Should Giants be worried about Lincecum?
April, 12, 2012
By David Schoenfield | ESPN.com
@dschoenfield Not throwing slider. Velocity down. Can't locate. Just completely out of whack.— Wendy Thurm (@hangingsliders) April 12, 2012
Wendy is a Giants fan who writers the Hanging Sliders blog and contributes to FanGraphs.com. I didn't see Tim Lincecum's disastrous start Wednesday night -- at 2.1 innings, it was the shortest outing of his career -- so I Tweeted Wendy for a description of Lincecum's performance.
Obviously, it wasn't pretty as the Rockies pounded him for eight hits and six runs.
ESPN Stats & Information reports that Lincecum's fastball command has been horrible so far. Here's his strike percentage with his fastball over the years:
2012: 53.7 percent
2011: 63.2 percent
2010: 63.9 percent
2009: 64.1 percent
This has led to problems in the first inning. Lincecum allowed just eight first-inning runs in 33 starts in 2011, but has allowed five in his first two starts. He did allow 16 first-inning runs in 2010, but just four in 2009.
"A lot of pitches thrown in 2 1/3," Lincecum said after the game. "Just sloppy baseball for me. Not really executing pitches, missing a lot, and it's going to hurt you, especially in this park."
Lincecum told Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle that big changes aren't needed. "I don't think it's a matter of finding answers per se," he said. "It's a matter of grinding through it and knowing at some point in the season you're going to have these."
It is just two starts, too few to label this a slump or a sudden change in ability, but there are issues to at least keep an eye on. In his two starts so far, his fastball velocity is down to 90.3 mph. And it's not like he hasn't hit bumps before. Lincecum famously went through a period of struggle in August of 2010, when he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA over five starts, allowing 23 runs in 25.1 innings. His fastball velocity that month dipped to 90.8 mph on average, but he was back up to 91.7 in September and helped the Giants win the World Series. He went through three starts in early June last year where he allowed 16 runs in 15.1 innings.
Lincecum has already undergone a career transformation or two in his short career. When he first came up in 2007, he threw in the mid-90s, sometimes cranking it up near 100 mph. He threw a lot of high fastballs, relying on power to blow away hitters. As a rookie, he threw fastballs about 67 percent of the time. Through the years, as his fastball velocity dropped (he averaged 92.3 mph in 2011), he has relied more on deception and movement. He pitches down in the zone, a reason he's difficult to lift the ball against and thus doesn't give up many home runs. In 2011, he threw his fastball about 53 percent of the time and his changeup 24 percent of the time. He also threw his slider -- a pitch he didn't have when he first reached the majors -- about 15 percent of the time. This year, he said he's only thrown it a couple times.
Lincecum has managed to remain an effective pitcher despite that velocity. While his strikeout rate dipped from 10.5 in 2008 to 9.1 a year ago, that rate still ranked fifth in the NL -- although it was the first time in his career he hadn't led the NL in K rate over a full season. We'll see what happens with his velocity and command moving forward. Lincecum hasn't exactly been Greg Maddux when it comes to command, so the diminished velocity could be a problem if it persists. For now, that's still an if. Two starts isn't reason to panic.
Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.