Anatomy of a player: Tim Lincecum

One of the most enjoyable things about writing for The Hardball Times is the great reader response. Whether it is comments left on Ballhype or e-mails in my in box, I am constantly amazed at the great comments/suggestions/ideas you readers bring to the table.

A few weeks ago, reader Roger was using the web-based tool to look up Tim Lincecum and found some interesting results. After a little conversation with him, I wanted to turn that into the next anatomy-of-a-player article. So please, if you have anything you would like to add, write a comment on Ballhype or shoot me a quick e-mail.

The Giants drafted Lincecum with the 10th pick in the 2006 draft. After pitching just 13 games in the minors, Lincecum joined the Giants’ rotation, where it looks like he will be for years to come. Because PITCHf/x was installed in many parks on the West Coast early in the season, it tracked more than 1,000 of Lincecum’s pitches, which represents a little less than half of his total pitches.

Lincecum is a three-pitch pitcher, throwing his famous fastball, a curve and a change. He reminds me a lot of a young Ben Sheets, with a better change. Both were college products who quickly made it to the majors. Both feature their fastball, which they throw in the mid 90s. Both seem very willing to challenge batters with their fastball. Both strike out a lot of batters, and while Lincecum walked more than league average last year, so did Sheets until he settled in and had a few years under his belt.

While Lincecum probably won’t reach Sheets’ level of control, few pitchers do. Also, it appears his off-speed pitches are far more advanced than Sheets’ at his age.

Let’s start with a look at how Lincecum’s pitches break. Negative means the ball is breaking in to a right-handed batter.

Lincecum’s fastball averages just over 95 mph on the radar gun. Most of the time when someone throws that fast, it doesn’t have a lot of horizontal break (see Turnbow, Derrick). Lincecum, however, gets a lot of horizontal break to go along with the natural “rise” of the four-seamer. His fastball bores in to a right-handed batter, making the pitch deadly. Because of this, Lincecum throws his fastball nearly two-thirds of the time. While this is a pretty high percentage, it doesn’t quite make the league leader board.

What about his other pitches?

Like many pitchers, Lincecum throws different offspeed pitches depending on the handedness of the batter. If he is facing a lefty, he relies on his 12-to-6 curve. Like Sheets’, Lincecum’s curve can be devastating, but Lincecum gets far more vertical break on his curve than Sheets does. While this curve isn’t quite Zito-esque, it is very similar to the break that Rich Hill gets. This is augmented by the rise on his fastball. The difference between these two pitches in terms of vertical movement is huge and causes the illusion of an even larger break to the hitter.

While Lincecum’s curve has a lot going for it, it doesn’t seem like he locates it as well as he would like. It appears he is leaving a lot of curves up in the zone. When he does get the pitch down, he appears to be getting plenty of swings and misses. Although his curve wasn’t hit hard even when it was up in the zone, if he can work on keeping that pitch down it will become even more effective.

Lincecum’s third pitch is his changeup, which he throws only about 16% of the time, mostly to right handers. While in college at Washington, Lincecum rarely threw his change and used a slider, which he now has scrapped. When he signed with the Giants, he started working on his change, which he throws with a unique grip. Even though Lincecum has just started throwing a changeup, it already is an incredibly effective pitch for him. Here is a look at location of his changeups.

Again, negative is closer to a right-handed batter. As opposed to his curve, Lincecum’s change generally stays down or in to a right hander, with few pitches up over the plate. As a result, only five of those pitches resulted in hits and only one went for extra bases (a double). All five of those pitches were right on the corner of the plate, so even those were quality pitches. Also, look at all the swings and misses he is getting, especially when he throws it down and in to a right hander.

So Lincecum’s change has produced some amazing results. What is he doing to make it so effective? First, he is throwing the pitch very similarly to his fastball. It has nearly the same horizontal break as his fastball, but with less “rise.” It isn’t as hidden as Tom Glavine‘s change up, but still is well hidden.

Second, he throws it much slower than his fastball, checking in under 85 mph. That 10 mph difference is very large for a changeup. For instance, Johan Santana has less than an 8 mph difference. Cole Hamels has a difference around 9 mph and rookie changeup specialist Carlos Villanueva has less than a 7 mph difference. That huge separation really helps him get all those swings and misses.

To sum up, Lincecum appears to locate his change well while hiding the pitch and offering a huge speed difference from his fastball. Sounds like a plus plus pitch to me. So why isn’t he throwing it more often? He still must not feel completely comfortable with it or he might be leaning on his fastball a little too much. If he does start to throw his changeup more often, look out.

While Lincecum is mostly known for his fastball, he does have very strong off-speed pitches. If he uses these pitches a little more often, he could move quickly from a very good pitcher to one of the best pitchers in the league. With the Giants going with some younger players, their defense could improve next year. That could make Lincecum’s numbers look even better.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Lastly, I want to let everyone know that the latest version of the web-based tool has been released. You can find it here. It isn’t perfect yet but it is a huge improvement over the first version.

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