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Can Lincecum regain All-Star form?

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants
Was 2012 an aberration or the new norm for Lincecum?
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Joel Beall

Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s currently broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @FOXSportsBeall.

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Freak occurrence, or freak out?

Those are the two perspectives weighing on the collective mind of Giants management and its fans regarding “The Freak” Tim Lincecum. The diminutive righty entered the 2012 campaign off a staggering four-year run, averaging over 220 innings per season with a 2.81 ERA and 1.17 WHIP in this span. His aptitude was so venerable that few batted an eye when Lincecum declined a five-year extension last offseason worth nearly $100 million. After all, since entering the league in 2007, the then-27-year-old already laid claim to four All-Star appearances, two Cy Young Awards and a World Series ring. Though the San Francisco starting rotation boasted depth with formidable arms in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong, Lincecum was unquestionably the front of the staff, and to a greater extent, the face of the franchise.

Alas, a year later, this rejection spews audacity rather than astuteness.

For 2012 brought unexpected challenges to Lincecum, going from Opening Day starter to watching the World Series from the bullpen. While he played a key role as a reliever in the Giants’ October run, the change of scenery illustrated the precipitous drop in performance, as Lincecum finished the regular season with a 10-15 record in 186 innings, owning a league-worst 5.18 ERA and 1.47 WHIP. By almost every hardball measurement, Lincecum was one of the worst pitchers on the diamond last season.

Well, almost every measurement.

Make no mistake, Lincecum’s presence on the mound was bad, but it wasn’t as bad as believed. At least that’s the argument presented by most advanced statistics. Here is a breakdown of Lincecum’s production, as well as his output from the previous three years to add context, elucidated in popular sabermetric figures:

Tim Lincecum Pitching Stats

 
Year K/9 BB/9 LOB% BABIP ERA FIP xFIP
2009 10.42 2.72 75.9 .282 2.48 2.34 2.83
2010 9.79 3.22 76.5 .310 3.43 3.15 3.09
2011 9.12 3.57 78.5 .281 2.74 3.17 3.36
2012 9.19 4.35 67.8 .309 5.18 4.18 3.82

 


Lincecum’s strikeout rate remained relatively in check, and was good enough for sixth-best in the majors. This elevated punch-out frequency makes Lincecum’s left on base percentage puzzling, as pitchers that rack up the Ks are likely to have a calculation in the mid-70s in this category, implying the starter was hit with some tough breaks last campaign. Moreover, his .309 BABIP, 4.18 FIP and 3.82 xFIP all indicate Lincecum’s yield was the byproduct of porous team defense and bad luck. The difference between his ERA and FIP is especially jarring, as only Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar had a greater variance in these numbers. By these barometers, it appears a lack of providence was the root of Lincecum’s quagmire.

However, don’t misconstrue these instruments as a forecast for clearer skies in 2013. While Lincecum was the victim of misfortune last year, he was far from faultless. Lincecum’s walk rate skyrocketed, posting a 4.35 BB/9 versus his previous three-year average of 3.20. Also shooting through the atmosphere were long balls from the opposition, as Lincecum’s admission of homers nearly doubled, surrendering 1.1 bombs per nine innings compared to a 0.6 mark from 2009-11.

A lack of control was the catalyst for both these pitfalls, the upshot of a delayed release point in deteriorating pitching mechanics. Luckily for Giants fans, this was an arena that Lincecum noticeably improved in the last few months of the season, which should alleviate some apprehension heading into spring training.

Unfortunately, what is a concern is Lincecum’s velocity, or lack thereof. Below is Lincecum’s average speed for his arsenal of pitches:

Lincecum Pitch Speed

 
Year vFastball vTwo-Seam vSlider vCurve vChangeup
2010 91.2 91.3 84.2 78.5 83.7
2011 92.2 91.7 84.8 78.5 83.6
2012 90.4 90.2 83.4 77.9 83.2

 

These decreases may seem miniscule, but in truth raise a red flag. Turning 29 years old in June, Lincecum’s arm strength should be hitting its pinnacle, not descending from the mountain. There are two conjectures on opposite ends of the spectrum for this reduction on the radar gun. The first is in regards to Lincecum’s weight. Prior to the 2012 season, Lincecum drastically altered his eating habits and workout regime, reportedly losing thirty pounds in the offseason. While dropping a few LBs is usually viewed in a positive light, Lincecum’s already-Lilliputian stature made this diet problematic. Reportedly, Lincecum’s current offseason endeavor is to reclaim some of this weight and, as a corollary, recover his lost velocity.

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Yet there’s a more disconcerting hypothesis for Lincecum’s regression, and in this theory, there’s no rejuvenation. Though he’s entering just his seventh season in the Show, Lincecum has already accumulated over 1,275 innings as a professional. That’s quite the mileage on the odometer for a man of his age. Alarming as the rationale may seem, perhaps Lincecum’s star has shined so bright that it’s already burning out.

So what’s the verdict on Lincecum’s 2013 projection? As dour as the previous paragraph appeared, still believe the righty has some gas left in the tank. If he can add some bulk and receive enhanced assistance in the field, Lincecum can revive his All-Star form. Yet this recovery is far from a sure-thing, making “The Freak” a must-watch attraction this season.

Tagged: Giants, Tim Lincecum

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