Diagnosing Tim Lincecum

Washington, DC, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum throws against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-US PRESSWIRE

What's the matter with Tim Lincecum? The answer can be very simple or very complicated, depending on your preference.

For years, by ERA and other measures, Tim Lincecum was among the best starting pitchers in baseball. In 2012, by ERA, Tim Lincecum has been among the worst starting pitchers in baseball. There have been 141 starters to throw at least 50 innings. Lincecum's ERA is the sixth-highest. It's higher than Jason Marquis' ERA. It's higher than Jamie Moyer's ERA. It's higher than Jake Arrieta's ERA. It's higher than all ERAs, except five of them.

Lincecum was an awesome and popular player, and now he's a struggling and popular player, meaning everybody's well aware of his issues. And while superstars are allowed to have issues -- recall Albert Pujols' April -- they're supposed to work out of those issues before they become too troublesome. Recall the rest of Pujols' season to date. Lincecum hasn't worked out of anything, yet, and it's July.

What's the matter with Lincecum? Plenty have asked, and if you like, the answer can be incredibly simple. We all agree that Tim Lincecum was fine in 2011, right? That he was more or less himself? Good, that'll be our comparison. Here's what Tim Lincecum did in 2011 with the bases empty:

Strikeouts: 25%
Walks: 10%
BABIP: .324
Dingers: 1.7%

And here's what Lincecum did in 2011 with at least one runner on:

Strikeouts: 25%
Walks: 8%
BABIP: .236
Dingers: 1.6%

Now we move to 2012. Lincecum in 2012 with the bases empty:

Strikeouts: 29%
Walks: 8%
BABIP: .331
Dingers: 2.6%

That's an excellent performance -- right in line with what you'd expect from Tim Lincecum. The homers are up a little bit from 2011, but the sample of homers is so small, and the strikeout-to-walk ratio is improved. Now we look at Lincecum in 2012 with at least one runner on:

Strikeouts: 18%
Walks: 14%
BABIP: .339
Dingers: 1.5%

Holy crap. I already knew I was going to type those numbers, so I was aware of them ahead of time, and still it's incredible. Lincecum has fallen to pieces with runner or runners on base. Strikeouts way down, walks way up, hits way up from a year ago. The usual interpretation of something like this is that the pitcher must have problems pitching from the stretch. Lincecum has a complicated delivery unlike anyone else's, so it makes sense that he could have a mechanical kink. Thus, Tim Lincecum's problem is that he can't pitch out of the stretch. So simple!

But I'm not content to leave things so simple. If Lincecum has so much trouble pitching out of the stretch, where were those problems a season ago? In the past, Lincecum has actually pitched out of the stretch sometimes with no one on base because he was having trouble pitching from the wind-up. What is actually going on with Tim Lincecum? Can we dig any deeper?

I tried to dig deeper, because I can't help myself. Clearly, based on Lincecum's splits with the bases empty in 2012, the old Tim Lincecum is still in there. This isn't a case where Lincecum has been struggling across the board, which might make us think he's hurt or just worse. Sure, his velocity is down, but that hasn't hurt him with empty basepaths.

All of my research was inconclusive, and now I will share its inconclusiveness with you. We begin by looking at Lincecum's 2011:

Bases Empty Runner(s) On
Frequency% Speed Frequency% Speed
Changeup 13% 84 17% 83
Curveball 8% 78 4% 79
Fastball 56% 92 53% 92
Slider 23% 85 26% 85

Nothing too wild. Pitch speeds barely fluctuate. With runners on, Lincecum threw fewer curves and fastballs, and more changeups and sliders, by a little bit. Now let's look at Lincecum's 2012:

Bases Empty Runner(s) On
Frequency% Speed Frequency% Speed
Changeup 15% 83 20% 83
Curveball 15% 78 8% 79
Fastball 53% 90 53% 90
Slider 17% 83 19% 84

With the bases empty, Lincecum has thrown more curves than a year ago, and fewer sliders. With runners on, he's cut his curves in half while boosting his sliders and changeups. There's nothing in the pitch speeds worth talking about. Lincecum's fastball speed is down in 2012, but that presumably isn't the problem given his success with no one on.

I have pitch-movement data at the ready, but I'm not going to share it out of fear of overloading you with numbers. Nothing I saw jumped out at me, for 2011 or 2012. It's not like Lincecum's pitches have suddenly been flattening out. At least, they haven't according to PITCHf/x. Let's look at a more meaningful table:

Strike% Swing% Contact%
2011 Bases Empty 62% 43% 73%
Runner(s) On 63% 48% 74%
2012 Bases Empty 64% 44% 70%
Runner(s) On 59% 48% 72%

This is interesting. Last year, Lincecum threw slightly more strikes with runners on, and allowed slightly more contact. The differences are borderline negligible. Batters swung a lot more often. This year, batters have swung more often with runners on base, but Lincecum has thrown significantly fewer strikes. And maybe most interestingly, with runners on base, Lincecum has still missed bats. Some of Lincecum's numbers suggest that, from the stretch in 2012, he's been far too hittable. This says just the opposite. This says Lincecum hasn't been hittable at all, relatively speaking.

It's curious. Lincecum has not been generating as many called strikes with men on this year as he did last year, and that's a thing. Obviously, the reduced strike rate is a thing. But the contact rate keeps everything from being easy. The contact rate says that Lincecum has been good, except for when he hasn't been.

Here's the cop-out conclusion: this seems to me to point to mechanical inconsistencies. I'm not qualified to try to identify them, but I figure Lincecum's location has been off with runners on, even if his stuff itself hasn't been. Maybe you'd say the problem is more a lack of consistent focus, but (A) why would Lincecum lose focus?, (B) you have no way of knowing if Lincecum's losing focus, and (C) inconsistent focus would manifest in inconsistent mechanics. Unless there's an injury, it always comes back to mechanics.

Something needs to be straightened out, because I'm guessing that Lincecum is just pitching with worse command now with men on than with no one on. The fact that he's had the reverse problem in the past, and overcome it, is encouraging, I think. Also encouraging is the fact that Lincecum's still Lincecum with nobody on. The talent's still in there, and the difficult-to-hitness is still in there. But Lincecum clearly needs work, and statistical recovery can't just be assumed. The meantime is agony.

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