A warning to right-handed hitters, Cy Young hopefuls

Tim Lincecum has some stiff competition in the National League if he wants to win a third Cy Young this season. Adam Wainwright won’t be an obstacle, but Zack Greinke might when he finally hits the mound. Cliff Lee’s back in the National League and likely to pitch exquisitely. Yovani Gallardo is a popular preseason pick. And Ubaldo Jimenez, assuming his velocity drop is a due to a repairable thumb injury, is always looming. So too is Josh Johnson—before he missed the end of 2010, he was a solid Cy Young contender. Oh, and we won’t want to leave out the reigning winner, Roy Halladay, who is always a safe bet for the award, if not a total favorite. But I think Lincecum is as strong a contender as any of them, maybe more so, and that it won’t be either an improved fastball or that filthy change-up that’s most responsible for a return to form, of sorts.

After Lincecum’s Opening Day start, I wrote about his velocity at Dodger Stadium—it was quite encouraging for his ardent fans. He averaged about 93 mph in that start, topping out at around 95 mph. What’s more, he was able to maintain that velocity throughout the start, as the below graph shows. That might have been even more important than just throwing harder, because last year it wasn’t just the fact that he was unable to blister mid-90s heat, but that he would fall into the high-80s by the fourth or fifth inning. For those of us who witnessed him touching 100 back in 2007, it was startling indeed.

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Provided by Brooks Baseball PITCHf/x Tool

Lincecum’s second start this season was even more special. For one, he brought himself into a tie with Jason Schmidt for the second-most 10-strikeout games in Giants history. With two more, he’ll eclipse Hall-of-Fame right hander, Christy Mathewson. 2011 will only be his fourth full season with the Giants, and yet he’ll arguably be the greatest in franchise history, one that dates back more than 100 years between New York and San Francisco. I understand you may not be sold on that—I’m not so sure I am just yet—but the point is that, within a storied franchise employing the likes of Juan Marichal, Carl Hubbell, Gaylord Perry, Schmidt and Mathewson, he’s already in the conversation. He’s well on his way to supplanting them all as the Top Dog. And a bulldog he is.

The other reason it was so special was how dominant he was; a super dominant, regular season start had eluded him through virtually all of 2010 after coming off back-to-back NL Cy Young awards. This 13-whiff gem was a lot like the 14-strikeout game—with 31 swing and miss strikes, best of any pitcher in 2010—against the Braves in the NLDS. In that start, he needed 119 pitches (63 percent strikes) and nine innings to get the 14 whiffs—he baffled Atlanta’s lineup. He also walked a batter. In this start, he needed 105 (64 percent strikes) and seven innings to get 13 punch outs with zero walks. He did, however, give up a deep home run on a get-it-in fastball, but San Diego didn’t look the least bit comfortable in the box.

After Lincecum’s 14-strikeout (Van Gogh-like) masterpiece last October, Joe Posnanski, as he so often does, described it best:

At one point in Thursday’s mind-blowing game, Lincecum struck out Brooks Conrad on some sort of ridiculous super pitch—Conrad seemed to literally swing through the ball (he foul-tipped it). Bob Brenly called it a changeup. I shouted, ‘Come on Bob, that wasn’t a changeup. That was a curveball.’ And so I rewound the thing and watched it. And I said, ‘Oh wait, maybe he was right. Maybe it was a changeup.’ I rewound again and watched and said, ‘No, that wasn’t a changeup. That was a slider.’ I rewound again and watched and said, ‘No, wait, I think that WAS a curveball.’ I rewound again and finally settled on it being a slider. But really it was some sort of shape-shifting pitch. It could be whatever you wanted it to be.

This is the kind of reaction Lincecum’s stuff gets from safe and out-of-the-way onlookers; imagine your vulnerably standing inside the scuffed, rectangular chalk box as Lincecum steps back, tangles, and flings forward with a hellacious stride, delivering a 94-mph, darting two-seamer or maybe a tumbling change-up you look utterly foolish on. His pitch-to-pitch offerings aren’t graceful and effortless like Halladay; they’re just downright unsettling.

Can you imagine if he added another weapon? You shouldn’t have to, but I’ll return to that later.

It’s too early to come up with concrete conclusions, but Lincecum is showcasing a fastball in his first two starts that is much closer to the one he featured in 2009, which had plenty of velocity. In 2007 and 2008, he averaged 94.2 and 94.1 mph, and in 2009 it fell to 92.4. Despite the loss of velocity, and thanks to his menacing change, it was still his best professional season. Last season, that mark alarmingly fell again to 91.3. With improved conditioning, which was perhaps catalyzed by a midseason, through-the-media pep talk from Roy Oswalt in 2010, he’s averaged 92.8 thus far in 2011. Giants’ beat writer Andy Baggarly reported recently that Lincecum was about 15 pounds heavier since the start of spring, perhaps bolstering the weight behind his fastball further.

The loss of velocity didn’t render a huge decline in Lincecum’s stats last year, but it did probably hurt him in a couple of key areas. His strikeout rate went from 10.42 to 9.79 per nine, but the lower mark was still plenty impressive. If he can ratchet up his velocity some this season, I think that alone could get him back above 10.

His career mark for walks is 3.23 per nine, but I believe he’s capable of a lower rate like the 2.72 walks per nine he finished with in 2009. That was down from 3.33 in his 2008 campaign. I it’s likely that Lincecum’s fastball woes in 2010 impacted him in the control department in addition to missing bats. When a pitcher’s velocity is free and easy, it makes throwing strikes easier. He probably lost some location trying to keep his fastball above 90 mph. And there was a brief period where Lincecum altered the mechanics he’d been using since he was a kid, bringing his hands over his head while in the windup, providing further evidence he was completely out of whack. Comfort is a must for consistency in pitchers, and in 2010, Lincecum was not.

He also gave up more home runs. In 2008 and 2009, he had home run rates of 0.44 and 0.40 per nine innings—he gave up just 21 long balls in 452 innings. In 2010, it spiked to 0.76, the highest mark of his career. Unlike Matt Cain, he has strong groundball tendencies in addition to the swing-and-miss stuff. I think with improved location and velocity, we can believe his home run rate might go back to career levels of under 0.60 per nine innings, if not better.

The last thing I want to spend some time on is Lincecum’s slider. He’s not currently known for this pitch; people tend to focus on his devastating change-up, which is basically a splitter. That’s about to change.

At the end of the 2010 season, Cain taught Lincecum a new slider grip, his slider grip—it’s been a pretty excellent pitch for Cain in his career. He began using it on Sept. 12, and the results were awesome. Since he began throwing that pitch, including the playoffs and his first two 2011 starts, he’s thrown 78 innings with a strikeout rate of 10.73, a walk rate of 2.19 (K/BB ratio of 4.90) and a 1.85 ERA. He’s simply been better than ever, and half of those starts came against playoff teams in the NLDS, NLCS and World Series.

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Provided by FanGraphs PITCHf/x

You can see from the above chart that his slider has been a work in progress. He threw it less than two percent of the time his rookie season. In 2008, that went to just over five percent and then approached nine percent in 2010. From 2007-2009, it never even approached a velocity over 85 mph. In 2010, the velocity chart for his slider went wonky. What I can’t figure out is whether the PITCHf/x data are correct; I suspect not. His velocity with the pitch was all over the place, up and down, and I have a hunch some of those were change-ups, and a lot of them were actually fastballs that weren’t behaving the way they had in his first couple of seasons.

What you can take away from the chart, though, is that the slider was far from a refined, repeatable pitch he could count on every game. But starting on Sept. 12, 2010, you’ll notice the consistency of the last six dots. That’s the slider he’s been throwing ever since Cain gave him the best present a pitcher can ask for: another out pitch. So far this season, it’s been his best pitch. He’s doubled its usage to 18.8 percent and is throwing it at nearly 86 mph. It’s already been worth 2.6 runs above average as compared to the 1.8 runs above average his change-up has been, thus far. If this continues, it’ll be somewhat shocking considering his change-up has been about twice as effective as any of his other offerings since 2009.

His splits are interesting, too. A lot of pitchers have a significant split—they’re usually better versus like-handed batters. That’s not the case with Lincecum, thanks to his awesome split-finger change-up; he has a 2.98 FIP versus lefties and a 2.71 FIP versus righties. Remarkably, he’s actually wiped out more lefties in his career (strikeout rate of 10.26 versus 9.91) than righties. But, he’s walked about half a batter per nine innings more and given up a few more home runs to lefties, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising.

He’s still been extremely dominant against right-handed hitters, but I think with the addition of the slider, he’s going to eat them alive. So far this year, he’s struck out 13.5 righties per nine innings. We know that his change-up is most effective versus lefties, and that it’s the single pitch that’s propelled him into the echelon of the game’s elite.

We also know that change-ups aren’t usually as useful versus right-handed hitters, but despite that it’s still been a very good pitch for him versus same-handed hitters. He’ll probably still use it against righties, but I think the slider is in particular is going to be death to them versus the contorting Lincecum—I won’t be surprised to see his split evolve this year, to where righthanders’ efforts are suddenly futile versus him. This doesn’t bode well for the Troy Tulowitzkis and Matt Kemps of the National League.

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If you want to see a visual of just how differently his slider is behaving now, then look no further than the above and below graphs from FanGraphs. The top graphs show the vertical and horizontal movement, as well as the velocity and vertical movement, of Lincecum’s slider on Aug. 5, 2010—the red dots are the sliders. You’ll notice first that he didn’t throw many of them. You should also notice that velocity is around 82 mph and not approaching the upper-80s. The below graph is a stark contrast, from less than two months after the top graph, on Sept. 24, and is more representative of what he’s been doing since Sept. 12. He’s throwing far more sliders, with way more velocity and far better movements, specifically vertical or downward movement. His slider is hard and biting. Comparing the below with the slider Greinke featured in his Cy Young season (2009) will show stunningly similar characteristics.

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Lincecum’s career has been one of constant change. He dominated hitters in 2008 with a blistering fastball on his way to his first Cy Young award. In 2009, he tossed change-up after change-up and won the award again. And even in 2010, amid his many struggles with command and velocity and experiencing failure for the first time in his life, he managed to evolve again with a new, radical pitch and re-ratcheted up his fastball toward the end of the season. Despite the “disappointing” season , he won a third-straight strikeout title and won the World Series, out-pitching King Postseason, Cliff Lee, in the clincher.

I’m one of the lucky few that are fortunate enough to see him pitch every five days; I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us next. He’s special. As if he even needed it, Lincecum now has a true put-away pitch for right-handed hitters. His change-up alone was unfair. Coupling it with a two-plane, buckling slider should probably be illegal.

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Comments

  1. JLHC said...

    Great write-up, Rory.  To think his arsenal is bolstered with a hammer curve makes it all obscene.  As an emerging prospect, that was the off-speed pitch scouts were touting.  I’ve never looked at the data for the elite curvers, but I’d think a curve may be strongly employed as that “other pitch”, the knee-buckler when you’re sitting on any other pitch in 2-strike counts.  That last graph (velo vs. vertical) sure does show a beautiful distribution, doesn’t it?  I’d be curious how the curve compares to the slider’s velocity.  If Timmeh can match his release/velo for the slider and the curve, I can foresee a wickedly unfair reality for batters sitting off-speed.

  2. SF Stevie said...

    I saw Lincicum’s last 2 starts in Fresno before he was called up.  I sat right behind the plate.  I’ve never seen a pitcher with total command of FOUR devasting pitches like he had then, and one of them was a wicked slider.  So I wonder if Cain maybe just told him to start using it more, along with a little “help” with the grip?

  3. Rory / Paapfly said...

    I’ve watched nearly every start of his starts since 2007, and he definitely didn’t posses a great slider until the end of last season. He didn’t even really get the change going until the end of 2008. And that curve, which was what he was known for when drafted, hasn’t been much of an out pitch for him at the big league level. It just hasn’t played in the majors. He uses it to steal strikes, not to finish hitters.

    It was definitely a grip change and some coaching that changed the pitch for him. But if you review the PITCHf/x data over his career, you’ll see the pitch is behaving completely differently and is used WAY more often now.

  4. Obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    Great analysis, as usual!

    I totally agree with your assessment and have been saying that I would not be surprised if he ends up with an ERA under 2.00, but before it was a wild guess and now you gave some initial stats that he has been that good since incorporating Cain’s suggestion plus show quantitatively how his slider is different, better.

    I would also add that Tim said he focused on getting back to what he used to do to prepare in the off season this time.  So he is in better shape that way as well as adding weight.  Should be another Cy Young caliber season.

  5. Tim Edwards said...

    Fabulous article. Timmy sure is something special. I love watching the cat and mouse game that goes on between him and any hitter. San Francisco loves him and the whole team. Giant pitching is GIANT and this team is going to hit. I believe they can and will win the series again. The aura of great baseball lore is alive in San Francisco, California.

  6. CalBear said...

    Super article, great graphs and info history, ty, ty, etc. Only things missing from reasons why Timmy looks better this year? His supporting team. More runs equals better pitchers performances, period. Show me a better candidate, so far, for Comeback Player-of-the Year than Giants’ RBI and batting average leader Pablo Sandoval, who will be moved to clean-up soon. As Brandon Belt’s numbers climb, arguments to send him to Fresno will fade. Cody Ross, acquired August 22 of last year, will begin his full year next week. While it was painful losing Uribe to D’em Bums, look at the trade off: Tejada’s numbers look like he is back on the A’s.
    But perhaps the most important player to gain votes for Timmy’s Cy Young award is one who knows more about which pitch to he should throw, and when, and where to place it: Buster Posey.

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