What would Nolan Ryan have been without his fastball? Roger Clemens seemed to cheat to keep his. Doc Gooden wasn’t the same when he lost his. When you’re a power pitcher, everything you ever learned about how to pitch is based off your fastball. You set up your other pitches with it. Ryan could strike guys out with his huge curveball because they had to look fastball or else get blown away. When Clemens’ control was on, no one could touch his fastball on the outside corner. And Doc Gooden didn’t earn the nickname Dr. K by throwing a change-up.
Tim Lincecum jumped on the scene in 2007 with a blazing fastball, after just over 60 innings of minor league baseball under his belt. By his second year, he won his first Cy Young. In his third year, he won it again. And by his fourth year, he was a World Champion. Careers aren’t supposed to start that way. Baseball is supposed to be hard.
And it is. The game can humble you at any time. Just look at Albert Pujols this year. It’s definitely humbling Tim Lincecum. In 2010, Lincecum’s numbers in the regular season were good, but not great like they’d been the previous two seasons. His strikeout rate was down from nearly 10 1/2 strikeouts per 9 innings to just under 10. It doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it meant that hitters were seeing him slightly better with two strikes. Slightly better can be the difference between magnificent and very good.
But in the postseason of that same year, he was better than he’d ever been. He proved to be a big-game pitcher and was a huge reason why the Giants won the World Series in 2010.
In 2011, there were signs that Lincecum was getting back to his prior Cy Young form. Though his strikeout rate was down again and his walk rate was slightly increasing, hitters were grounding out more against him, meaning there was less of a chance for extra base hits to happen. But low and behold, here we are in 2012, and he’s struggling again.
I’m not really sure what good I’d be doing if I just continued to regurgitate stats. I wanted to set the table. As a former decent baseball player who played into my 30s and current little league coach, I’ve seen a ton of baseball. Here are the three things I see that stand out about him today that are quite different from when he was The Freak — and it all starts with the fastball:
1. He seems to have lost confidence in his fastball.
Only Lincecum knows this for sure, but I don’t think he has as much confidence in his fastball as he used to. Now, that’s a pretty easy statement to make when Lincecum’s average fastball velocity this season is nearly 5 MPH less than early in his career when he was throwing his hardest. But it’s also in the amount of time he throws his fastball. His percentage of fastballs has dropped every single year of his career including throwing the pitch only 52.2% of the time this year so far.
He still throws harder than Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, so justifiably, he should be able to adjust. But it’s not that simple. He’s always been a strikeout pitcher. Cain and Bumgarner, while having decent strikeout numbers, don’t rely on the strikeout to get outs as much as Lincecum does. While they also don’t throw as hard as they used to (Bumgarner was a harder thrower in the minors), both adjusted their styles to suit their speed. Cain started to throw more sliders and change-ups, while effectively controlling his fastball. Bumgarner’s slider comes in nearly as hard as his fastball does.
Lincecum’s fastball control this year is probably the worst it’s ever been. When his fastball is on, he’s hitting the corners with it and elevating it through the zone and above the hands of the batter to cause swing-throughs. Batters are simply making more contact on Lincecum than they ever have before.
2. He’s overly reliant on his change-up.
He’s throwing his change-up much more often, which can take away some of the surprise of the pitch. So far this season, he’s thrown it 26.5% of the time, which is the highest of his career. Maybe he’s overly confident in the change-up, which could be part of the reason why he’s throwing the fastball less and less. And it is one of the best change-ups in the game. But when you fall in love with a pitch, hitters tend to look for it more. If hitters believe they can look change-up and react to his fastball more so than they used to, that change-up is going to be less effective.
3. The expectation is big for him right now.
He’s finally going to be a free agent in 2014. There’s pressure on him to continue to be Tim Lincecum the franchise pitcher and whirling dervish that won over the city of San Francisco like only top tier athletes like Mays, McCovey, Rice, Montana, Young, Clark, and Bonds have done before him. This year and next year are worth more to his future contract than any of his previous seasons have been. Coaches and GMs have been expecting him to fall off ever since he started pitching in the big leagues because of his windy delivery and slim build. If he doesn’t put up Lincecum-like numbers in these two years, what was once going to be an off-the-charts contract, will become much less.
Even though he’ll never admit to be thinking past his next start, it has to be in his head somewhere. Just being the ace of this staff and pitching badly in front of Cain who signed a big contract earlier this season, must be stressful.
Lincecum has a ton of charisma. Giants fans root for him harder than they do any player on the team, even when he’s not pitching well. They see him as their guy and when he’s not going well, they’re not going well either. And even with his velocity down, he still has amazing stuff. I think he’ll figure it out, but he may have to adapt a bit. He may have to become more of a precision guy than he currently is. But if he starts throwing his fastball with more confidence while locating it better, and using his change-up as more of a surprise, I think he’ll improve.
He’s shown signs of brilliance this year, but just not consistently enough. Can he still be Big Time Timmy Jim? I think so, but he has some work to do.