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.

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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Comments

  1. DrBGiantsfan said...

    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 early. 

    In the first half of last year, the fastball had become more of a secondary pitch and he was living off the split change.  Hitters adjusted and were laying off letting it fall out of the strike zone.  Timmy needs to pitch off the fastball so hitters have to swing at the split-change.  He also added back in a breaking ball late last year.  It was devastating against Atlanta in the BLCS. It caused a blister on his finger so he wasn’t able to throw it later in the post-season.  He had virtally abandoned the breaking ball from about mid 2009 on.  The new breaking ball is a hard slider as opposed to the curveball he had when he first came up.  The slider caused a blister in the Atlanta game so he wasn’t able to throw it later in the post-season.

    Timmy has shown an unusual ability to add completely new pitches and subtract ones that were once staples as his career has evolved.  When he came up, it was 4-seam FB, curveball and a rudimentary changup.  Now it’s both a 4-seamer plus a two seamer(another possible explanation for variations in velocity), the devastating split-change and the new hard slider.

    Timmy looks like a man on a mission this spring.  Don’t engrave Roy Halladay’s name on that Cy Young Award just yet!

  2. Mat Kovach said...

    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.

  3. Mike Fast said...

    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.

  4. Mat Kovach said...

    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

  5. Graham said...

    @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 can throw the slider consistently without blister problems, and if he can put some shine back on the curveball, he could well have his best year yet.

  6. Mike Fast said...

    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 plate against both LHB and RHB.

    He also became a groundball pitcher in 2008, partly because of the addition of the two-seam fastball but also because of adjustments in his offspeed pitches.

  7. Mike Fast said...

    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.

  8. Steve Sommer said...

    @ 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.

  9. gdc said...

    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.

  10. obsessivegiantscompulsive said...

    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 is still not using.

    As Graham noted, Lincecum’s 2007 BA profile notes his true “hammer curve” – good memory! – and that just gets me all the more excited about his 2011 season, though I wonder why they dropped it if it was so good?

    Why I’ve been excited about Lincecum’s 2011 season is that he now has pitches which are go-to pitches against LHB as well as RHB.  One reason his usage of his fastball changed after his first season was the addition of and perfection of his changeup, which worked great against RHB.  But then he learned a slider in August 2010, and just shut down offenses in Sept/Oct/Nov with his whole bag of tricks, now that he had very effective pitches against either type of hitter.

    Adding a hammer curveball would just be the icing on the cake.

    I’ve been saying that he would return to his Cy Young caliber performance in 2011 – mid-2 ERA – and that I wouldn’t be surprised by a sub-2 ERA, and if he is bringing back the curveball while integrating his slider into his mix, he will be devastatingly effective in 2011, reminiscent of Pedro’s peak seasons.

    I think this evolution of him from thrower to pitcher was helped by the addition of Randy Johnson to the 2009 rotation, he was a good influence on all the starters, starting with Jonathan Sanchez but also Lincecum, since he evolved from a thrower to a pitcher and could be a example for the Giants young pitchers to learn from. 

    Perhaps Lincecum learned that he could succeed in the majors without max velocity, which also would save strength for later in the game.  It would be interesting to see the splits on fastball velocity by year up above by inning groupings, 1-3, 4-6, 7-9, though that last bin will be small in his early years since he didn’t last as deep back then plus most pitchers don’t go deep anymore.

  11. Jesse C. said...

    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 the ML’s best changeup/FB combo in with a real decent breaking ball.  Last year’s late-season slider was the thing of beauty that brought him back to the top once the FB slowed.  Here now, perhaps the curve can be that 4th amigo that reaks havoc more in it adding that extra unpredictability the 21st Century arms race now clamors for.  Doc Halladay being that perfect example of the 4-pitch maestro.

    So I believe Lincecum’s curve/slider comparative usage will be a most fascinating dynamic to follow.  Amongst pitching reportoires, a curveball is inefficient as your sole breaking ball.  If the hitter can expect it from scouting reports, it lends well to patient upper-cut swings that can be especially damaging in high-leverage situations.  Two, the curve is a notoriously stingy called strike amongst umpires traditionally.  Zito may be the greatest example in the bigs of a monster curve only serving a marginal value.

    So in a vacuum, utilizing a curve more may not be the best way to add value to Lincecum’s reportoire, especially considering that Timmeh has had a fairly high curve usage already. Rather, in Lincecum’s case I see intriguing potential in blending the curve’s usage in equal proportions to the changeup and slider.  While this is predicated by his slider remaining so nasty, the key I think is if Timmy can hone the curve to more closely mimic the slider out of his hand, such that their differing trajectories leave hitters who are sitting on a breaking ball just stabbing at it.  If anything, Big-time Timmy-Jim might be best served increasing the slider usage while throwing an enhanced, more biting curve just as often as he has.

  12. CJ said...

    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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