Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Zito power pitching, Lincecum finessing?!

Just yesterday, Mattew Carruth of FanGraphs posted on those pitchers that had gained and lost the most inches on their fastball from 2008 to 2009. Most people probably wouldn’t be shocked to hear that two Giants starters found themselves on the two lists: Lincecum for fastball lost and Zito for fastball gained. Lincecum was tied for the 4th largest loss in fastball among qualified pitchers with a minimum of 50 innings in both 2008 and 2009. On average, his fastball was 1.7 MPH slower in 2009 than in 2008. Zito, with an average gain of 1.6 MPH, tied for the 9th largest gain in fastball (50 inning min). This piqued my interest and thus I’d like to examine what likely caused this phenomenon for both players and how it affected their performance.

It was somewhat extensively covered by the media in the case of Lincecum, most notably when he pitched in the heat. Aside from the always insightful Krukow mentioning Zito’s extra zip during broadcasts, the extra velocity he had on his heater went by and large unnoticed. Krukow also frequently described Lincecum’s ability to back off and add speed in 2009, something the maturity he’d developed in his first one and a half seasons in the majors afforded him. Krukow believed that Lincecum had learned that it was unnecessary to throw the ball as hard as he can with each pitch. Rather, he simply could throw the ball at a more controlled level while spotting it much better. I myself grew up listening to Kruk and Kuip’s banter and I’d have to say Krukow was dead on. While it’d seem terribly optimistic to attribute 100% of the loss on his fastball speed to Lincecum’s growth as a “pitcher” from a “thrower,” I believe Krukow was correct and this was a major factor. I’m leaning towards a combination. I do think Timmy has learned to back off on the heater. But I also believe he probably lost at least a little zip on his fastball having thrown over 225 innings in each of his first two full campaigns. Many people have posited that game time temperature (specifically hot and humid weather) is the largest factor causing Lincecum to lose some fastball. I agree with this, there does seem to be strong evidence supporting this theory. But because Lincecum must have pitched in hot weather both in 2008 and 2009 I don’t see any reason why temperature could have contributed to his specific loss in fastball year to year, 2008 to 2009. Something worth noting is the fact that Lincecum most often throws a two seam fastball. While most hard throwing pitchers use the four seam fastball most often, that’s not the case with Lincecum. The two seamer does reduce the speed of the pitch but it also gives the pitch greater movement (or late life). It’s actually quite remarkable that the small statured right hander is such a flame thrower with everything stacked against him. The result of course is the two Cy Young’s on his mantle, wait, I mean in the trunk of his Mercedes.

Krukow mentioned Zito’s extra zip in 2009. Well, what do we know about what Zito did after his 2008 season? Many fans may recall that during the winter after Zito’s abysmal 2008 season (a season in which he began 0-8 followed by a deomotion to the bullpen), he joined workout guru and teammate Brian Wilson on his 6 day a week workout regimen and throwing program. Zito also began throwing long toss over a 200 foot gorge with Wilson. While a member of the Oakland A’s, Zito threw much more often and at longer distances between starts and during the offseason. He abandoned that in his first two seasons with San Francisco. This information probably paints a much clearer picture why Zito was throwing harder than why Lincecum was throwing softer.

At last, it’s time for the results:

The extra zip on Zito’s fastball definitely helped him in 2009. You can see the impact in his ERA as well as his FIP (fielding independent pitching). Also, you can see that he walked fewer batters while striking out more. He pretty much improved across the board, with exception of HR/9. Zito did give up the long ball slightly more often, however, because his WHIP (walks + hits per IP) decreased by a quarter of a base runner per inning the homeruns didn’t hurt him as badly. He posted a 4.31 FIP in 2009 which strangely enough is exactly in line with his career FIP. He posted FIP’s below 4.00 in each of his first 3 seasons (2000-2002), however, he’s posted FIP’s above 4.00 in each season thereafter. So if Zito continues to work as hard as he did last offseason this seems like a reasonable place to start projecting Zito’s performance because FIP is much more indicative of future performance than ERA. I’ve also included Zito’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) for each season. You can see that he was worth nearly an extra win with his new (or more likely rediscovered) fastball. Oddly, Zito posted a WAR of 2.1 in 2006, i.e. his walk year and just before singing the $126 mil deal with the Giants. With this in mind, I should ask the question. Would you pay a player $126 mil coming off the season that Zito had in 2009? Well, Sabean (or maybe McGowan) thought it a good idea in the winter of 2006. This was a painful mistake the Giants have been paying for and will continue to pay for until they buy him out at a cost of $7 mil in his final option year.  Another tidbit that is worth noting from Carruth's post is that, despite Zito's improved fastball, he threw it 5% less often in 2009.  Why might that be?  Without much statistical evidence I am going to have to hypothesize that Zito's improved arm speed resurrected his hitter freezing and demoralizing curve ball.  Perhaps, he wasn't throwing the heater less often but instead was just throwing the hammer more often.  It did appear to me that Zito's curve had greatly improved from the previous year in 2009.***

***UPDATE:  I did actually go and look at Zito's pitches by percentage for 2008 and 2009, and the results weren't exactly what I hypothesized.  Zito did throw his curve more often, however, it was only about 2% more often.  Instead, Zito threw his slider much more often in 2009, doubling his percentage from 9% to 18%.  An increase in arm speed would actually improve his slider so this definitely makes sense as well.  The about 18% of the time he threw his curve was roughly the same percentage he used it in 2006 and 2007.  In the old days, Zito threw it upwards of 20% of the time.  The strangest part of his pitch percentages for me was the frequency in which Zito threw the fastball, change-up combination in 2008.  His fastball was getting downright Jamie Moyer like and yet he was throwing it often and off of his change-up.  It's no wonder he was gatting tattooe'd.  The change-up probably didn't have anywhere close the differential between it and the fastball to make it effective, and yet, that's how he was attacking hitters.  Passive aggressive much?

I’ve examined Lincecum’s numbers in a previous post and you can see here that despite his slower fastball he improved across the board.  Lincecum struck batters out at virtually the same clip he had in 2008 while also substantially reducing his walk rate and limiting the home run slightly more.  In fact, in 2009 Lincecum didn't give up a single home run at China Basin which is impressive in itself.  You can see that he improved his WAR by over half a win and lowered his FIP.  Some might think this somewhat strange considering it's believed he lost a little on his fastball.  To me, his outstanding and improved 2009 statistics more lend to Krukow's theory.  Lincecum wasn't throwing slower because he no longer had the arm speed to throw a pitch at the same velocity he had in 2008, but rather he was choosing to reduce the speed on his heater to harness it and place it where he wanted more often.  Lincecum's change-up no doubt developed more and more into an absolutely devestating pitch in 2009.  It's probably one of the nastiest pitches in the game and belongs in the conversation with Rivera's cutter.  Because it is so effective Lincecum doesn't necessarily have to throw the ball 96 with each fastball he lets fly because the movement (fading down and away to lefties) and speed differential is enough that it is still just as effective.  It is his change-up, not his fastball or filthy curve he was known for coming out of UW, that has made him an elite starter.  Lincecum now works with 4 above average pitches (2-seam fastball, change-up, curve and slider), mixes speeds on each of them and uses both sides of the plate.  Because of this, he posts outstandingly equal splits and seems to be nearly if not as effective vs. left handed batters when typically pitchers post greater numbers versus like-handed batters.  He even strikes out lefties more often, which is likely much-assisted by that change-up fading left to right, down and away from lefties.  

The results of this examination are pretty interesting. While Zito improved his fastball speed he had better results.  While Linceum decreased his fastball speed he had better results.  Both pitchers probably couldn't be more dissimilar.  One lefty and one righty.  One a power pitcher and the other now more of a finesse pitcher.  For Zito, from one Giants fan here's to hoping he keeps his strength up and can continue to perform at his 2009 level.  You can wish he starts pitching like his $126 mil contract.  You can also wish in one hand and spit in the other, then see which one fills up faster.  But as far as Lincecum goes, the sky is the limit.  Whether or not he makes $8 mil or $13 mil next season, he's likely to continue dismantling left and right handed swings every fifth day as the ballast of the San Francisco Giants rotation. 

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