Evolution of Lincecum

The first pitch Tim Lincecum ever threw in the major leagues was reported to be 99 MPH on the Giants stadium gun (we don’t have Pitch F/x data for that performance, unfortunately). He then proceeded to hit 100 three times in his first big league inning, showing the velocity that had gotten him drafted in the first round, even as scouts were concerned with his command, delivery, and workload. In that first year, Lincecum’s fastball averaged 94.2 MPH, the seventh hardest fastball in the game, and he threw it 67 percent of the time.

Other than the hair, Lincecum barely resembles the pitcher he was just three years ago.

You don’t need a best fit line to see the trend in that image. His velocity has been steadily falling since he arrived in the big leagues, and through his first three starts this year, his fastball is averaging just 91.7 MPH. He has thrown 312 pitches this year, and only three of them have topped 95. He now throws about as hard as Matt Harrison and Clayton Richard. But, this is the crazy thing – it hasn’t mattered at all.

While Lincecum’s lost his top end fastball, he’s shown zero effects from it. In 20 innings this year, he has a 2.20 xFIP, and he’s still blowing hitters away with nearly 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s worked in his slider more often and increased his change-up usage, so he now throws nearly as many off-speed pitches as he does fastballs. In just three years, Lincecum has gone from a flame throwing ace to a junkballer whose best asset his the command of his secondary stuff.

It’s a pretty remarkable transformation. The pitcher he is now is almost the exact opposite of the guy he was in college. If you watched Lincecum in college, where he posted a career 5.7 BB/9, and projected that he’d become more Greg Maddux than Nolan Ryan, you’d have been laughed out of the room. But that’s essentially what has happened.

Usually, when we point to reduced velocity, there are injury concerns or performance declines, but there’s really nothing like that with Lincecum. He’s still one of the best pitchers in the game – he’s just doing it in a dramatically different way.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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12 years ago

When Gammons was doing the intro for him that game, he talked about his change possibly being his best pitch. I almost fell over laughing because he was a FB curve guy who didn’t throw his change all that much. Now he has 4 above average pitches, and that change is an ethereal pitch. It’s almost more fun watching him now because you never know what he’ll throw.

12 years ago
Reply to  Joe

If Peter Gammons watched game tapes of Tim’s five games for Fresno before being called up, I can see how he came away impressed with Tim’s change up. In Tim’s first start for Fresno, he struck out three with his new change up, three with his curve and two with his fastball.

Tim’s curve was hard to miss, though, and coming out of college was likely his best pitch. But Tim’s adding the change up (really a modified forkball) before the 2007 season and his slider before the 2008 campaign has certainly congtributed to his success.

As for his 2007 change up (which Giants announcer Mike Krukow, a pretty decent pitcher himself, say Tim didn’t yet have that season), it took Giants catcher Bengie Molina a while to realize the effectiveness of the pitch. But by the end of the 2007 season, though, it was Tim’s most effective pitch, as Tim stated that hitters were picking up his hammer curve. That might have had something to do with his coming up with a slider the following winter.

Speaking of Peter Gammons, years ago he predicted a World Series win for the A’s, saying southpaw reliever Rick Honeycutt would be the difference.

After a game in which Honeycutt was rocked and the A’s blew the game, my dad happened to run into Gammons in the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum elevator. My dad nodded to Peter, saying “You were right. Honeycutt was the difference alright.”

In a coincidence involving Lincecum, my dad passed away on Tim’s 12th birthday. In a coincidence involving that first start by Lincecum, Tim wore #55, pitching into the 5th inning, gave up five runs on five hits and five walks, striking out five.