San Francisco Giants’ pitcher Tim Lincecum has been a downright lousy pitcher through 9 starts in 2012. His ERA stands at an unsightly 6.04 and he has given up more hits and walked more batters per 9 innings than at any other point in his career. On Sunday Lincecum couldn’t even get to the 5th inning against the Oakland A’s, the worst offense in the AL, allowing 4 runs on 5 hits and 3 walks. It gets even worse for Lincecum, because the A’s were also missing one of their few productive batters, Yoenis Cespedes, and they also could not use a designated hitter, as per their norm. So is this just a minor hiccup for the former 2-time NL Cy Young winner? Or, as the scouts have long predicted, is Lincecum’s small stature and unique delivery finally catching up to him as his arm slows down, allowing hitters to zone in on his pitches? And is any of this fixable, or is Lincecum no longer the ace of the past?
Lincecum is still currently 3rd in the National League in strikeout rate and 7th in the league in total k’s, but otherwise the rest of his numbers have fallen off. His command of the strike zone, which has been excellent throughout his career, has plummeted in 2012. He is walking a career high 4.7 hitters per 9 innings, even worse than his rookie campaign. That rate has him 2nd in the National League in total walks allowed, despite pitching only a modest 47.2 innings so far. Timmy is also allowing a career hit 9.6 hits per 9, meaning opposing offenses are getting plenty of scoring chances. Until either his hit or walk rate improves, Lincecum will struggle to work deep into ball games.
The diminutive ace’s velocity has also been down during the 2012 season after experiencing a slight drop a year ago. Its normal for pitchers to lose velocity as they age, and Lincecum is truly struggling without his usual plus fastball. His velocity this season has been a pedestrian 89.9 mph, down from the 92.3 he averaged in 2011. He also throws the pitch at an abnormally low rate, only 38% of the time, essentially making Timmy a junk baller, who relies on his changeup a bit too much. For comparison, during his Cy Young seasons, Lincecum used his fastball more than 55% of the time, even breaking 65% during his 2008 campaign. This is causing some major probems, because hitters are now batting .270 off Lincecum this year.
There is still some good news however. Lincecum’s breaking pitches are still baffling hitters as well. His slider is missing bats 20% of the times he throws the pitch, and batters whiff at his changeup at an elite 18% rate as well. Early in the season Lincecum was hesitant to throw his slider, even saying he was scrapping the pitch to help his arm during Spring Training, but with his struggles the pitch has slowly been brought back out and with great success. Advanced statistics like fielding independent pitching FIP still love Lincecum, ranking him well above league average, due to his high K/9 rate.
Some of Timmy’s issues will also work themselves out. He’s stranding only 59% of all base runners, 16% below his career norm. Opposing hitters also have a .353 BABIP against Lincecum, which is about 60 points higher than the league average. He also has the advantage of pitching in the NL West, home of some of the biggest ballparks in the entire league.
As long as Lincecum stays healthy the rest of the season, he should be in line to receive 20-22 more starts. If he can do a better job of preventing base runners his 6.04 ERA will inevitably drop, and his performance will improve, making him a solid mid-rotation pitcher. The days of him blowing hitters away with a 95 mph fastball are long gone, and so are the days of him winning Cy Youngs. Matt Cain has already passed Lincecum in the Giants rotation and it isn’t long until Madison Bumgarner drops the former staff ace down to the #3 in the rotation.