Tim Lincecum’s Eyes Are Wide Open

Maybe you find Tim Lincecum frustrating. He’s still throwing no-hitters, still in the top 25 for swinging strikes, still has an above-average strikeout rate, and still has a an above-average ground-ball rate. His walk rate has improved the last couple of years! Those home runs are coming at a rate that you’d figure would regress to the league average at some point. But they aren’t, and so you have his last few years.

Well, you are not alone with your emotions. Tim Lincecum is also frustrated. “The last few years have kind of eluded me in a sense, so I’m always trying to figure something out,” the pitcher admitted before a game with the White Sox.

And before you start yelling about walk rate not equalling command, Lincecum is fully aware of his shortcomings in that department. “I’ve never really been the guy that hit my spots,” he said. “I’ve been the guy that tries to get people to chase out the zone — if I was hitting my spots that day, it was probably a good day for me.”

Unfortunately, there’s no real number that can help us better understand the link between command and homers allowed, mostly because there’s no real number for command. Walk rate and zone percentage — these things are not correlated strongly with home runs allowed even if you’d think bad command would lead to bad results. Lincecum gets swings and misses and turns balls into strikes, and that keeps his walk rate manageable. Even while his command is inconsistent.

As his fastball has waned from 94 to 90, the lack of command must have become more important. There is evidence of this effect, as Thomas Karakolis found that location was far more important than movement for fastballs.

So what has Lincecum been working on? “I need to place it better,” he said. But he knows he doesn’t have great natural command, so that’s really a day to day thing. He’s been looking into a cutter, but “It’s hard to get confident with a pitch that you can’t necessarily work on against a hitter until you get in the game… it feels just like a BP fastball in a sense.”

Take a look at Lincecum’s pitching mix thanks to BrooksBaseball, and it becomes more obvious what is working best for him.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (5)

He admits that he’s brought all of his pitch percentages into the same territory so that any pitch could come at any time. Take a particular look at the slider and fastball usages as they converge, though. This month, Lincecum is throwing the slider 6% more than his four-seam, which is the biggest pro-slider discrepancy of his career.

Though he doesn’t have great command of either the four-seamer or the slider, there is something about the slider that Lincecum likes better. “I think my misses, when I miss with it down, it’s been a pitch that guys have swung at… even if it comes up short, I’m going to get swings at it,” the pitcher said. “The movement alone is selling me on it.”

Obviously, getting these swings and misses on pitches that he hasn’t commanded perfectly benefits the Giant. “I know I can try to hide my fastball a little bit more,” Lincecum admits.

LincecumSlider
Lincecum grabs his slider across the seams more the more common with-the-seams grip.

From my piece on Jake Arrieta and his increased slider usage:

Fastball usage in baseball is highest in 3-0, 3-1, 2-0, 2-1, and 0-0 counts respectively. Four-seamers and two-seamers are used 65% of the time in those counts. Cutters and sliders are used 17% of the time.

Lincecum is currently using his slider 17% of the time in those counts, so he’s not different from an average pitcher in that regard. On the other hand, he’s only using his fastball 58.7% of the time in hitter’s counts, so he does hide his fastball more than most. And certain counts are different than others. In a 2-1 count, for example, Lincecum is more likely to throw a slider or split than a fastball (47%), and that’s fairly divergent from the masses.

There might actually be some drawbacks to using the slider more often this year, though. He’s getting many more swings on the slider (50%) than the fastball (42%), and also more whiffs (17.6% to 5.1%)… but he’s also giving up more home runs on the pitch. According to Brooks, 1.3% of his sliders have been hit out of the yard, compared to .5% of his fastballs.

Maybe this chart of Lincecum’s sliders to righties helps explain why:

LincecumSlider14vrhb

There are too many hung sliders up in the zone there, and even a few middle-low that are to close to the leagues’ happy zone for home runs per fly ball. Again, Lincecum is fully aware of the issue — “One thing that’s going to kill you if you don’t throw that 0-2 breaking balls in the dirt — that’s been a problem for me, doing that consistently” — but he’ll take the added whiffs and more mistakes low, it seems.

That thing that Dave Cameron pointed out about Lincecum’s work from the stretch falling off in recent years? Yeah, the pitcher is also working on that.

“I’ve been battling with my mechanics of my leg kick out of the stretch — not falling home, but driving home,” the righty said. “At the same time not getting stuck on my back leg because I need to get quicker to home plate — you’ve seen guys stealing on me time and time again.” It’s been difficult for him to get the ball to home plate faster while also feeling comfortable with his mechanics so he doesn’t hurt himself, and so people continue to steal on him — only three pitchers have allowed more stolen bases this year.

Let’s see if we can spot something in his mechanics. 2011 was the last year he walked fewer than 10% from the stretch, so we have a delivery with men on base from that year on the left. And a 2014 pitch from the same camera angle and situation on the right.

LincecumStretch11LincecumStretch14

Hard to tell. But if you watch his right foot come around, and notice how far he falls off to the left as he finished his delivery, you can tell that the mechanics have changed a bit for Lincecum in the stretch since 2011.

As the last few years have piled on, Lincecum has also had to work on his mental approach. “The past works for us but it kind of works against us too,” he said. He’s been trying to “erase the batter,” in order to attack the zone more.

But sometimes “you get an expectation of what that person can do with a certain pitch” and it changes your pitch selection. You have to remember things like batters are hitting .220 after a first pitch strike, he pointed out, even as he knows he hasn’t been above league average in first pitch strikes since his rookie year.

LincecumSplitter
Not quite a forkball, Lincecum’s splitter is all in the fingers.

It’s gotten to the point where even his vaunted splitter isn’t feeling the same these days. “I’ve been leaving it up more — it’s a feel pitch and it hasn’t felt right recently,” Lincecum said about his change. He is seeing the fewest swinging strikes on the pitch of his career (15.8% this year, 23% career) and only once before in his career has the combined movement on the pitch dipped this low.

But what can he do. The pitch is an important part of his arsenal. “It’s something I’m going to keep working with,” as he puts it.

And that’s the situation in a nutshell. Tim Lincecum knows his faults, and is trying his best to work on them and work around them. There’s no delusion here, just a 30-year-old pitcher trying to figure out how to best use a set of pitches that still bend, break and fade with the best of them.



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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.


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Hurtlocker
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Hurtlocker

Lincecum is a very frustrating pitcher to watch, You can see the frustration on his face when he is just not getting it done. One day a no hitter, another he’s throwing B/P. I’m glad the Giants re-signed him, he still has the great stuff to miss bats if he could just master better location.

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