Call it official. Tim Lincecum will remain in San Francisco for at least two more years, as his two-year, $35 million contract was finalized Friday afternoon.
We’re not here to dabble over the overpaid topic. We’re here to discuss how Lincecum can punt the “overpaid” term out of the contract’s current description.
As for why “overpaid” is the topic of debate, well, the narrative has been beaten to death.
I’ll beat it a little more …
Lincecum mustered his worst year as a pro in 2012, when he posted a National League-worst 5.18 ERA. He was able to strikeout a tick more than nine batters per nine innings and the 200-inning plateau wasn’t completely out of sight. It’s tough to sugarcoat a 5.18 ERA and 4.35 BB/9 rate (fourth-highest in baseball), though.
And there’s that velocity thing too. Per FanGraphs, Lincecum’s average fastball went from 92.3 mph in 2011 to 90 mph in 2012. That plummet brewed a storm of chaos.
How about 2013?
A bit better. Lincecum posted a 4.37 ERA and his velocity didn’t nosedive. He had a 3.95 ERA over his final 11 starts, a stretch that also saw him limit opponents to a .693 OPS. Take out a couple clunkers against the Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox and we have something cooking.
Now that the details are out of the way, let’s look at a blueprint for Lincecum to be better in 2014.
A Little More Luck, Please?
We’ll start in the luck department, which is the cue for some advanced metrics. It’s going to get technical, but bear with me.
Let’s start with xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching). As with FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), which we’ll get to in due time, it only takes into account the factors the pitcher can control. The twist is that it estimates the number of home runs a pitcher should have allowed and produces what the pitcher’s ERA should look like. In English: it’s a better way to measure effectiveness than, say, ERA.
As for where Lincecum stands on the xFIP totem pole, you will be surprised. Lincecum’s xFIP during the regular season was 3.56, baseball’s 29th-best xFIP.Yeah, I’d say that ranking is considerably better than his ERA ranking (11th-worst in baseball). Much better.
It gets even more interesting as we stroll down the list. Hiroki Kuroda, Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez and Andrew Cashner are all names that appear below Lincecum. A bit farther down on that list is Justin Verlander and a couple spots below Verlander are Derek Holland and Ervin Santana.
I could go on and on with names that sit below Lincecum in the xFIP department and they’d all still have the puzzling “hmmmmm” effect, but doing so would be overkill. It’s evident that xFIP paints a different picture.
Now, what does all of this mean?
Well, both FIP and xFIP can predict future performances. And simply going off that, both measurements predict 2014 to have some better things in store for Lincecum.
Keep Using the Splitter
Lincecum’s splitter is darn good. Movement, results, nastiness, location–you name it and Lincecum’s splitter has it.
We’ll go in chronological order and start with the movement portion of the segment. Hint: Lincecum’s split has plenty of downwards bite. Per Baseball Prospectus, only five other pitchers had more vertical movement on their splitters in 2013.
And … that’s the segue to next point: nastiness. There are a handful of different routes we could ponder for this one. FanGraphs has SwSr% and O-Swing%. Baseball Prospectus has Whiff/Swing percentage and Swing Rate.
Instead of picking one, let’s just amalgamate them into a table.
Note: FanGraphs doesn’t have a specific category for Lincecum’s splitter, so we’ll combine them just for the purpose of this exercise.
So yeah, the point stands. Nasty.
A lot of the whiffs Lincecum’s splitter gets come via pure stuff. He can throw it up there at any part of the zone and it’s still going to render a slew of swing-throughs. It’s just that good.
But … couple the natural nastiness of his split with good location and it’s a lethal weapon.
That’s precisely the trend Lincecum’s splitter followed in 2013. I can’t re-post his splitter zone profile (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) here, but I can give you the general description: Low, low and … more low. And yes, that’s a good spot.
Finally, let’s get to the results. Per Brooks Baseball, Lincecum’s split yielded a .156 average and .100 ISO (Isolated Power) during the regular season. With two strikes, those numbers waned to a .143 average and .078 ISO.
The silver lining? Keep using the splitter.
Don’t Worry About the Fastball Too Much
Lincecum’s fastball wasn’t what it once was. You know it, I know it, the Giants know it and Lincecum knows it. It’s lost a good amount of zip (about 2 mph since 2011), along with some movement. Usually, a pitcher trades in zip for a little more movement. Lincecum turned in a bit–or more–of both without any returns.
As anyone with some common sense could conclude, Lincecum’s heater won’t ever be what it once was, bearing some unusually bizarre happening. And since bizarre happenings are rare, it’s time to dial back the constant concern of his declining fastball.
Consider this: Even during his best stretch of 2013 (eight starts between June 4 and July 13), Lincecum’s fastball wasn’t dominant. During that streak, opponents saw 247 Lincecum fastballs and hit .311 against them, with a .400 slugging percentage and .089 ISO.
In context of Lincecum’s overall numbers (.347/.561/.215)–the last two categories in the slash are slugging percentage and ISO, respectively–the numbers he posted during that eight-start stretch were better. Plus, the hits that were surrendered fall in the “weak” category (12 singles, one double, one home run). But dominant? Not quite.
And here comes the “but … .” Despite working with a mediocre fastball, Lincecum still managed a 3.16 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of .635 during those eight starts.
Lincecum can be good without a dominant heater. The pitch needs to be somewhat decent, yes, but the key lies in his off-speed arsenal, which, on the other hand, has been consistently good.
A lot of “ifs” and “buts,” but he can indeed stay more than afloat without featuring the 95 mph fastball that he once boasted.
Getting the Leadoff Hitter Out
Anyone with a hint of baseball knowledge would concur that retiring the first batter of the inning is ideal.
Indeed it is, but Lincecum wasn’t particularly good at setting down the leadoff batter. To clear up any misconceptions, the leadoff batter here isn’t just the first batter of the game; it’s also the first batter of every inning.
Anyway, let’s get straight down to the numbers. The big one in this case is .845. That’s the OPS leadoff hitters posted against Lincecum in 2013, good for the 57th-highest mark in baseball among pitchers that started at least 10 games.
How opposing hitters mustered the noted .845 OPS is interesting because there wasn’t necessarily one area that killed Lincecum. Five of them walked (seventh-highest in our test group), six punched out and nine got hits.
So how the hitters got on is dispersed. It’s just something to chew on. But the main thing, of course, is that they got on base–more baserunners obviously increases scoring chances.
And that could, and has been, troubling for Lincecum.
With the exception of 2008, Lincecum has never posted a BB/9 rate less than 3.00 (the league average in 2013 was 2.82). Yet, that wasn’t much an issue. I’m sure you can guess why and if you can’t, here it is: He had filthy stuff. Filthy stuff wipes away walks and leaves them stranded (Lincecum had the sixth-highest LOB% in baseball from 2008-11)
But if you’ve been following along, you would know that Lincecum has lost some of that filthy stuff, making it harder for him to craft his way out of jams. His LOB% has dipped from the 75 to 79 percent range to the 67 to 69 percent range.
That’s basically the long way of saying: Get the leadoff hitter out and life will be much, much easier.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Baseball Prospectus and Brooks Baseball