Adjustments by the Freak

It is fairly common knowledge that Tim Lincecum is one of the top pitchers in Major League Baseball. He has ranked first, third and fifteenth in the league in Field Independent Pitching (FIP) over the past three seasons, respectively.

Despite the consistent success, Lincecum has had some underlying changes to his repertoire. He burst onto the scene in 2007 and 2008 sporting a 94-mph fastball. Since then, however, his fastball velocity has been in steady decline.

The following table summarizes the loss of velocity by year using BIS data for fastballs, PITCHf/x data for fastballs and—to take out some of the classification issues—Tango’s trick of looking at the top 25% of pitches in velocity according to PITCHf/x.

























BIS Pfx top 25%
2008 94.1 94.1 95.8
2009 92.4 92.4 93.7
2010 91.3 91.3 92.6

For some additional pieces on Lincecum and velocity, Dave Cameron has previously discussed it here and here.

Investigating an effect

One of the first logical questions when presented with the declining velocity data is, “How big of an effect, if any, does the velocity loss have on performance?” Should it be something we pay attention to this coming season?

Mike Fast found that in general a starter losing one mph will see his runs allowed rise by approximately 0.25 runs, but how can that generalized result be applied to a specific pitcher?

To offer insight into that question, I will introduce two specific data points:

1. Run value per pitch by velocity
2. An at-bat-level metric

What happens if we take a granular view and look at success on a pitch-by-pitch basis? The following graph plots run values per 100 fastballs (rv100) versus velocity over the 2008-2010 seasons. Lower numbers (more negative) equate to a more effective pitch.

image

There are more variables at play here than simply velocity—sequencing and location to name a few. However, this chart does seem to be evidence in favor of velocity being important to the success of Lincecum’s fastball, at least up to a point.

Velocities between 93 mph and 97 mph all have better run value results than do those at 91 mph or 92 mph. The 91-92 mph range is one Lincecum spends a lot more time in now than he did in 2008. One key distinction to make is that the analysis to this point only focuses on fastballs. The rv100 chart merely shows how the fastball is affected; it doesn’t show how other pitches, or entire at-bats, are affected.

In an attempt to garner insight into that very question, I binned at-bats by counting the number of 94-plus mph fastballs in an individual at-bat and then calculated the weighted on-base avearge (wOBA) against for each bin. The following table summarizes the results:














































94+ fastballs PA wOBA
0 1977 0.279
1 359 0.288
2 197 0.229
3 95 0.187
4 55 0.265
5 26 0.232
6 9 0.377
7 6 0.657

Again, this table generally points to velocity being helpful to Lincecum’s cause. There are some sample size issues given the low number of plate appearances in some bins, but in general it appears that some 94-plus mph fastballs are better than none. As a whole, the wOBA against when there is at least one 94-plus mph fastball is 0.260 compared to 0.279 when there is none.

Retroactive Review: Ace
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The combination of the two presented pieces of data points us towards at least a small correlation between velocity and success for Lincecum, both on the individual pitch level and on the at-bat level.

Adjusting in light of the evidence

Now that I have shown some evidence towards at least a slight correlation between fastball velocity and fastball success for Lincecum, it follows that the next question to ask is, “What adjustments has Lincecum made to maintain success?” The clearest adjustment would be a change in pitch usage as a lesser fastball might not be used as frequently. The following chart summarizes how frequently Lincecum has used his pitches over the three-year span being investigated.

image

Clearly, the chart shows that he has been less reliant on his fastball as his velocity has decreased, with a good portion of the slack being picked up by his curveball. These data point to Lincecum being aware that his fastball is less effectiveness with less velocity, and he is adjusting his approach as required to get hitters out.

As an addition to the overall usage, I thought it might be telling to see how Lincecum has used his fastball by count over the three-year span. The following table summarizes that data, with the percentages representing the percent of fastballs thrown in that count.





















































































Count 2008 2009 2010
0-0 72% 67% 65%
0-1 61% 48% 43%
0-2 49% 29% 44%
1-0 75% 66% 64%
1-1 61% 46% 41%
1-2 44% 39% 33%
2-0 88% 85% 84%
2-1 82% 64% 54%
2-2 47% 35% 31%
3-0 98% 100% 96%
3-1 88% 86% 80%
3-2 69% 42% 42%
All 65% 56% 53%

The most telling lines of the table are the 3-2 line and the 2-1 line. Counts where Lincecum had previously been throwing predominately fastballs are now mixed. Sure, some of that shift is probably due to game theory between hitter and pitcher and hitters making adjustments, but some of the change is likely a realization that, if a hitter knows the fastball is coming, it is less likely to be successful than it has been in the past.

Another way to combat declining velocity would be with location. That said, the only point worth mentioning that I could find was that in 2010 he threw approximately three percent fewer fastballs in the generic strike zone than he had in 2008.

Summary

Lincecum’s fastball effectiveness and general effectiveness when looked at on an at-bat by at-bat level is affected by velocity. That said, Lincecum has made some adjustments in the way he approaches hitters that seem to have counteracted some of the diminishing velocity. What does this mean for this year? Clearly, he has shown an ability to succeed with the altered approach, but it will still be something to keep an eye on as the season plays out.

References & Resources
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM and downloaded using Joe Lefokowitz’s tool. Other stats are from Fangraphs


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Steve's ramblings about baseball can also be found at Beyond the Box Score and Play a Hard Nine or you can follow him on Twitter
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DrBGiantsfan
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DrBGiantsfan
It’s fairly well known that Timmy let his conditioning slide through mid-season last year.  The Giants called him out on it and he re-dedicated himself.  His peak velocities were back up into the 92-94 range late in the season and the post-season.  Like many veteran pitchers, he doesn’t throw at peak velocity all the time any more.  Andy Baggarly, a Giants beat writer, has reported that he was sitting at 93 MPH in his first spring start.  Timmy has thrown mostly fastballs so far and has stated that one of his goals is to make sure he establishes the fastball… Read more »
Mat Kovach
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Mat Kovach

Actually what I think is that for the first time in the Pitch F/X era, we are seeing the evolution of a thrower into a pitcher.

Mike Fast
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Mike Fast

Mat, I thought we first saw that with Cliff Lee from thrower in 2007 to pitcher in 2008.  His change in approach between those two years was far more dramatic than anything Lincecum has changed.  Lee has continued to gradually evolve his approach since then, too, of course.

Mat Kovach
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Mat Kovach

No, with Cliff Lee the 2007 year as completely due to his attitude. His change was because he finally grew up (after be left off the playoff roster).

Also, Lee’s pitching hasn’t that change much. His speed hasn’t change much nor his approach. He has just gotten better, more consistent.

Plus, well .. that and the “hard slider” he may or may not have developed in 2008*

* Pure speculation on my part. Nope, this Clevelander never saw anything. Nada. Nope. Probably should just delete that before I mistakenly hit Su

Graham
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Graham
@Dr.B—good points overall, but I must quibble with one of your characterizations of Lincecum’s arsenal.  Even in his first year of professional baseball, he was already relying on the two-seamer almost exclusively.  You can find interviews from 2006 where he says as much.  Also—Timmy has said that one thing he’d like to do this year is to re-establish his curveball.  If you go back to pre-draft scouting reports on him from 2006, you can find scouts who rated the pitch as a pure 80, but for whatever reason, his curve has never played that well in the bigs.  If he… Read more »
Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
Mat, Lee’s approach changed dramatically from 2007 to 2008.  (I wrote about it in the 2009 THT Annual.) He added a two-seam fastball in 2008, and this allowed him to completely revamp his approach with the fastball and improve his command.  His two-seamer became his main pitch to right-handed batters in 2008.  In 2007 he used his four-seamer to both sides of the plate against both RHB and LHB and didn’t throw the two-seamer. In 2008, he used the four-seam exclusively to the third-base (glove) side of the plate and the two-seamer exclusively to the first-base (arm) side of the… Read more »
Mike Fast
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Mike Fast

I find the topic of Lincecum’s fastball velocity fascinating and challenging.  There are issues with pitch type classification, there are issues with measurement errors; but even after you adjust for all those, at the end of the day, Lincecum seems to have lost significant velocity since 2008 and still remained effective, and it’s not entirely clear how he did that.

Steve Sommer
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Steve Sommer

@ Dr. B – thanks for the Giants perspective.

@ Mat – Yeah Lincecum probably has transitioned more to a pitcher.  The interesting question would be, “was it my choice or by need?”

@ Mike – Agree completely with your last comment.  It’s a very interesting topic, and this relatively quick analysis likely only scratches the surface.

gdc
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gdc

I remember the only time I was at a game he pitched, in his 1st or early 2nd year.  The stadium gun at AT&T had him regularly at 96 from the 1st to the 8th inning.

obsessivegiantscompulsive
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obsessivegiantscompulsive
DrB beat me to the punch, plus did it way better than I could have. I agree with Graham, but forgive DrB for mixing up the terms, I get them confused all the time myself.  Lincecum only used the 2-seamer when he came up and Krukow noted all the time when discussing him post-game that he’s amazed by this because the 4-seamer would give him even more velocity.  I’m not aware of Lincecum using the 4-seamer yet, and if he were, then one would think his velocity would have gone up instead of down, suggesting that, for whatever reason, he… Read more »
Jesse C.
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Jesse C.
Last year elucidated the rise of the changeup league-wide. A changeup in and of itself can’t explain the rise of such a great pitching year, but rather illustrates that a good starting pitcher can rarely succeed with just 2 plus pitches any more.  Gone are the days of the nasty heater/slider or splitfinger pure power SP sustaining success over 200+ innings while dragging a meek changeup over 5% of the time.  Sequence mixing of 3 plus pitches minimum is the elevated bench mark for elite SPs now more than ever.  In a sense, 2008 Timmeh was perfectly emblematic in bringing… Read more »
CJ
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CJ

Question (particularly since I’m not going to look it up myself):

In comparing the years with higher vs. lower velocity, have the number of pitches per batter and innings pitched per start changed significantly for Lincecum?  I am wondering if a pitcher tends to pace himself more, in terms of fastball velocity, as he attempts to go deeper in games.

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