shutout innings and matched his career high 13 strikeouts.

        One positive about Tim since the tipping point of his career on June 25, 2007: He has not only been very good, he has been quite consistent.

        Three springs ago when I was extolling the virtues of Tim, predicting he would become the best pitcher in SF Giants history, the subject of no-hitters came up. I mentioned that I felt Matt Cain had a better chance of throwing one than Tim.

        The reason is that batters always seem to get an infield hit or two and/or a broken-bat liner over the infielders’ heads, while when Matt is really on, he can somehow hold batters nearly hitless.

        Matt has greatly improved his consistency beginning with his last start of July, 2007, but he still has yet to match Tim’s consistency and likely never will.

        Matt’s present 3.00 ERA is easily his lowest since his brief rookie season. But his peripherals are mostly headed in the wrong direction. Don’t expect Matt’s excellent results to continue.

        On the other hand, Matt’s 3-1 record is showing that he truly can win when given run support. The Giants’ starting pitcher lacking run support this season is Barry Zito — or at least the Barry Zito imposter who actually has pitched quite well over his last four starts.

        Show me a pitcher who seems to be winning less often than he should be, and I will show you a pitcher with a lack of run support. Show me a pitcher who wins more often than expected, and I’ll show you a pitcher with very good run support.

        Last year Lincecum clearly outptitched Cain, fashioning an ERA over a full run lower than Matt’s. But an even bigger reason for the huge difference between Tim’s sparkling 18-5 record and Matt’s almost unbelievable 8-14 mark was that he received over 1.5 runs per nine innings less run support than Tim.

        Matt Cain is unlikely to ever become the pitcher Tim Lincecum is, but he is a good enough pitcher that all it will take for him to become a decent winner is decent run support.

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    • SharksRog says:

      I don’t recall Fred’s costing Tim at least five earnies, but he did cost Tim two in the same game (Tim’s second start). Eugenio Velez cost Tim another, bringing Eugenio’s streak to four earnies in his last three starts behind Tim.

      One could argue that Eugenio cost Tim the ERA title last season, breaking in on a line drive right at him, only to see hit soar over his head for a two-out, two-run double. That came in the last month of the 2008 season.

      Then in Tim’s last start of 2008, he dropped a throw to second base on a steal attempt that would have had the runner, permitting the only earned run Tim allowed that day.

      Fortunately Eugenio has started behind Tim only the one time this season. He has played three diffferent positions in his last three starts behind Lincecum — left field, second base and center field — and has cost Tim at least one run in each game.

      When I heard Bruce Bochy say on his pregame show last season that he was going to start Velez in left field behind Tim in order to get Velez’s bat into the game, it bothered me — but I also saw the logic in it because Tim had really needed very few excellent plays behind him all season long. Despite his higher BABIP, he has actually had more good fielding plays behind him this season.

      Then again, Tim’s BABIP started out quite high last season, as well, but dipped back toward normal as the season progressed.

      Every pitcher gets hurt by his defense sometimes. Over Tim’s last 10 or 12 starts, he has been victimized at a rather high rate.

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      • Rowen says:

        I have Lincecum on my Strat-o-Matic team, and my thinking about the offense/defense balance of my lineup when Lincecum is starting is somewhat similar to your description of Bochy’s thought process re Velez.

        I feel that with Lincecum on the mound, I can tolerate putting a bad defender in the lineup for his bat. I want to make sure that I score enough runs to win the games Lincecum starts, and if a poor defender allows an extra baserunner, Lincecum will be able to pitch his way out of that situation more often than my other starters would.

        I’m not convinced that this line of thinking is “correct”, mind you.

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      • tom says:

        Yea, but Velez sucks….like a lot… everything

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      • Sean says:

        You would think that if the Giants can’t hit anyway they would at least give starting jobs to people who can field to reduce the damage defensively.

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  2. chad says:

    “less homeruns”

    Fewer home runs. Fewer home-space–runs.

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    • That was stupid.


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      • Eric Seidman says:

        Yeah, duh RJ, you idiot. Gosh, that threw the whole post off balance.

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      • SharksRog says:

        R.J. actually meant that the lone home run Tim yielded went LESS FAR than his previous homers given up. :) San Diego’s Chad Headley snuck a ball into the “jury box” in short right field at Petco Park. To make matters worse, the homer came with two outs after Fred Lewis had taken a step back and then hesitated on a ball that fell in front of him and then a batter or two later broken in on a ball that sailed over his head.

        Hopefully this won’t jinx him, but Tim’s home run rate the past two seasons has been excellent — particularly for a power pitcher.

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  3. B says:

    Are we ready to call Lincecum the greatest pitcher ever yet? Because I am…

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    • joser says:

      There’s no way three seasons, no matter how amazing, gets you into that conversation. Sandy Koufax is often cited as a pitcher who had a career too short to be considered in those terms, and he had 12 seasons in the majors, at least the last six or seven at Lincecumish levels. There have been lots of pitchers who have flashed like a comet in the majors’ summer firmament for a season or two, and then vanished like the morning dew (from the “greatest ever” discussion if not from baseball altogether). I don’t think Lincecum is one of them, actually, but he has to continue at around this level for a quite a while before talking about him in terms of “ever” doesn’t sound silly. Check back around 2015 or so when we can start to give it serious consideration.

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      • B says:

        I’ll check back around 2015 to make sure you admit I’m right! I like your use of the word “Lincecumish”.

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      • Thibodeaux says:

        When he gets taken deep, is that a Lincecumshot?

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      • I understand the hesitancy, but given how well he has pitched over a basically two year period now:

        2007: 2.96 ERA after June 19
        2008: 2.62 ERA
        2009: 3.25 ERA thus far

        That’s roughly 3.00 ERA. That would rank him:

        2006: he would have been 2nd
        2007: he would have been 2nd, or tied for 2nd
        2008: he would have been 4th
        2009: he is currently around 11th (too early)

        So basically he has been a 3.00 ERA, and that would roughly rank him among the Top 5 the past three seasons. If you excuse his early struggles this season, he has a 2.25 ERA since those games, and put him roughly as a mid-2 ERA, which would pretty much put him either 1-2 the past three seasons.

        When a pitcher can do that, while leading the league in strikeouts and K/9, for over two seasons, I think that people could start to make the move to say “ever”. I wouldn’t either, as you I’m more conservative, but I can see why others might say that. Yeah, plenty of stuff that can go wrong, but he’s done extremely well in a short period of time.

        For example, Baseball Forecaster has this stat, Pure Quality Starts or PQS, that they keep track of. Lincecum has had what they define as DOM starts (Dominating):
        Lincecum: 75% in H2-07, 74% in H1-08, 86% in H2-08.

        Johan Santana: 60% in H2-07, 79% in H1-08, 80% in H2-08
        Dan Haren: 80% in H2-07, 89% in H1-08, 71% in H2-08
        Roy Halliday: 47% in H2-07, 68% in H1-08, 86% in H2-08
        Roy Oswalt: 50% in H2-07, 58% in H1-08, 69% in H2-08
        C.C. Sabathia: 73% in H2-07, 70% in H1-08, 80% in H2-08
        Brandon Webb: 80% in H2-07, 75% in H1-08, 57% in H2-08
        Brett Myers: 73% in H2-07, 29% in H1-08, 77% in H2-08
        Cole Hamels: 70% in H2-07, 69% in H1-08, 70% in H2-08
        Felix Hernandez: 50% in H2-07, 59% in H1-08, 57% in H2-08
        A.J. Burnett: 70% in H2-07, 50% in H1-08, 71% in H2-08
        Josh Beckett: 86% in H2-07, 65% in H1-08, 80% in H2-08

        As one can see, Lincecum has been among the best, if not the best, over the past 1.5 seasons; only Haren has been just as good, if not better. And his career has just barely begun, whereas Haren had a number of years under his belt before becoming this good.

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      • SharksRog says:

        It’s way to early to say that Tim Lincecum is the best ever — and IMO he will need to keep improving (a lot) to reach that status. Aside from his dad and brother I might be his best fan, so I certainly don’t think it is impossible that he could indeed become the greatest ever, but that is a very, very high bar to reach.

        Last season Tim’s ERA+ was a league-leading 167. That’s DARN good. But it’s also tied for only 184th best in history and pales in comparison to Tim Keefe’s 294 in 1880 and in a better comparision, Pedro Martinez’s 291 in 2000.

        Hence my point that as excellent as Tim has been, he has to do better for much longer to become the best ever. For instance, all Walter Johnson could do (for a lousy team, a concept Tim knows well but will almost certainly change next decade) was 417 wins and a 147 ERA+. Martinez’s arm problems took the wind out of his sails, but he still has a great 214-99 won-loss record and a 154 ERA+ despite some mediocre and even crummy years sinced he hurt his arm.

        Cy Young won a record 512 games and had a 138 career ERA+. Tim has won 28 games and has an ERA+ of 139. Christy Mathewson went 373-188 with a 135 ERA+.

        Tim needs to put up some fabulous years in order to become the best ever. He will eventually hit his decline years, so he needs to build a cushion — AND get lots of wins, since this team statistic is considered to be overly important. So far, so good in that regard, as Tim’s 28-11 record gives him a .718 winning percentage. And in two or three seasons, the Giants will actually have some hitters.

        Still, run support hasn’t been a problem for Tim. Whether by luck or some intangible reason, the Giants have scored runs when Tim pitches.

        So what does Tim have to do to become the greatest ever?

        The first thing is to continue to improve his control. Tim’s walk rate in his rookie season of 4.00 has fallen dramatically to 2.64 so far this season. But his 59.1% first-pitch strike rate of 2007 has fallen to just 51.4% in 2009.

        Secondly, he needs to stay healthy. Given that his dad was clocked at 88 mph at age 52, Tim appears to have the genes. The two are built nearly alike and are said to have very similar motions. Tim could potentially have a long, long career. Every pitcher knows that his next pitch could be his last, but Tim’s mechanics are designed to take the pressure off his arm. As far as I know, he still doesn’t need to ice.

        Third, it would help if the Giants either got better hitting or continue to hit for TIM. It takes 20 years of 15-win seasons to reach the magic 300 wins. Tim is only 272 short thus far.

        Fourth, he needs to get over his propensity for yielding hits in bunches. Over his career, he’s been pretty good at avoiding large innings, but one would think his dominant stuff would allow even more consistency.

        Fifth, he needs to avoid throwing wild pitches and having runners run wild against him. Tim is doing better at both, particularly holding runners. But far too many of the runs Tim has given up have resulted from instances such as an infield or bloop hit, a steal of second, a wild pitch to third and a run being driven in with a ground ball with the infield back.

        Tim has been a great pitcher thus far. Forging a 28-11 won-loss record with a bad club takes a bit of doing. I have felt since before Tim threw his very first major league pitch that he would become the top pitcher in SF Giants history, which with Marichal and Perry to chase, will still take a ton of doing. I never went so far as to say he would outdo Christy Mathewson. The bar at the top is very, very high and has been set by guys who pitched sensationally over a huge number of innings, more innings than it is reasonable to expect from today’s pitchers.

        Tim does have two things going for him in that regard.

        First, he came very close to equalling Mathewson’s 267 strikeouts in one season. Tim’s spectacular late-season push not only left him 59 strikeouts ahead of Johan Santana for the 2008 NL best, if left him only two whiffs shy of Mathewson’s career high season. Since his start on June 16th of last season, Tim has averaged 10.71 strikeouts per nine innings. So far this season he has done even slightly better at 10.77 K/9.

        Tim will need to use his great ability to make batters swing and miss to differentiate himself from the old-timers who didn’t strike out nearly as many but won game after game by throwing inning after inning. It’s tough to put up numbers in a five-man rotation that can compare with pitchers who pitched in three-man starting staffs.

        Second, Tim needs to take advantage of his genes and training methods to forge a long, long career. It’s not entirely impossible Tim could have a long career as a starter, add in a second career as a closer — and then refine his knuckle ball and become Hoyt Wilhelm.

        Could you imagine Tim throwing 88 mph at age 52 as his dad did — and mixing in the knuckle ball with his three other very good secondary pitches?

        One other possible differentiating factor I just thought of. Tim has become VERY hard to homer against (although Marcus Thames actually did so twice in one game last season — in fact, the game on June 16th). Most power pitchers are prone to the long ball. Tim has really cut down on not only the home run, but the extra base hit in general.

        One would think the way to get to Tim would be to look for his fastball on the first pitch and take a serious hack at the first fastball the batter sees. But amazingly Tim yielded only three — THREE — extra base hits last season on first pitches.

        I personally think that as great as Tim has been thus far, he still has much better within himself. If he is able to tap the well within, it is possible he could eventually be named with the all-time great hurlers.

        But for now, let’s just be happy that he, more than any other pitcher, might be the pitcher most teams would choose to build their staff around. But before we get TOO giddy, we shouldn’t forget that as well as Tim has pitched this season (particularly after his first two starts), he insn’t near the top 10 in NL ERA.

        When the season is over, he quite possibly will be atop it or nearly so once again. But there are still two things that Tim needs that are beyond his immediate control. He needs run support and better fielding support than he has received in his last 10 or 12 starts.

        With better fielding support, Tim could bring his BABIP back to a more normal figure, which would mean his hits per nine innings would become very low indeed. That coupled with his low home run rate and improving walk rate would seem to translate into even fewer runs allowed.

        That in turn means more innings pitched and more wins.

        Some guys are power performers. Others are pitchers. Tim has long been a power performer, and he appears to be becoming more and more of a PITCHER with almost every outing. Tim KNOWS how to pitch. And as he gains experience against major league hitters, he should be able to put those art of pitching skills to better and better use.

        Tim Lincecum could conceivably become the top pitcher of his era. It is conceivablee that he could even become the best of any era. But he has miles to go before he sleeps.

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      • B says:

        Wow, really long-winded, serious answers to a thread that wasn’t serious at all. Great job, guys. The talk about Lincecumshots should have given it away…

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  4. Matt Harms says:

    Call me crazy, but graph 1 makes it seem like while the release points differ, he’s releasing the same type of pitch at different points. Graph 2 still has dispersion, but each fastball, cutter, and change have unique release points.

    Granted, it isn’t much difference overall, but the variation seems much more concentrated based on pitch type in graph 2. Wouldn’t that make it easier for hitters to pick up on the pitch type based on release point?

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  5. brian recca says:

    Looks like he won’t make that 7.5 WAR again, damn shame.

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