Just the other day, I noticed that ESPN's end-of-game box scores now include each pitcher's ratio of first-pitch strikes. I don't know how long they've provided that information -- ordinarily I don't rely on ESPN to feed my box-score needs -- but I thought it a nice touch. It doesn't take up much space and gives you more data information.
First-pitch strike data is in there, presumably, because first-pitch strikes are important. No matter when you're reading this, that's probably the least surprising statement you've seen all day. Every coach at every level stresses the importance of first-pitch strikes. Every announcer stresses the importance of first-pitch strikes. Most every fan understands the importance of first-pitch strikes.
It's good to get ahead, and it's bad to fall behind. This season, for example, pitchers have allowed an .821 OPS after falling behind 1-0, but a .605 OPS after getting ahead 0-1. First-pitch strikes are a big part of Roy Halladay's game. They're a big part of Cliff Lee's game. They're a big part of Doug Fister's game, and several other games. First-pitch strikes can give the pitcher an advantage.
But there's one guy who doesn't care. Or actually there are a bunch of guys who don't care, but one of them is really good. That guy is Tim Lincecum, and it only makes sense - to his different delivery and different personality, you can add a different approach.
What follows is Tim Lincecum's season-by-season rate of first-pitch strikes, and rate of first pitches thrown within the strike zone. The league averages of these two statistics are 59 percent and 45 percent, respectively.
As time has passed, Lincecum has thrown fewer and fewer first-pitch strikes, to the point where this year, his first-pitch strike rate is second-lowest in baseball. He's put (far) fewer first pitches in the strike zone than teammates Jonathan Sanchez and Barry Zito.
Put another way, this year Lincecum has gotten to a 1-0 count 47 percent of the time, and an 0-1 count 42 percent of the time. The league averages are 41 percent and 48 percent. When beginning at-bats, Lincecum has seemingly not been doing himself many favors.
And yet, he's Tim Lincecum. He currently ranks seventh in the NL with a 2.68 ERA. He's fourth in strikeout rate and first in contact rate, and the other advanced metrics are also pretty shiny. Despite all the first-pitch balls, Tim Lincecum has still pitched like an ace.
I'm sure Lincecum cares about throwing first-pitch strikes. I'm sure he wishes he'd throw more than he does. Like everybody else, Lincecum is more effective when ahead than behind, so it hasn't exactly helped him that he's wound up in so many 1-0 counts. This season he's posted his highest walk rate since he was a rookie, and the same can be said for his xFIP. It would be in Lincecum's best interests to get off to better starts in 2012.
But it's still remarkable how good he's been in 2011 despite so often spotting the hitters a ball. When facing Tim Lincecum, there are no advantages. There are only disadvantages of lesser degrees.