From 2012 to 2014, Tim Lincecum was the 25th least valuable pitcher in MLB. In terms of fWAR, he was worth just 3.2 wins, which placed him directly between Miguel Gonzalez (3.0 fWAR) and Jeremy Hellickson (3.3 fWAR). He posted an ERA- of 135 (third worst during that period), an FIP- of 112 (17th worst), and walked hitters at a higher rate than ever before. In 2015 however, something has changed, and Lincecum is not only getting good results but getting them in a way that we've never seen before.
In his Cy Young seasons, Lincecum averaged more than ten strikeouts per nine innings, but that number is now just six. He’s a shell of the pitcher that baseball fans fell in love with, but all hope is not lost just yet. If the early returns this season represent a conscious change and not just a streak of luck, then Lincecum may have successfully re-invented himself. His FIP is at its lowest value since 2011 (his most recent valuable season), and he's cut his HR/9 rate by 72.72%.
These positive results likely stem from Lincecum’s new ability to induce ground balls. Up until this season, his career GB% was 46.7%, just above the league average of 44%. In 2015 however, Lincecum has raised his GB% to a career high of 56.3%. He’s currently 14th among qualified starters. This represents the most drastic change in Lincecum’s pitching strategy.
Aside from his GB%, there’s another notable albeit less immediately identifiable change with Lincecum this year --his horizontal release point.
While Lincecum’s father wasn’t able to help restore any velocity to his son's pitches, this graph shows that his horizontal release point is more consistent than at any point in his career. The differences between the release points on his fourseam, curveball, and sinker have been miniscule, which has likely helped Lincecum during this resurgence. The clustering of these points helps add deception to his pitches, as it's more difficult to discern the forthcoming pitch by his arm angle.
Lincecum has also changed his pitch selection.
|Pitch usage||FA%||FT%||SL%||CU%||CH%||Pitchf/x value||wFA||wFT||wSL||wCU||wCH|
The biggest difference between the 2012-2014 Lincecum and the 2015 version is his fastball. While he's cut the use of his fourseam by 16.02% since last season, its value has increased significantly. In 2014 the pitch was worth -6.6 runs but thus far has been a positive pitch for Lincecum. Even though its value is just 1.9 runs above average, the swing from last year results in a change of 8.5 runs. In fact, four of his five pitches this season have all been better than average, a far cry from 2014 when they were all negatively valued.
Lincecum has also gutted the use of his slider, a pitch that he's leaned on heavily in the past. Starting in 2011, Lincecum used it more than 20% of the time, and it was consistently his 2nd favorite pitch to use. In 2015 however, he's throwing it 60.1% less often than last season, and it is now his least utilized pitch. One area that could use some fine tuning is how often he's using his change-up. In 2009, it was worth an extraordinary 26 runs above average but was used just 18.8% of the time compared to 29.1% in 2015. It's the only pitch he throws that currently has a negative pitch value, and while the overall effectiveness of that pitch has rebounded slightly, it's nowhere near as lethal as it was during his best seasons.
The final change between the old Lincecum and the new is his pitch location.
He's working much more in the lower half of the strike zone than ever before (which helps explain the ground ball rates) and is staying away from the inside corner to right handed hitters. It's hard to pinpoint the exact reason for this change (whether it was his father or the Giants pitching coaches), but it seems to be working.
While Lincecum has undoubtedly missed out on his chance at a huge payday, if his final numbers resemble anything close to what they are now, he's likely earned himself one more multi-year deal. His declining fastball velocity will continue to be closely monitored and talked about on baseball shows, but for the moment, it seems that Lincecum doesn't need his blazing fastball. He's getting close to Jered Weaver territory and could find himself in a similar position in the near future, but for now Lincecum has successfully adapted to his new repertoire.
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Matt Goldman is a Featured Writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @TheOriginalBull.