Tim Lincecum‘s velocity has been dropping year after year—surprising no one. Since Lincecum’s results have been less than stellar—despite a very reasonable 3.95 FIP and a 3.76 xFIP—people are seeking to blame his woes on his loss of velocity, though his peripherals seem to be just fine.
Dave Cameron suggests that it’s not just bad luck, though—that maybe his command breaks down. DrBGiantsfan commented on that FanGraphs post, saying:
The two first inning dingers notwithstanding, 90 percent of Timmy’s problems seem to have come when he has to work out of the stretch which means that the runs he allows come in bunches and there is a higher percentage of his runners that score all of which would tend to make his FIP look better than his ERA, yet, the ERA is a far more accurate measure of how he has pitched and the results are completely explainable based on observable phenomena on the field.
The statistics definitely bear this out; Lincecum pitches far worse with runners on base than he does out of the windup, and they’ve been pervasive all year, not just a small blip during the beginning of the season when he was sporting a 6+ ERA. Looking into his mechanics from the stretch/windup is a possible blog post in the future, but today we’ll look primarily at the drop in velocity and some physiological reasons why his command (but not necessarily control) has been poor.
Swimming and weight loss
Tim Lincecum reportedly lost 30+ pounds in the 2011-2012 offseason and used a counter-current swimming pool to slim down, along with a tight diet. Sounds good, right? Well, not really. As noted baseball trainer Eric Cressey (and many others) have pointed out, increased bodyweight is positively correlated with increased fastball velocity. Lean body mass has a strong positive impact on pitching velocity, as well as durability.
Swimming is mostly an aerobic activity, and combined with a caloric deficient diet, leads to catabolism (loss of muscle mass). Additionally, swimming in a pool isn’t exactly the most friendly activity for pitchers – depending on the stroke used, the athlete in the pool could be creating laxity in the anterior portion of the shoulder, which can reduce stability in the area. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise to connect the dots; a loss of stability in the shoulder can lead to decreased velocity and command of the baseball when release point tolerances are very tight.
Pitching mechanics—a comparison
Lincecum’s before/after mechanics are fairly interesting—here’s a comparison between 2009 (95 MPH) and 2012 (90 MPH) that’s somewhat synchronized (the joys of working with broadcast-quality video):
The first thing I noticed (besides the reduced velocity) was the increased trunk tilt at/near ball release from 2009 to 2012:
A cursory look into the PITCHf/x data tends to show a higher release point in 2012:
(right-click and open in new browser if image is not animating properly)
Lincecum has significantly more trunk tilt at/near ball release today compared to the past. Additionally, if you watch the followthrough phase of the delivery, you notice a significant amount of “falling off” the mound in 2012 compared to 2009. “Falling off” isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as watching many of the hardest throwers in baseball will show, this is often just the aftereffect of very fast rotational momentum. That being said, efficient mechanics require a tight marriage between linear translation to the plate and rotational momentum around the spine—perhaps one of the best examples of such was pre-injury Jake Peavy:
(he had some issues with complete followthrough, as evidenced by the arm recoil, but his coupling of linear/rotational momentum to produce velocity is elite)
My hypothesis is that Lincecum is focusing a lot on rotational momentum around the upper trunk and trying to leverage the muscles in the back (latissimus dorsi, mainly) to produce velocity, but has lost his “line to the plate.” Movement is being wasted and improperly sequenced, possibly as a result of reduced lean body mass, loss of stability in the shoulder, or just altered mechanics for whatever reason.
How can he fix it?
Lincecum could kill two birds with one stone by using high-speed video to tape his delivery from the windup and the stretch to detect differences that might be causing issues with command, and he’d be able to get a close look at his overall mechanics to see if he can increase his velocity by getting back to what he was doing at the University of Washington and as a rookie with the Giants. If he doesn’t happen to have access to high-speed cameras (all player development departments should have these, in my opinion), I happen to run a lab in Seattle with access to five cameras—and Tim lives pretty close in the off-season! (You’re welcome to stop by my facility any time this off-season, Tim.)