Tale of two Tims? Not really, looking at Lincecum’s stats

On Wednesday, for the second time in a year, San Francisco Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum threw a no-hitter. For the second time in a year, it was against the San Diego Padres.

As Rob Neyer wrote Wednesday night, one pitcher throwing two no-hitters against the same team in a year is an unlikely outcome, especially considering the fact that Tim Lincecum stopped being, well Tim Lincecum, a few years ago. If you were to list pitchers who would likely throw multiple no-hitters, you probably wouldn’t go with a guy who featured the seventh-worst ERA among qualified starters since the start of the 2012 season.

There’s something a bit unique about the recent vintage of Lincecum. Something that makes these no-hitters maybe a little bit more understandable.

Below is Lincecum’s seasonal batting average allowed based on whether or not the bases were empty or not. The blue line represents situations in which he would be able to pitch from the wind-up; the red line represents — not perfectly, but well enough — situations where he would have to work from the stretch.

With the exception of a big dip in 2009, note how flat that blue line has been over time, especially in comparison to the red line, which had a massive spike upwards over the last few seasons. At his peak, Lincecum was one of the best pitchers in baseball at getting outs with men on base; of late, he’s been one of the worst. In fact, the entirety of his decline can be traced to his performance with men on base. With the bases empty, he is still similar to the pitcher he was several years ago.

Season BB% K% FIP xFIP
2007 9% 25% 3.04 3.44
2008 11% 27% 3.05 3.50
2009 7% 29% 2.20 2.77
2010 9% 26% 2.93 3.01
2011 10% 25% 3.22 3.31
2012 9% 26% 3.80 3.31
2013 9% 25% 3.93 3.34
2014 9% 25% 3.14 3.32
Total 9% 26% 3.14 3.23

From the wind-up, Linecum posted basically the same walk and strikeout rates for nearly his entire career — with the notable exception of 2009, when he was just ridiculously good. These stats are reflected in the fact that his 2014 FIP and xFIP run-estimates are basically in line with his career averages. Just judging Lincecum based on performance with the bases empty, one wouldn’t think he was much different from the guy who won a couple of Cy Young Awards.

That’s the thing about no-hitters — pitchers get to work out of the wind-up to nearly every batter. On Wednesday, Lincecum pitched with the bases empty to 26 of the 28 hitters he faced. When there isn’t a runner on, Lincecum is still very good; when he’s rolling along and keeping guys off base, he’s a significantly better pitcher than when he’s trying to work out of trouble.

Here’s his the chart with runners on base.

Season BB% K% FIP xFIP
2007 12% 23% 4.43 4.32
2008 7% 31% 2.17 2.73
2009 8% 29% 2.55 2.90
2010 8% 26% 3.41 3.18
2011 9% 24% 3.11 3.41
2012 14% 20% 4.67 4.47
2013 10% 20% 3.49 3.84
2014 10% 17% 5.11 4.17
Total 10% 24% 3.39 3.50

Peak Lincecum’s strikeout rate with men on base was nearly double what it is this year, and he hasn’t offset the lower strikeout rates by commanding the strike zone any better. Home runs with men on base are way up, and overall, Lincecum has performed as one of the worst pitchers in baseball when asked to pitch out of the stretch.

One might think that a split this wide suggests that Lincecum’s stuff just disintegrates from the stretch, and that he needs the wind-up to take full advantage of his delivery. It’s even an oft-repeated mantra that pitchers lose velocity when pitching from the stretch, and Lincecum is no stranger to velocity loss. However, when viewed with the cold lens of data, that mantra and conclusion both look false.

Mike Fast, who now works for the Houston Astros, looked at the distribution of pitcher velocities with men on base vs. the bases empty and found no meaningful difference for nearly every pitcher in the sample. On an aggregate basis, it just wasn’t true that pitchers saw their velocity go down when pitching with men on base.

But maybe Lincecum’s the exception, since his performance with men on base deviates so greatly from his performance with the bases empty? Actually, no, he follows the same pattern. PITCHF/x data showed that Lincecum’s fastball averaged 89.7 mph with the bases empty, and 89.7 mph with runners on base. The median fastball speed with men on base is just a bit higher than with the bases empty; 89.9 vs. 89.7. His problems with men on base do not seem to be related to his velocity.

What about pitch mix, though? Lincecum’s best pitch is his changeup, and perhaps he doesn’t trust himself to throw it when runners could advance on a potential wild pitch?

Again, the data rejects a seemingly possible explanation. With the bases empty, Lincecum has thrown 47 percent fastballs, 42 percent breaking balls and 11 percent changeups. With runners on, it’s 45 percent fastballs, 41 percent breaking balls and 15 percent changeups. He actually throws the changeup more with runners on base, and there is no real meaningful difference in his overall pitch distribution between the two situations.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that the answer isn’t so easily found. If it was, someone with the Giants would have figured this out by now. The fact that Lincecum’s problems with men on base persist suggest that there’s a more complicated explanation, and perhaps one that can’t be repaired even if it is properly diagnosed.

It’s also a problem that does not manifest itself until he starts putting men on base. When he’s not, he’s still very good and has the ability to stay out of trouble for long stretches of time.

Lincecum is currently the definition of a feast-or-famine hurler. As long as he has the benefit of pitching with the bases empty, it shouldn’t be surprising that he pitches well.

Once he puts a man on base, though, watch out. If this trend persists, Lincecum will be both a mediocre pitcher and a guy who might just throw another no-hitter.

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