Every pitcher who ever performed on the big league stage for a significant period of time has had to adapt. As we learned a couple of months ago from Eno Sarris, from the day a professional pitcher is born, his velocity begins dying. This means that today’s whiff-inducing hard fastball up in the zone is tomorrow’s meatball that gets taken deep.
This inevitable decline is hardest felt on pitchers who depend on their fastball, not only to get swing and misses, but also to set up their other pitches. Perhaps the most cited recent example of this phenomenon is San Francisco Giants’ starter Tim Lincecum who has seen a major drop in velocity on his fastball coupled with atrocious numbers in terms of runs being scored against.
Enter Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Tim Hudson, who has been around the block more than a few times. The fourteen year veteran is the standard bearer for adapting approach to match capability as one ages. Once a swing and miss maestro with the Oakland A’s, after a drop in velocity, he turned himself into a ground ball inducing machine with the Atlanta Braves through a sinking fastball that looks like it uses magnetic forces to avoid line drives and fly balls off of the bats of opponents.
Hudson, in all of his patronizing glory, had these words of advice for the younger, and unmistakably already more successful Lincecum, after the two dueled on Sunday Night Baseball this past weekend:
Just as a fan and a veteran of the game, you want to try to help out young pitchers. From the other dugout, it’s what I see. His stuff is good. He’s still 91, 92, 93, plenty to win in this league, especially with that changeup. He doesn’t have to make every pitch a swing-and-miss pitch. I was the same way when I was younger. You feel like a stud out there when people swing and miss. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve preached to our young guys that strikeouts are sexy, but outs are outs, man, no matter how you get them. It’s a lot cooler for me pitching in the seventh or eighth inning than it is going 5 1/3. Your manager likes it a lot more, too.
The narrative suggests that Lincecum is a strikeout pitcher, and with a diminished velocity on his fastball, those strikeouts aren’t going to come as frequently as they once did. However, the numbers reveal only a minuscule decrease in the pitcher’s strike out rate to go along with a slight raise in his walk rate. The real concern for Lincecum this season has been the hard contact he’s given up (24.9% line drive rate) and his difficulty in pitching from the stretch (.359 wOBA against with men on base).
On the surface, Lincecum’s repertoire and approach hasn’t changed all that much over the last few years, despite a two miles per hour decline in velocities of his four-seamer and sinker. He’s throwing fewer sliders and more change ups this season compared to last, but the frequency of those pitches are in line with what his typical usage was back in 2010.
Even though the overall frequency of pitches doesn’t seem to be all that different, his approach has changed in one slight manner. Back in 2010, Lincecum threw a first pitch fastball to 70% of the right-handed batters he faced. In 2011, this number dropped to 64%, and now, this year, a righty is almost as likely to see an off speed or breaking pitch as he is a fastball. When we look to see how right-handed batters are performing against Lincecum, we learn that they’re doing quite well, collecting a .352 wOBA, compared to his career norm which has allowed a .290 wOBA.
Visually, this is opposition right-handed hitter’s true average against Lincecum this season:
Lincecum has spent much of this season allowing batters to get ahead in the count. In fact, 40% of the hitters he’s faced have ended their plate appearance with a favorable count, compared to 37% last year and 33% the year before that. Unfortunately for the pitcher, when this happens, the batter has gotten better production off of him than they ever have before. In 2010, batters ahead in the count had an .891 OPS. In 2011, that number increased slightly to .902. And this season, batters with an advantage are putting up a 1.063 OPS.
All of this would suggest a narrative along the lines of Lincecum experiencing difficulty in throwing first pitch strikes, but his numbers are actually in line with his career average. He’s throwing slightly fewer pitches in the strike zone in comparison to his career numbers, but it’s still an improvement on last season when his struggles weren’t nearly as evident.
We might wonder if he’s had difficulty locating his fastball specifically, and so assume that he’s attempting to pitch backwards more frequently against right-handed batters, which unfortunately, just hasn’t worked out. However, if we look at location charts month to month we see that Lincecum was very much ready, willing and able to throw hard stuff in the strike zone in the first month of the season. He has, however, thrown fewer and fewer four-seamers and sinkers for strikes as the season has worn on.
So, then we might say that perhaps what Hudson was talking about was Lincecum nibbling at the strike zone instead of hitting it dead on. What Hudson assumes in this case is that Lincecum is complicating matters by attempting to avoid contact with his pitches, perhaps due to worries over his fastball velocity declining. Although, what the veteran might be failing to take into account is that it could just as easily be an inability on Lincecum’s part to locate his pitches as he once did. Under such a scenario, perhaps the lack of velocity is better explained by suggesting that the spindly pitcher is holding back to attain better control of his pitches and compensate for his missing the zone. Merely looking at pitch locations alone can’t properly explain the cause of his poor location, let alone correlate it to a decline in velocity.
However, I would have a hard time believing that Lincecum’s velocity decline is by choice. Again, we have to make some assumptions here and rely on circumstantial evidence, but it seems to me that the pitcher’s terrible numbers with runners on base aren’t merely the result of bad luck and the randomness of hits coming in bunches, but rather rooted in worry and the distraction caused by him not getting his pitches to the plate as fast as he once did. Throughout this season, we’ve seen teams take advantage of Lincecum’s slower times to the plate on the base paths, and it’s difficult for me to imagine that not affecting him.
Opponent wOBA with runners on base for Lincecum:
- 2008: .246
- 2009: .273
- 2010: .305
- 2011: .246
- 2012: .359
As for his overall numbers, I wonder if maybe Lincecum’s fastball, at a reduced velocity isn’t doing as good of a job at setting up his other pitches as well as they once did. So, his slider, curve ball and change up all coming in at the same velocity as they always have are somehow easier for batters to pick up on. It’s just a guess. I don’t know that a two miles per hour decline would make that kind of difference. To go further down this assumptive hole, his awareness of this could sway him toward pitching backwards and using his slower and breaking pitches to set up his fastball instead of vice versa against right-handed batters. If this is the case, it hasn’t been working. And perhaps, he’d actually be better off following Hudson’s advice.
However, facing a lefty-heavy lineup on Sunday, what Hudson saw Lincecum doing was more likely him missing his locations. This is what appeared to be happening all night long, with every pitch in his arsenal against every type of batter. This is probably best seen in his change up to Juan Francisco that the left-handed hitter devoured in the fourth inning.
What’s most interesting about this clip, beyond Lincecum’s much storied splitter grip on his change up, is Hector Sanchez’s glove rising up through the strike zone from where the pitch was supposed to be located.
As might be expected, solving whatever ails Tim Lincecum isn’t as simple as suggesting he just throw strikes. Nor are his difficulties so easy to identify as entirely having to do with bad luck or even a reduced velocity. While all these things play a role in shaping the pitcher that Lincecum has become, I think he has to overhaul that identity with a little more urgency than he has to this point. However, that’s more easily said than done, especially when the changes he has made in his approach to this point have been met mostly with failure.
All of this adds up to make me not so sure that Lincecum is struggling in his attempts to get strike outs as much as he is just flat out struggling. So, while Hudson’s comments might have come across as a bit condescending, there is a point to them: Lincecum isn’t the pitcher that he once was, and so he can’t pitch like he once did. However, not all pitchers have Tim Hudson’s capability for adaptability. In other words, you try telling Lincecum, with his astronomical BABIP and line drive rate, that he needs to pitch more to contact.
And therein lies the rub, whether or not Lincecum should do things differently has an obvious answer. Whether or not he can do things differently is an entirely different matter.