It looks like Tim Lincecum is going to put his slider in his ‘back pocket,’ at least to start the season. Manager Bruce Bochy speculated that the reasoning behind the move was that the pitch “probably puts a little more stress on his arm” and that his star pitcher was saving his bullets for the long season.
This will be a decision that will surely be revisited no matter which way the season unfolds, but it’s not as if the slider has been one of his best two pitches recently. Fastballs and changeups make up almost 80% of his repertoire, and it’s the changeup that has helped him remain dominant as his fastball speed has dipped in recent years.
But the implications of the decision — for both the pitcher and the sport — are important.
For one, by both pitch classifications on this site, Lincecum threw more sliders last year than he had so far in his Major League career. His 15.6% usage of the pitch (BIS pitch types) last year was almost double his previous high, even. By linear weights, the results were strong, and yet now he’s willing to scrap the pitch. Seen in the prism of his reduced velocity this year, this could be a worrisome indicator of his underlying health.
Two Spring Training starts ago, I witnessed Lincecum’s radar readings in person, and he only once hit 93 with his fastball. That has jibed with this spring’s general assessment that he’s sitting closer to 91 MPH than the 92+ he showed last season. And that number was even the second-worst of his career. Could he be losing the slider because he’s already hurting?
Both the pitcher and his manager were sure to affirm that this was not the case. As quoted by Andrew Baggarly:
Asked a follow-up question about Lincecum’s health, Bochy insisted that the two-time Cy Young award winner has no physical issues. It’s true, Lincecum hasn’t thrown hard this spring. But that is not atypical. He often starts out slow before zipping 94 mph on the gun when the season begins. More important, he says, is location of his two-seamer so he can get ahead of hitters and try for more efficient, contact outs.
It’s still cause for concern, though. (That will always be true for Lincecum. People will always be at the ready to predict a breakdown. Story of his life.)
If he’s healthy, and trying to preemptively make this move in order to remain that way, it’s rare to be so open about the reasoning behind such a change. Could this become a trend? Is baseball becoming more aware of the added stress certain pitches put on the elbow? Even though the PITCH F/x era has provided a short sample, preliminary research on this site has found that both sliders and curves are tough on the joint. Perhaps more pitchers that have the luxury of scrapping one of these pitches will begin to do so.
Lincecum is not giving up on the curve, which might be as stressful for his elbow as the slider, and that might be the final lesson he’s provided us today. He can be fastidious about his delivery. He can use weight training to balance his body correctly. He can watch his nutrition. He can even scrap one pitch that is perhaps problematic for his health. But he still has to hurl a ball 90+ MPH, he still has to snap off the occasional curveball, and he still has to throw the dang ball.
And one thing baseball has showed us that if you continue to throw Major League pitches, you’ll eventually see a Major League trainer. You can only do so much to try and avoid that trip.