There was a time when San Francisco Giants starter Tim Lincecum could have been considered the most dominant pitcher in baseball. When he won the Cy Young Award in both 2008 and 2009, that declaration would have been a simple, and easily defensible, one to make. But there was always something of a cloud looming, representing the day that Lincecum’s violent throwing motion and deceptive delivery would eventually fail him, and lead to a burnout at a relatively young age. At least, this was the assumption of many in the business.
Those predictions/assumptions appeared to come to fruition over the course of the last couple of years. Lincecum struggled mightily in both 2012 and 2013. Even with the Giants claiming their second World Series title in three seasons back in 2012, there was little that Lincecum did to contribute. He actually ended up coming out of the bullpen in the postseason that year, as his performance as a starter for most of the year was just not up to snuff.
In 2012, Lincecum put up an ERA over five, followed by a 4.37 figure in 2013. His FIP indicated that those numbers weren’t quite as bad as they appeared, at 4.18 and 3.74, respectively, in each of those two years. However, a declining fastball velocity in addition to his statistical regression certainly represented a cause for concern. His strikeouts continued their drop from those 2008-09 seasons, and his walks (especially in ’12) rose to their highest level of his career. Of course, it’s important to note that he’s always been a guy with a pretty high walk rate for a starter that was at one point considered dominant. Nonetheless, his prolonged struggles over that stretch made it all the more surprising when the Giants signed him to a two-year, $35 (!) million deal this past offseason, keeping him by the back through 2015.
And yet, here we are. While you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to throw Lincecum’s name in that hat as a Cy Young candidate this year, he has rediscovered something of his old form, and is a very large reason that the Giants find themselves in a solid position in the National League West heading into the home stretch.
His numbers this year aren’t going to blow anyone away. He’s gone for a 3.96 ERA, and a solid 3.73 FIP. Interestingly enough his strikeouts are at the lowest of his career, at a touch over nine per nine innings, but his walks are also his lowest rate since 2010. His groundball rate is certainly something to which his success this year can be attributed to, as it pays to have a team ranked ninth in the league in defensive efficiency doing the work for you. His success this year has resulted simply by a change in approach.
The easiest way to spot where Lincecum’s improvement has come from is through his pitch selection. He’s just barely over 27 percent usage with his four-seamer this year, the lowest of his career. Additionally, his splitter usage has jumped up to nearly 25 percent. Though his strikeouts are down, that splitter has proved to be his most effective pitch in terms of whiff percentage as well.
Despite a typical lack of control demonstrated by Lincecum, his change in usage has benefited his location as well. As illustrated here, this pitches have been down more, obviously helping to generate that strong GB rate:
It’s not a tremendous difference from each of the last two years, but does help to put his success into a visual. The long and short of it is the fact that he’s utilizing his breaking pitches more, which is helping him to not only groove less pitches right down the middle, but keep the ball down in the zone. That has led to an increased groundball rate, which has led to some very notable improvement for the former Cy Young winner.
Tim Lincecum isn’t quite the dominating force that he was on the mound during those brilliant 2008 and 2009 seasons. As his velocity has declined, he’s had to change the type of pitcher he is out there and adapt in order to avoid a continued slide. He’s done just that this year, as he’s recovered from a couple of really rough years. It’s a relatively simple formula, just one that has taken some time for him to discover. The Giants may not have the pitching staff that they did in each of their previous two titles, especially with Matt Cain‘s status completely up in the air, making an effective Lincecum all the more important moving forward.
***Statistics via FanGraphs
***Charts via Brooks Baseball
Randy Holt is a staff writer for The Outside Corner. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.