Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Road to Lincecum's 3rd Cy Young

The Giants have the type of rotation that GM’s and managers dream about. They have Cain, Sanchez, now Bumgarner and Zito – a roughly a league average pitcher, which is so critical to a contender as was so poignantly pointed out recently by King Kaufman. Finally they have Tim Lincecum, easily the most talented arm in the rotation to say the least, despite being a pony in a stable of stallions. More accurately, Tim Lincecum is one of the most talented – not to mention absolutely exhilarating to watch – pitchers in baseball now, recently and perhaps ever.

So let us get on with this business of: Can he win his third Cy in 2011? But first, we must start at the beginning. Lincecum came into the league in 2007 after forging a swath in the minor leagues that would make Sherman blush. He was somewhat rudely greeted by the Phillies’ Shane Victorino and Ryan Howard, but then he got the most recent laugh. He made 24 starts and pitched extremely effectively, winning 7 games, throwing 146.1 innings and striking out greater than a batter per inning while walking four per nine. He was still just getting his feet on the ground, and yet he was worth 3.2 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in roughly three-fourths of a season.

Over the next two seasons, he was a force to be reckoned with. He would combine to win 33 games in 66 starts in 452.1 innings, while walking around three per nine and striking out well over ten per nine. He was also relenting home runs at a rate of just .42 per nine innings. In 2008 he finished with a 2.62 ERA, an identical 2.62 FIP and 7.5 WAR. In 2009 he finished with a 2.48 ERA, a 2.34 FIP and 8.2 WAR. For his outstanding effort, he took home the ultimate hardware for a pitcher in each season, i.e. the Cy Young award.

In 2010, he struggled and people panicked, a lot. When all was said and done after the regular season, he’d won 16 games in 33 starts over 212.1 innings, hardly a disaster. He’d also, again, struck out well over a batter per inning while walking 3.22 (for a ratio of 3.04). His home run rate did increase to .76 per nine but it was far from poor. He finished with a 3.43 ERA, a 3.15 FIP and a still outstanding 5.1 WAR. He was far from broken, but so it goes when you win back-to-back Cy Young awards in your first two full seasons. So what happened?

In March and April he pitched brilliantly and everyone was sure he’d win another Cy Young. In May he inexplicably completely lost his control and walked nearly six batters per nine innings. In June he went back to doing what he does and pitched great. In July he stopped striking batters out in quite the droves but walked fewer and pitched great; he was doing what he does, mostly. In August the stuff hit the fan. He once again was striking batters out, but he just wasn’t getting the results. He walked nearly five per nine, which was up but certainly not alarming in a small sample. But something else happened. His home run per fly ball rate skyrocketed to 17.8% and he gave up nearly two home runs per nine. Exacerbating matters, the diminutive ace gave up nearly a .400 average on balls in play, an unusually high number not likely to recur given his .308 career mark. Talk radio lost it, the sky was falling and the Freak was ordinary, no bad. But in September and October, the decorated competitor returned and he again pitched as brilliantly as he had in April, no more brilliantly. He surged. He struck out greater than eleven per nine, walked 1.73 for a ratio or 6.50, his ERA was 1.94 and his FIP 2.17.

He’d rebounded in mesmerizing fashion, going 4-1 in the playoffs behind a few decent starts and two truly brilliant ones – his Game 1 NLDS, 14-strikeout, 31-swing-and-miss start in particular – and the Giants won the World Series. It’s safe to say a handful believed he was back, while others, if not outwardly, wondered: who is now the real Tim Lincecum?

Over his career, he’s won 56 games in 123 games and 811 innings. He’s had an ERA of 3.04 and a FIP of 2.86. With peripherals, he’s been brilliant; he has struck out 10.07 batters per nine while walking 3.25 (ratio of 3.1), and given up just .57 home runs per nine. He’s casting a career that ends in Cooperstown, racking up 24 Wins Above Replacement in fewer than four seasons.

So what happened in May and August of 2010? The simplest answer may be that these things just happen. And, it may be the correct one too. Oddly enough, in some ways he improved in 2010, giving fuel to the argument that he 1) struggled with control for whatever reason at times and 2) was simply unlucky other times. After all, his line drive rate (LD%) was right in line with his career (19%) at 19.5% in 2010, and in between the 20.8% and 19.2% he posted in his two Cy Young seasons. Even better, his ground ball rate (GB%) improved to a career high of 48.9%, up from 47.9 in ’09 and 43.9 in ’08. And finally, his fly ball rate (FB%) decreased, again, which it has in every season, from 37.5, to 35.3, to 33.3 to 31.6 in 2010. These are all indicators that would actually portend better results. His home run per fly ball rate (HR/FB) did increase to 9.9% but there’s no reason to conclude this is permanent given his resume.

And with all the evidence that Tim Lincecum is likely poised to rebound, there’s more. Much of the hullabaloo surrounding Lincecum in 2010 revolved around his diminished fastball velocity. While real, it’s not something that, in my mind, is going to either cripple or doom him. Furthermore, there’s reason to believe it will improve.

The above chart comes from Fangraphs’ Pitch F/X data. It’s clear to see that his fastball velocity has fallen from its peak in 2008. But if you look at around midseason in 2010 – this is the middle of the far right pink area – you’ll see that it peaked and then dropped precipitously over several starts. After which, you’ll see that it steadily and over time substantially increased over the rest of the season, creating a trough from midseason until seasons end. Many Giants fans will recall that Lincecum redoubled his conditioning efforts after a meeting with Bochy, as well as after a quote came out from Roy Oswalt about his own conditioning, and how pivotal it’s been to him to stabilize his plus velocity throughout his career, especially give his small stature. Lincecum was apparently listening, and I think the results were evident. You, the reader(s), can make your own determination.

There’s more. In a post just before the Game 1 NLCS matchup between Lincecum and Roy Halladay, I mentioned that he was taught a new slider grip by Matt Cain before a game against San Diego on September 12. Well, there’s substance to this rumor as well.

The above chart shows Lincecum’s slider velocity in his career. You’ll see that it has been pretty sporadic at times, and never was it more so than throughout 2010. More often than not, it was below 85 MPH if not well below, while at other times, it was above 85 and sometimes well above it. This is when it was not a refined or go-to-pitch for him, and when thrown particularly hard I believe it was behaving as a cutter. Take a look at the final four green dots in the far right pink area. You can see that he began throwing his slider in the 85-86 MPH range with consistency. The first of the four dots represents September 12, and the remaining three represent September 18, 24 and 29. Whatever Cain taught him, he was using – just ask the Braves who faced him in Game 1 of the NLDS.

In addition to the slider coming in harder, it was moving differently, too.

 Both of the above come from his September 24 start against the Rockies. During which, I myself was driving with friends to Big Sur for a glorious weekend of camping while listening to the game, and enjoying every decibel of it. You MUST go sometime. The left side shows both the vertical and horizontal movement of the pitch, and the right side shows the vertical movement and velocity. What we can see, is that he’s throwing the pitch about 86 MPH on average, while also getting both downward and right to left movement. This is devastating to a right handed hitter – please ask Aaron Rowand – and can also be effective in slipping a pitch under a lefties bat – please ask Nate Schierholtz, or perhaps every left-handed hitter who has emerged from the Giants’ farm system; I hope Brandon Belt doesn’t suffer the same fate. Lincecum threw eight innings, struck out nine and walked none in this masterful outing in Colorado.

Now here’s one from August 5, 2010, the month of the heart of his struggles and a game which he gave up two home runs, including a game winning one to Eric Hinske.

You should notice a few things. Most obvious is the fact that he’s throwing far fewer sliders. Also, you can see that the average velocity is closer to 82 MPH or less, and no slider approaches 85. Lastly and least obviously, you can see that his getting less vertical movement, which means the ball is going downward or falling less. This is one example, and I encourage you to numb your mind by looking at more of his games by going to his Fangraphs page > Pitch F/X > Game Charts. What I think you’ll discover is that his slider was more of an afterthought than a go-to pitch in his career. It was sometimes harder and more like a cutter. It was other times slower and perhaps more slurvy as opposed to having sharp bite. This is clearly not the same pitch it was in September.

Let’s look at another:

This one actually belongs to Matt Cain when on September 26, 2010, he threw a nine inning complete game and struck out nine while walking one. Like in Tim’s example, you’ll see he’s throwing the pitch with both horizontal (right to left) movement and vertical action (downward bite). Also, he’s throwing the pitch at about the same speed as Lincecum was, or around 86 MPH. This is an example of when Cain’s at his best. When he’s got that slider going, he strikes batters out and is very tough. But, if you look back up at Lincecum’s September 24th game, you’ll see that Tim is actually getting much more downward bite more often than not. Perhaps, the apprentice has exceeded his mentor.

Finally, for dramatic effect, let us view just one more:

This chart is neither from Lincecum nor Cain. This actually belongs to Zack Greinke, winner of the 2009 AL Cy Young award and possessor of a devastating slider. What you’ll see is that he’s throwing it at around the same velocity as both Cain and Lincecum, if not just a bit harder at times, as well as getting both vertical and horizontal movement. With that being said, if you really take a close look at both Greinke’s charts here, and Lincecum’s September 24 chart above, you’ll likely discover that Lincecum is actually getting more vertical movement. That movement is what made Rob Nen so nasty and what does the same for Brad Lidge when he’s right. Folks, let me tell you, this is a nightmare for a hitter. On this day, amidst his Cy Young campaign on August 25, 2009, Greinke went all of eight innings, struck out fifteen Indians and walked just one, a spectacular outing.

In conclusion: There’s quite a lot here that bodes well for the Freak in 2011. We’ve seen that he may well have ran into a bit of bad luck in 2010, when his batting average on balls in play (BABiP) went from a career mark of (and very normal) .308 to .324. And in addition to that, he had a month where he just couldn’t seem to keep the ball in the park for whatever reason, and in another just couldn’t throw strikes. We also may well have some empirical evidence, along with what we’ve heard with his conditioning, that his velocity is trending upwards again. While it’s probably very safe to say his mid-nineties heater probably won’t reemerge, a consistent 92-93 is attainable. And finally, it seems clear that Tim has added a quality pitch to his repertoire, if not a devilish one, to couple with his changeup that has so tormented the league. What he now has is two pitches to put away hitters. One designed to dispatch left-handed hitters – this is the changeup because it moves down and left to right. And the other designed to screw right-handed hitters into fits – this is the slider biting downward and right to left. Which is not to say they aren’t weapons regardless of the opposing hitters handedness. Good luck.

In any case, he’s my (very early) 2011 NL Cy Young pick because Tim Lincecum is still carrying the fire.

Stats and Pitch F/X data pulled from Fangraphs 12/8/10


  1. Wow, excellent post! Loved reading it! I totally agree, Lincecum will be back. Maybe even his mid-90's heater, I think one lesson of 2010 for him is that he has to listen to Dad and do the workouts the way he was taught as a kid, and keep it going if he's going to be great in the long run. And I think he has that kind of mindset. Hence why he started long tossing again between games, hence why he didn't sign with Cleveland even though he was offered almost $1M, hence why the Giants were not able to get more than a two year from him, he thinks highly of himself and wants to be paid fairly.

    Match that mindset with his two pitches, and I think he's going to have a stretch going forward (i.e. ignoring his two Cy Young seasons already) that will rival Sandy Koufax's golden years. His changeup was already crazy good, I think The Hardball Times had him with one of the best, if not the best, changeups in terms of keeping other teams scoring, and if he can keep the slider going, that could also be crazy good, just looking at what he did in Sept/Oct/Nov. I think a no-hitter, if not multiple ones, are coming.

    Just glad Sabean thought outside the box regarding Lincecum when drafting him, it seemed most experts thought that his body type would mean he would be a reliever ideally. In fact, most had the Giants going after Daniel Bard, who the Red Sox eventually picked, and he's still not in the majors yet, though close. Sabean and Tidrow did the right thing, clearly.

    Just one datapoint to add to support your article. After his one bad month in his first season in the majors, which was after one good month, he had an ERA of just under 3 for the rest of the season (I think it was like 2.96 or 94, if I recall right), which was a precursor to his great second season, I felt. That was why I was so high on him then and why I disagreed vehemently with the people who were OK with that trade proposed by Blue Jays for Rios. That would have been an epically bad trade, up there with trading Babe Ruth and Lou Brock.

    And that is with the Timmy up to now. Now he's looking like he'll get even better, as your analysis clearly shows.

    I think you hit the nail on the head, Timmy should be the favorite to win 2011's Cy Young out of the chute.

  2. Thanks! One thing though, Bard is already in the majors. He's Boston's setup man and soon to be their closer, because he's already better than Papelbon. He's a great pick, too, of course. But Lincecum was the better pick and a ridiculous steal at 10. People are still pissed in SEA about that. They took Morrow ahead of him, eventually traded him for League - a decent reliever - just before he figured it out with a nice year in Toronto.

  3. Conditioning, or blisters?

  4. Blisters might have been a factor. I'd say that certainly could have diminished his control, and even velocity.