Baseball lore is riddled with tales of young pitchers who were dominant for a short period of time and then, for whatever reason, were unable to replicate their early success and were never heard from again.
Now it seems Tim Lincecum may be the next pitcher to join the likes of Denny McLain, Mark Fidrych, and Mark Prior on the list of dominant young pitchers that flamed out before reaching their full potential. Baseball Nation's Rob Neyer reported on Lincecum's continued struggles this spring
Now, this spring. Lincecum's once-flowing locks are gone, which makes him seem somehow younger, thinner, and more vulnerable than ever. His first spring outing was marred by a blister on one of his valuable fingers. His second spring outing lasted 43 pitches and 2⅓ innings. Afterward, he said the blister was long gone. He said he wasn't suffering from fatigue during his rocky third inning. He said he was just "trying to build arm strength and work on some stuff out there."
A few numbers from last season struck me as major causes for concern. The first is that Lincecum’s average fastball velocity dropped from 92.3 MPH in 2011 to 90.4 in 2012. At the same time, Lincecum's BB% jumped 1.3%, from 9.6% in 2011 to 10.9% in 2012 (via FanGraphs). He's struggled with his command at times for a few seasons now, including a 4 start stretch in 2010 in which he walked at least 5 batters in each outing. There hasn't yet been a report of a major injury affecting Lincecum. It may be that his very unique delivery is difficult to replicate, but I believe his struggles are more of a confidence issue. The good news for Lincecum is that his 2012 campaign wasn't as bad as it seemed.
The league average for starter's HR/FB rate last season was 11.8%. Lincecum's HR/FB rate was under 10% in his first 5 major league seasons, but ballooned to 14.6% in 2012. It's reasonable to expect his HR/FB rate to decrease in 2013, which should drag Lincecum's ERA and FIP numbers back down toward the league average.
In his first 5 major league seasons, Lincecum's K% was around 26%. Last season it ticked down a bit to 23%, but it was still well above the league average, which was 18.7% for starters. Lincecum's 9.19 K/9 indicates that despite the dip in his average fastball velocity he can still consistently send opposing batters back to their dugouts in frustration.
After taking a closer look at Lincecum's advanced pitching metrics from last season, I don't believe he is finished as a front of the rotation starter. The drop off in velocity is concerning, but pitching in the big leagues isn't always about overpowering the opposition. There are plenty of pitchers who don't possess nearly as much talent as Lincecum who have carved out fine careers with fastballs in the high 80s or low 90s.
The Giants are paying Lincecum $22 million this season; if he can regain some of his control and maintain his ability to strikeout out opposing batters in large numbers, the Giants should get a pretty good return on that investment. One thing is for certain: Lincecum needs to show us something this season or he may end up another cautionary tale of a talented young pitcher that flamed out before reaching their full potential.