Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Tim Lincecum Conundrum

The Giants starters ERA has now climbed to 4.87. Brett Tomko’s career ERA was 4.61. And if we go to our ole pal ERA+, which is ERA adjusted for ballpark, the Giants as a team rank worst in the National League in ERA+ at 81. Sidney Ponson’s career ERA+ was 89 and the higher that number goes the better. So in essence, the 2013 Giants are pitching like a bunch of Brett Tomkos and Sidney Ponsons, only a little worse. I am going to escape this paragraph now.

Madison Bumgarner has been excellent for the most part, Matt Cain we expect to get better, Zito is going to have mixed results and Vogelsongs spot will likely be replacement level for a while. But the one person who’s been kind of stuck in between Madison Bumgarner (great!) and Ryan Vogelsong (sicada ugly) has been Tim Lincecum. If you were to put him somewhere on that spectrum this season in would probably be closer to pre-injury Vogelsong than Bumgarner. Still, he hasn’t been a complete dumpster fire like last season at this time. Lincecum has had a few quality starts and a few starts where he’s done things like walk Josh Beckett and Juan Uribe in the same game. He's still a relatively unknown for 2013.

If the Giants are to get where they want to be, the postseason and beyond, there going to need Lincecum to be a reliable starter. As well all knew last year, if he wasn’t good last season, there was no way they would win the World Series. Yep. No way.

But it’s going to be hard to do that again. The early returns this year for Lincecum are in a word, mixed. He’s posting his highest strike out rate since 2010 and his xFIP, what is ERA should be, is 3.34 which is the lowest it’s been since 2010. By that measure, Lincecum is back! But of course, we know that’s not true. His home run per fly ball ratio is the highest in his career (16.2%), he’s walking 4.19 batters per nine innings, the second highest rate of his career, and he also has one “slip off the mound and fall on butt”* this season, the highest mark of his career. Here is his line drive percentage from year to year:

2009 19.2%
2010 19.5%
2011 19.1%
2012 23.8%
2013 27.0%

That 2013 mark is the fourth highest in the majors. It’s clear that despite some of the bounce back Lincecum’s made from last season, he still isn’t there. So yet again we begin to sift through the millions of Lincecum theories that first propogated last season like a bunch of cockroaches in a college apartment. Come join us in this magical land of speculation.

Of course, the obvious problem that is easy to point to is velocity, and it's probably the best place to start. Here is a graph that I did not put together.

That's Tim Lincecum's velocity chart. The downward trend is nothing new. It seems like this could explain a lot of things and it seems this is the most plausible reason why Lincecum has been a hipster Kevin Correia the past couple seasons. Jeff Zimmerman tackled a velocity style argument for Lincecum on fangraphs earlier this year. For one, he points out less velocity gave him less confidence for throwing strikes, contributing to the walks. More to the point, Zimmerman looks at Lincecum’s Edge%, which is the percentage of his pitches which fall on the inside or outside part of the strikezone. In 2012, Lincecum had one of the lowest Edge rates in baseball, which consequently implies his pitches were living in the middle of the strike zone.

It’s not as if Linecum was ever a guy that pounded the corners. Zimmerman goes onto show Lincecum’s edge rates by year:

Season: Edge%
2012: 12.7%
2011: 12.9%
2010: 13.7%
2009: 14.7% 

2008: 14.1%

He has gotten worse at putting the ball on the edges as he has aged, but he was never good at it. He has never been near the league average value which hovers around 16%.
Furthermore, Chris Quick at Bay City Ball looked specifically at his fastball location. Here’s a graph he pulled up showing his fastball height per season.

This graph is from 2009-2012, but even during his awful 2012 campaign, he was still locating his fastball the same way as his fantastic seasons. Both of these studies show that Lincecum hasn’t really changed his pitching philosophy in terms of location that much season to season. In general, Lincecum has been pitching up and over the strike zone with the fastball. The issue of course, tying this back to velocity, is that the only thing that changed over those years was his velocity, which has coincided with his collapse. Earlier in his career Lincecum could get away with leaving pitches over the plate because his fastball was good enough that it didn’t matter the pitch was over the plate. Now his fastball is slower, and leaving slow fastballs in the middle of the plate usually is not a good formula for baseball success.

That all sounds well and fine, but there are holes in that argument.  As both Quick and Grant Brisbee at baseball nation point out, Lincecum is still generating swing-and-misses. In fact, both his overall swinging strike rate and swinging strike rate against his fastball has stayed relatively equal. The first number is his swinging strike rate for all his pitches, and the second is his swinging strike rate against his fastball:

2009 10.7% 4.5%
2010 11.0% 5.5%
2011 10.7% 7.7%
2012 11.3% 7.2%
2013 10.2% 5.3%

If Lincecum’s fastball were really less effective, you would expect it to generate more contact and less whiffs, when instead nothing has changed. There really has not been any difference in terms of whiffs from year to year, which implies Lincecum's fastball has still been relatively effective. So while Lincecum’s fastball does seem like an issue, it may not be velocity that’s causing the problems. Lincecum is still getting hitters to swing and miss at the same rate as he was during his glory days. Well  they pass you by. Glory days. 

The issues of course stem from this fact, as Grant goes on to say in the article:

Lincecum has no idea where the ball is going. When he won his last Cy Young in 2009, he regularly had starts with more than 60 percent of his pitches in the strike zone. He hasn't had a single start like that since. And since the start of 2011, he's had just three starts above 50 percent, topping out at 52.5.

Lincecum gave up seven walks his first start of the season, which really is a microcosm of his entire problem. Lincecum is throwing pitches without knowing where the heck the pitch is going to end up.  It’s not like Lincecum was Cliff Lee when he was winning Cy Youngs, but he wasn’t like this. Lincecum’s 4.35 walks per nine last season ranked him fourth in the majors behind Ubaldo Jimenez, Edinson Volquez and Ricky Romero, three guys who have never thrown a strike in their life. 

The walks have to do with the fact Lincecum the past two years has not been able to find his release point, or it at least it takes him a while to find it during games. With such a weird mechanical motion, it’s easy for just one mistake or exaggeration in his motion to cause everything to get caught up in flames. Hardball times writer Kyle Boddy did some reasearch last season on Lincecum's release point altering from earlier in his career. He uses words like "catabolism", and probably used protractors also, so it's definitely legit. The main point in the piece is Lincecum's release point was far more over the top in 2012, than it was in 2009, when we won his second Cy Young. Boddy, in so many words, suggest that Lincecum's velocity has suffered as a result. That article was written in 2012. Here's his vertical release point data with the fastball from year-to-year:

2012 definitely had a higher release point than 2009, the two seasons compared by Boddy. But this season, his release point is lower than it was in 2009. And if you look from year to year, Lincecum has never really had a consistent release point. He's had success with extremely low release points, and extremely high ones. There really is no trend in his release point, at least since 2009.

But overall, I think most people would agree that the last two seasons Lincecums release point from start to start or even from inning to inning just hasn't been consistent, or at least it's been in a consistently ineffective spot. That has hindered Lincecum the past two seasons. And from the funky release points come the walks, and from the walks there is a whole dominoe effect. Lincecum puts runners on via the walk, which forces him to work out of the stretch. Here are his numbers with men on base from 2010-2013:

 Men On Base                                      Bases Empty
2010: 3.13 K/BB .236/.301/.373         2.98 K/BB .248/.316/.357  
2011: 2.66 K/BB .184/.270/.209         2.49 K/BB .248/.326/.382
2012: 1.43 K/BB .269/.370/.434         2.93 K/BB .248/.319/.421
2013: 1.62 K/BB .298/.388/.488         1.62 K/BB .217/.288/.488

In both 2010 and 2011, he pitched better out of the stretch than out of the wind up. The last two seasons, that all went up the crapper. This season, he’s been lights out from the wind up. The problem has been with men on base, he's walked more hitters and he's left more pitches out over the plate. It's harder for him to find that release point out of the wind up. 

Here are more stats!

Innings 1-33398.15.22142.19.256.343.451
Innings 4-63276.25.6391.92.253.335.410
Innings 7-91111.01.6402.80.293.362.317
Generated 5/20/2013.

Innings 1-3927.06.6731.63.290.382.411
Innings 4-6923.02.7434.
Innings 7-943.22.4501.00.214.353.286
Provided by Baseball-Reference.comView Original Table
Generated 5/20/2013.

Obviously, these stats are flawed because the deeper you're allowed to pitch in games, the better your start is going, so naturally a pitcher's stats late in games will be better than earlier. But for Lincecum, it's easy to tell what's been happening in his starts, and how his early inning struggles have been a problem. Even in 2012, in innings four through six despite his ERA being higher, all his other peripherals look better. As always this could be just small sample, but after watching Lincecum the past two seasons, there has to be at least some merit to these splits.

This is what the general trend is: Lincecum needs the first few innings to find his release point. It's during these first few inning that we walks hitters and really has no idea what is happening. The fact that his fastball is a lot worse than it was before compounds the issue because hitters tee off on the mistakes he makes when he can't find his release. But once he finds his release point, whether that's in the first inning or the fifth inning, he is good or at worst fine third starter Tim Lincecum. 

The conclusion here is that I have no idea if Tim Lincecum can snap out of it. This was pretty much a useless waste of your time and I am sorry. But at least you made it to the end, so now you have an excuse to watch this timeless wonder.

*credit to @carmenkiew 


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