In the aftermath of Tuesday evening's 6-2 loss (via the San Francisco Chronicle) at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies, questions continued to surround Tim Lincecum. In the span of a little over a year, the San Francisco Giants right-hander has gone from one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball to a question mark every single time he takes the mound.
At the age of 28, nearing free agency for the first time in his career, Lincecum should be putting together a contract drive that ends with his name on the list of the highest-paid pitchers in history. Instead, he looks less and less like the pitcher who dominated the sport from 2007-2011.
During his first five seasons, Lincecum was literally unhittable, winning two Cy Youngs, posting an adjusted earned run average 37 percent better than the league, striking out nearly 10 batters per nine innings and racking up almost three strikeouts for every walk he allowed.
Over those first 1,028 innings of his career, Lincecum was in the company of some of the greatest pitchers of all time.
Throughout baseball history, few pitchers have pitched at least 1,000 innings during their first five seasons at the level Lincecum did. Using Baseball-Reference.com's Play Index, his accolades come into context.
His 1,127 strikeouts over that span are bested only by Tom Seaver's first five campaigns. His 137 ERA+ ranks 12th, ahead of Doc Gooden. His 9.9 K/9 mark paces the list, ahead of names such as Roger Clemens, Bob Feller and Fergie Jenkins.
If you were drawing up the start of an all-time career, Lincecum's first five seasons would be a tremendous picture.
Then, last year happened.
Dating back to the opening of the 2012 season, the following are Lincecum's numbers: 227.2 IP, 9.3 K/9, 2.14 SO/BB, 69 ERA+, 5.10 ERA.
To put it bluntly, his career has fallen off the tracks.
If he's going to reinvent himself, the task won't be easy. As the years have gone on, it's easier to see what has happened to Lincecum's battles with hitters rather than why he can't fix the problem.
Due to a unique delivery, great stuff and a variety of moving pitches, Lincecum is very difficult to make contact against. Considering that his strikeout rate has barely moved from his best days to now, it's not fair to say his "stuff" is the problem.
Instead, hitters are becoming more and more patient against him, waiting for their pitch and allowing him to fall behind in the count.
While Lincecum always walked batters, he's doing so at a rate now that suggests he doesn't know where the ball is going when it leaves his right hand. In a way, Lincecum has almost become a hard-throwing knuckleballer. Command is impossible for him on his bad days.
Taking a look at his year-by-year line-drive rates, HR/FB ratios and opponent swing percentage shows that hitters simply aren't fooled like they once were (via FanGraphs):
- Line-drive percentage: From 2007-2011, Lincecum never allowed more than 20.8 percent of batted balls to turn into line drives. In fact, the percentage was under 20 in all but one season. In 2012, that number jumped to 23.8. This season, it's a ghastly 28.9.
- HR/FB ratio: While the league average tends to hover around 10 percent, Lincecum stayed below that range for the first five years of his career. Since? Try 14.6 percent in 2012, 17.2 percent in 2013. Allowing walks and home runs is a quick way to lose games.
- Swing percentage: At 42.5 percent this season, hitters are swinging at fewer of Lincecum's offerings than ever before. Batters are simply waiting for their pitch, knowing Lincecum will likely throw balls due to a lack of a command.
Of course, it's not over for Lincecum.
He's only 28, still striking out an enormous amount of batters and has run into a bit of bad luck with abnormal HR/FB rates and BABIP marks slightly above league average. While those probably have more to do with hitters sitting on their pitch, it is worth noting that his xFIP (expected Fielding Independent Pitching) was 3.82 in 2012 and 3.29 in 2013.
At this point, it's about command for the former ace. The categories in bold on his Baseball-Reference.com page used to highlight K's, K/9, adjusted ERA and Cy Youngs.
Now they show a pitcher who led the league in earned runs allowed last year, walks this season and a WHIP close to 1.5.
Inconsistency is the new consistency with Lincecum. When his arm slot, mechanics and command are in line, he still has the talent to be as good as anyone.
Just don't hold your breath waiting for him to find that consistency often enough to be dominant over the course of a full season.
Will Tim Lincecum ever return to dominance?
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