History Suggests Tim Lincecum Might Be Just Fine

After getting drilled for four runs in the first inning by the Phillies last night, the ever-growing worry surrounding Tim Lincecum reached a fever pitch. As Chris Cwik noted last week, his velocity continues to trend downwards in a pretty dramatic fashion, and he’s now getting hit on a regular basis while throwing 90 MPH fastballs. The combination of diminished velocity and poor performance are assumed to be signs of a larger problem. As the theory goes, they might not be conclusive by themselves, but together, they suggest that there’s something seriously wrong.

History, however, suggests that jumping to that kind of conclusion may very well be premature.

Tim Lincecum is not the first pitcher to start the season without his best fastball, and he’s not the first pitcher to get hit hard while showing reduced velocity. To look at how predictive previous situations have turned out to be, I went back to our monthly leaderboards starting in 2008 and looked for situations where a pitcher posted high BABIP and/or HR/FB rates in April while also showing significantly reduced velocity, and yet had posted BB/K/GB numbers that suggested that they were still capable of getting Major League hitters out. In other words, pitchers who were pitching like Lincecum is now. Here’s what I found.

CC Sabathia, 2008.

32 IP, 11.3% BB%, 21.9% K%, 39.0% GB%, 15.8% HR/FB, .362 BABIP, 92.4 MPH FBv

Sabathia’s fastball averaged 93.7 MPH in 2007, and he regularly topped out north of 95 while turning in a dominating season for the Indians. After throwing 241 innings and then another 15 in the playoffs, Sabathia showed up to the start of the 2008 season without his best fastball. His velocity was down over 1 MPH in April, and in his second start of the year, he topped out at 93.6. In his third and fourth starts of the season, he gave up a combined 20 hits in 7 1/3 innings pitched. He ended the month with a 183 ERA- and the highest BABIP of any staring pitcher in baseball. His peripherals were okay, though, and while his xFIP- of 100 wasn’t great by his standards, it did suggest he wasn’t totally broken.

As soon as the calendar turned to May, Sabathia flipped a switch and became the best starting pitcher in baseball. His velocity came back, he posted an ERA of 2.44 or below in each of the next five months, and he finished the year with +7.6 WAR – still the best mark he’s posted in any season to date. Sabathia’s career year began with him showing reduced velocity and getting torched. It ended with him getting Cy Young votes in both leagues.

Jon Lester, 2009.

30 IP, 7.7% BB%, 25.4% K%, 44.0% GB%, 16.7% HR/FB%, .383 BABIP, 92.5 MPH FBv

Lester had a bit of a weird year in 2008, as he began the year throwing 90 and ended it throwing 94. He showed up in 2009 throwing a little harder than he had in the previous April, but down several ticks from where he was in September of the prior year. He was also giving up hits and home runs in bunches, so even though his strikeout rate was up and he was still holding his walks down, he posted a 115 ERA- against a 75 xFIP-. His peripherals were good, his results were bad, and his velocity was inconsistent at best.

Unlike Sabathia, his struggles with hit prevention continued into May, where he allowed a .361 BABIP and another 16.7% HR/FB rate in his second month of the season. The velocity was picking up, though, and the peripherals were still good, but the results continued to not line up with his underlying numbers. At the end of May, he’d thrown 65 innings and had an ERA of 5.60 thanks to his BABIP and HR/FB issues. His ERAs by month, from June to September: 1.85, 2.60, 2.41, 2.52. He ended the year with +6.4 WAR, the best mark he’s posted in any season of his career.

Jake Peavy, 2009.

31 IP, 9.7% BB%, 23.9% K%, 45.9% GB%, 12.9% HR/FB, .341 BABIP, 91.6 MPH FBv

Peavy had been red flagged heading into 2009 after spending a month on the DL with elbow soreness in 2008, and his early season struggles in 2009 looked like more evidence that there was something physically wrong with his arm. His velocity was down about 1 MPH and he was getting hit hard each time he took the mound even while he continued to post pretty solid walk and strikeout numbers. In May, his fortunes reversed, as his BABIP fell to .237 and he posted a 2.13 ERA in 42 innings.

He did eventually land on the disabled list and miss most of the second half of the season, but considering it was a right ankle injury, I don’t think we can really state the the early season BABIP and HR/FB issues suggested that he was going to have ankle problems two months later. He has had shoulder problems since getting traded to San Diego, so it’s possible that his early 2009 struggles were indicative of some underlying arm problems, but they didn’t manifest themselves in the short term, and he had success immediately following his bad first month of 2009.

Javier Vazquez, 2009.

6.0% BB%, 31.3% K%, 42.0% GB%, .361 BABIP, 4.2% HR/FB, 90.4 MPH FBv

Like Lester, Vazquez ended his 2008 season on a very high note in terms of velocity, sitting at 93-94 and topping out at 96. In April of 2009, he was 90-92 and rarely even cracking 93, all while running a .361 BABIP at the same time. His results were still pretty good, thanks to a crazy 42/8 K/BB ratio and only 1 HR allowed, but he was certainly hittable, and his ERA- of 82 wasn’t anywhere close to his xFIP- of 52.

Starting in May, Vazquez’s velocity came back and his peripherals won out – his BABIP was under .300 in every month for the rest of the season, and (stop me if you’ve read this before) 2009 ended up being the best year of his career. His situation is less analogous to Lincecum’s because he didn’t also have a significant HR issue and his BB/K was so good that the results were still strong, but he is an example of a reduced velocity/high BABIP combination that showed no predictive value whatsoever.

Ryan Dempster, 2011.

31 IP, 10.6% BB%, 19.2% K%, 45.1% K%, .344 BABIP, 23.7% HR/FB, 90.3 MPH FBv

The velocity drop here isn’t as drastic as in several of the other cases, as it was more a narrowing of the range of fastballs than a huge shift in his average speed. In 2010, Dempster’s fastball was 88-94, while he began last year more 88-92. The results, though, were atrocious, as he gave up 21 extra base hits and ran a 9.58 ERA over the first month of the season. His peripherals were not good, but he was still getting ground balls and running a nearly 2/1 K/BB ratio, but he just couldn’t stop people from blasting the ball all over the park.

As usual, that changed pretty much once May began. After giving nine home runs to 151 batters faced in April, he gave up just six in the next three months combined. His 9.58 ERA in April gave way to a 3.94 ERA over the rest of the season, a mark just a bit better than his the 4.34 xFIP he posted during his disastrous April. He ended up throwing 200 innings for the fourth straight year, and he’s off to a fine start to the 2012 season as well. If there was any underlying issue causing him to be so hittable last April, it resolved itself pretty quickly.

This isn’t to say that Tim Lincecum is definitely healthy and is going to start dominating at any second now. He might be dealing with a legitimate physical issue that’s causing the velocity issues and contributing to all the hits and home runs he’s allowing. That said, we have to realize that early season velocity issues aren’t that uncommon, and they have often just gone away in previous years. We have to beware of confirmation bias when we see a guy throwing with diminished stuff and getting hit, as it can be easy to decide that the diminished velocity is the cause of all the extra hits.

In reality, the two things may have nothing to do with each other. Lincecum’s velocity is down, and through his first three starts he’s getting hit, but that doesn’t mean that the reduced velocity is the driver of the increase in hits allowed, nor does it mean that this trend is likely to continue.

Lincecum could end up on the DL with a serious health problem that explains his early season struggles. Or he could start throwing 95 again in his next start and win the 2012 NL Cy Young award. There’s precedent for both outcomes, and it’s not even easy to say which is more likely. All we really know right now is that we don’t really know enough to jump to conclusions.

The velocity is still a legitimate concern, and will be until if comes back, if it ever does. The hits and home runs are a less legitimate concern, but not something that we can completely ignore. They’re just a minor consideration given the amount of data we’re dealing with. Just beware of combining the two issues and deciding that their dual presence is definitively a sign of a larger problem. It might be, it might not be. It certainly wasn’t for Sabathia, Lester, or Vazquez.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

53 Responses to “History Suggests Tim Lincecum Might Be Just Fine”

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  1. sam says:

    bat might?

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  2. Matt NW says:

    He was (seemed to be to me, at least) crying on the mound in the first inning.

    Crying.

    In baseball.

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  3. SteveS says:

    So how much of this applies mutatis mutandis to Felix Hernandez? Should he be engendering more or less concern than Wakefield?

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  4. mcbrown says:

    Thank you. It is worth mentioning that Lincecum’s average fastball velocity was actually up last year vs. 2010, so his 2010 to 2012 decline is not nearly as dramatic as his 2011 to 2012 decline. And 2010 was a better year for him than 2011 by every metric other than ERA, so I’m not going to panic over his fastball just yet.

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  5. AA says:

    He’s probably thinking he should have signed a long term deal

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    • Lenard says:

      Even without his previous earnings taken into consideration, I would, hypothetically, as an MLB pitcher, be completely content with pocketing $40.5 million dollars over a 2 year period and simply calling it a day.

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      • AK7007 says:

        I’d concur with this. If things don’t pan out and lincecum truly is hurt in a career ending way, he will still walk away with a large chunk of change. Sure, he’d be guaranteed more with the long-term deal, but then he would spend half a decade of his life rehabbing injuries. There’s something to be said for being able to walk away happy after your career rather than bitter. Look at Gil Meche.

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  6. StFriebe says:

    I don’t know if you watched the game too, Dave, but I don’t think “drilled” is the word I would use to describe the first inning. The lead-off double should have been an out, and the next two hits were weak bloops to the outfield. The only hard-hit ball was Nix’s double on a breaking ball that hung in the zone. As far as “Ways to Give Up Four Earned Runs” go, I felt like this was among the most fluky. Lest we forget Roy had the bases loaded in the first too.

    Simply put, Tim’s K/9 and BB/9 have both been fine (excellent), I expect his BABIP and strand rates to regress substantially. He may not win any awards this year, other than maybe fantasy steal of the year. BUY!

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  7. Buck says:

    I thought it was accepted that power pitchers tend to start slow

    No?

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    • Keith says:

      Lincecum’s an odd case, though. For starters, his worst seasons (by FIP and WAR) have come in 2010 and 2011. He started throwing his 2-seam fastball in 2010 as well. He then added the slider in 2011, and 2011 was worse than 2010. So as he’s added to his arsenal, he’s gotten worse.

      Then you add in the fact he said he was giving up the slider because it hurt. Instead of actually DOING that, he’s throwing it more than ever (25.4%, as opposed to 24.1% in his first season with it, 2011–small sample size alert, though).

      You then have to look at the fact that he’s sitting upper-80s/low-90s to start 2012. In 2011, he stated in the mid-90s. In 2010, it was mid-to-low-90s, between 2011 and 2012, basically.

      I personally don’t know if power pitchers start slowly historically, but looking at Lincecum’s history, he’s starting worse than ever, and I can’t help buy wonder if he’s hurting himself with the 5-pitch arsenal. I say scrap the slider for sure, and consider less 2-seam usage.

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      • Graham says:

        Actually, @Keith, I think it’s a mistake to rely on PitchFX for Timmy. (And for Bumgarner, and for God knows who else.) According to every interview, broadcast, etc., Timmy has always preferred the two-seam fastball to the four-seamer. When he first arrived in the majors, he used it almost exclusively. I’m also not entirely sure what to make of the high percentage of sliders recorded this year, as anecdotally (just from watching his starts), I would say that the slider hasn’t been so heavily used. I would also say that what PitchFX is identifying as sliders may in fact be some kind of slider/cutter hybrid like the one Bumgarner throws.

        The 2007-2009 velocity isn’t likely to come back, but with his assortment of specialty pitches and with even a modest increase in velocity, I think he’ll be just fine. After a rocky first inning against the Phils (which, as others have mentioned above, could’ve been a scoreless inning but for some bad luck), he seemed to find his location a bit better. He’s still struggling to command the fastball on both sides of the plate, but he did do a much better job of locating around the knees throughout much of the Phillies game.

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  8. Vin says:

    What about Ubaldo Jimenez? Last season he experienced velocity drop, got hit hard to start the season, and then continued to get hit hard. He and Lincecum also have pretty similar skill sets as pitchers (high strikeout/walk/groundball guys)

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    • Diesel says:

      Except that Lincecum has a long track record of success, whereas Ubaldo has exactly one half-season of elite performance. And the repertoires are almost completely different. And that Ubaldo’s best season in terms of walks is roughly Lincecum’s worst. And that Ubaldo used to throw much harder than Lincecum ever did. But other than that, you know, QED.

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      • Vin says:

        Don’t know what brought on such a sharp tongued response, but I guess you took offense with something I posted.

        Anyway, I don’t see the relevance in your points, with regards to this discussion. The criteria was pitchers who got hit hard in April and showed decreased fastball velocity, but still showed promising peripherals. Jimenez fits all of that criteria with the exception of the low BABIP, so I wondered why he was not mentioned here.

        I was not making an exact comparison to Jimenez as a pitcher, just as Dave was clearly not doing with the pitchers listed in the article.

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      • henry says:

        ubaldo had 3 good seasons and 1/2 of an elite season before he got crushed last year.

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      • Curtis says:

        Obviously talking bad about Lincecum is a sin

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    • cs3 says:

      Ubaldo is not anywhere near Timmy in terms of skill

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  9. Scott Kazmir says:

    Hello Tim.

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  10. Hank says:

    There’s also the scrapped slider to consider and as a result he’s throwing nearly 40% changeups (at what % does it cease being a “change” when he’s throwing it nearly as much as his fastball)

    You ca’;t just look at this as a velocity issue. The movement on all his pitches have shown a downward trend (though the fastball movement may be a classification thing between 2 seamers and 4 seamers)

    Seems like dumbing this down to simple velocity and looking for similarities that validate the point isn’t really taking an analytical approach. Was there no pitcher who showed decreased velocity and was done (or basically performed at a reduced level going forward)?

    When you say “history suggests” what sort of data pull are you looking at?

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  11. hailey says:

    I don’t think you need to worry about a pitcher of his caliber this early in the season. Watch him, sure. Worry, no.

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  12. The Freak says:

    Who said Brandon Crawford could play defense? 4 errors already. Geez. Bring me back Tejada. Oh, and Pagan needs some defensive lessons too. I hear Aaron Rowand needs a job.

    And yes, I did cry in the first inning. Momma never told me baseball could be this mean to me. I’m starting to feel right again, and I think I’ll get back on track soon.

    Thanks Dave for not getting your panties wadded up like so many.

    Regards!

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  13. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    He’s not dead. He’s resting!

    …pining for the fjords, as it were.

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  14. Fletch says:

    Does anyone know if it’s relatively common for pitchers to inexplicably lose velocity like this in their primes? Or does such a drop usually point to some kind of injury?

    Oh an check out this article about Dave on MLB.com. I think it’s really great that he’s getting some love from more mainstream media outlets.

    http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120416&content_id=28844170&vkey=news_mlb&c_id=mlb

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  15. Feeding the Abscess says:

    Comparing Tim to himself, he’s never juiced up his velocity and made it stick in midseason before. Worse, he typically loses velocity as the season wears on.

    I think comparing Tim to himself is a better idea than comparing him to massive guys like Sabathia and Lester, a stocky guy like Vazquez, or even Peavy and Dempster, both of whom are much larger than 5’11, 170 pounds.

    I think that more telling than his velocity drop is the following:

    2008: 28.6
    2009: 28.8
    2010: 25.8
    2011: 24.4
    2012: 23.2

    Those are his K%s over the last five years.

    2008: 9.1
    2009: 7.5
    2010: 8.5
    2011: 9.6
    2012: 5.8

    Those are his BB%s. If he can get his BB% back down to 7.5 or even better it, he’ll fine.

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    • adohaj says:

      Wasn’t there an article a few weeks ago that showed that in general pitchers see a decrease in K% the longer they are in the league?

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      • Feeding the Abscess says:

        I believe so. Didn’t the same article show a decrease in BB% to offset the loss in K%? That’s really the only way Lincecum can stay elite

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  16. JB Knox says:

    I like the history comparisons a lot. Good read. I took a different route and used a lot of pitch f/x data from Brooks Baseball combined with my developing scouting eye and college baseball experience to do a comprehensive breakdown of what I see is the problem. There are many besides the velocity at the root of his issues. Release points have changed. Tipping pitches, short arming the ball, he has lost 2 inches of break on his change and more. If you have time feel free to check it out. If not I hope he gets some of his game back.

    http://1313sports.com/2012/04/17/tim-lincecum-a-pitch-fx-breakdown-of-the-freaks-struggles/

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  17. miffleball says:

    two major differences between lincecum and all the examples:

    1) they are all much bigger than lincecum (peavy, the smallest of the bunch, has two inches and thirty pounds). it has long been argued that lincecum’s size would contribute to extra strain on his shoulder and elbow and make him prone to injury.

    2) the velocity decrease has been documented across seasons suggesting something systemic, unlike the others who had low velocity at the beginning of the year which improved after a season with normal velocity, suggesting possibly just poor conditioning to start the year

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  18. BlackOps says:

    I just looked at his peripherals and decided it might just be BABIP noise. Hate to say that because there’s such differing opinions in the SABR community, but all of his peripherals are in extreme accordance with his career norms, except for BABIP (and HR/FB and LOB%… basically all the things that could mess with ERA in small samples). It’s far too early to know whether that’s just luck or a change due to his velocity, but I’d hold off on passing judgement for awhile.

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    • Feeding the Abscess says:

      Na, his K% is down, and has fallen for three straight years. And worse, rather than positive movement in BB% to offset it, his control has gotten worse.

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  19. DownwiththeDH says:

    I don’t think Timmy prepares himself in the off-season as well as other pitchers.

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    • Eric Cioe says:

      Him and Dan Haren strike me as guys for whom this statement is true. No one has talked about Haren yet, but he hit 90 just a couple of times yesterday and sat at 88. He averaged 90 last year. He’s a junkballer anyway, but a junkballer who can touch 92 at need is better than one who hits 90 rarely.

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  20. Marcellus O says:

    He needs to learn how to pitch like Greg Maddux after he lost velocity on his fastball.

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    • antonio bananas says:

      Everyone needs to learn to pitch like Greg Maddux. Everyone should learn to play basketball like Michael Jordan, and compose music like Beetoven. Virtuosos don’t come along very often though.

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  21. MG says:

    Timmy prepares in the offseason in cruising in his silver Land Rover at high speeds up and down SF, taking lots of bong hits, and taking no prisoners online in MMPG games.

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  22. Martin Blake says:

    Tim lost velocity after he was hit on the mound by a line drive. He sometimes flinches when a ball is hit and he is on the mound. He must overcome this.

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  23. JayCox says:

    Would any of you guys consider lincecum for Darvish and 1st rd pick in a 26 player keeper and we keep 19?

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