August 2010 has pretty much been the worst month of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum’s career. He’s given up 18 runs in 19.1 innings, a scary set of numbers made even scarier by the fact that he only got out of the sixth inning once and didn’t make the fifth inning in two starts. You do have to love that many are worried about a pitcher who is 11-8 with a 3.72 ERA and 173 strikeouts to 64 walks. But something is definitely wrong with the Giants’ ace and there are, conservatively, eleventy billion theories as to why.
As a Padres fan, I didn’t really care why he was sucking just as long as it kept the Giants safely away from first place. I still don’t really care, but I don’t know. Why AM I writing about this? I mean besides because I felt like screwing around on Fangraphs for a while.
Here’s what we all know: Lincecum’s fastball velocity is down. Way down. Two years ago, he averaged 94.0 mph on his fastball. It went down to 92.4 mph last year, and in 2010 he’s averaging 91.2 mph. Worse, his fastball velocity decreases up to four miles per hour the further into games he goes, so he’s topping out in the 80’s if he makes the seventh inning.
So what gives? Here’s are what seem to be the two dominant theories:
He’s thrown too many innings and pitches in his career
Lincecum has been over 220 innings pitched each of the last two years, rarely leaving a game before throwing 100 pitches. In college and in his first two years as a professional baseball player, he never even approached that number. With the conventional wisdom in baseball today saying that it’s essentially a crime to increase a pitcher’s innings as dramatically as Lincecum’s have been increased. For example, Padres phenom Mat Latos has been a professional player for one year less (2007) than Lincecum (2006). Latos threw 122.6 innings in 2009 and, according to the Verducci Effect, should only have a 20% increase in his work load in 2010, about 146 innings. He’s already at 142, and the Padres are seriously debating whether to shut him down.
In 2006, Lincecum threw 125.1 innings in college and then another 31 in the Giants’ minor league system for a grand total of 154-ish innings. In 2007, his first full pro season, he threw 176 innings between AAA and the majors, an increase of less than 20 percent. However, in 2008, his first Cy Young season, Lincecum threw 227 innings, a huge increase of 51 innings or 29%. He threw 225 innings the next year and is on pace to throw 210 this year.
According to Tim Kawakami, Lincecum is disasatrously close to the 1,000-1,200 innings pitched mark before his 30th birthday (he’ll reach 1,000 next summer at pace), which is an indicator that he won’t be able to remain effective into his 30’s due to overuse. I enjoy this post at Bay City Ball as well because it hints that this is all Bruce Bochy’s fault. Bochy was a down-low pitcher killer for YEARS in San Diego, but he got little press because of the hall-of-fame job done by the Cubs ruining Mark Prior and Kerry Wood’s careers. Also because the Padres had zero pitching prospects during his tenure. Ask Sterling Hitchcock some time about Bochy’s use of pitchers.
Not exactly an encouraging set of stats. Especially when the justification for the increases was that he’s a phenomenal athlete and a one-of-a-kind arm.
He messed with his windup and now he’s lost it completely
Earlier in the season, Lincecum changed his windup (the same one he’d had since middle school) by bringing his hands over his head in an effort to avoid rushing his delivery. When that didn’t work, he went to throwing solely out of the stretch for a couple of starts to figure out what else could be wrong. Now he’s back to his old delivery and trying not to think too much.
In any other sport where repeating an athletic move is the key to the game (golf, basketball, heck, bowling), would you want any high-profile athlete to talk like that? There’s no way to make those quotes sound good.
I’m no pitching expert, but the regular season definitely isn’t the time to mess with one’s mechanics. Lincecum seems to be a guy who’s lost confidence in what worked so well for him his entire career, and now he’s trying to get it back. Definitely bad situation, and what’s crazy is that he isn’t even pitching THAT badly. He’s just not Tim Lincecum either.
His fastball is slower and dead straight too. According to Fangraphs, he’s lost nearly all the horizontal movement on his fastball. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything in a vacuum. But with his BABIP up to a career-high .331, nearly 30 points above his career averages, his contact percentage staying right about the same (75%), and his contact percentage on balls outside of the strike zone up seven points (55%), it means that he’s not fooling anyone nearly as much because they’re seeing the fastball better.
If one is going to draw a conclusion, then the only one to draw at the moment is that no one has any idea what’s going on. This could just be a blip on Lincecum’s career path. It could just be a mediocre season. Or it could be the beginning of the downward spiral of a flash-in-the-pan pitcher. Who the hell knows at this point?
I do know that Lincecum should definitely stick to mediocrity at least through the rest of the 2010 season. The Padres play a bunch of games against the Giants down the stretch, and I don’t want to have to deal with a two-time Cy Young Award winner who’s just found his A-game again. So why question what’s wrong? Let’s just enjoy it while we can.