History Suggests Tim Lincecum Might Be Just Fine

After getting drilled for four runs in the first inning by the Phillies last night, the ever-growing worry surrounding Tim Lincecum reached a fever pitch. As Chris Cwik noted last week, his velocity continues to trend downwards in a pretty dramatic fashion, and he’s now getting hit on a regular basis while throwing 90 MPH fastballs. The combination of diminished velocity and poor performance are assumed to be signs of a larger problem. As the theory goes, they might not be conclusive by themselves, but together, they suggest that there’s something seriously wrong.

History, however, suggests that jumping to that kind of conclusion may very well be premature.

Tim Lincecum is not the first pitcher to start the season without his best fastball, and he’s not the first pitcher to get hit hard while showing reduced velocity. To look at how predictive previous situations have turned out to be, I went back to our monthly leaderboards starting in 2008 and looked for situations where a pitcher posted high BABIP and/or HR/FB rates in April while also showing significantly reduced velocity, and yet had posted BB/K/GB numbers that suggested that they were still capable of getting Major League hitters out. In other words, pitchers who were pitching like Lincecum is now. Here’s what I found.

CC Sabathia, 2008.

32 IP, 11.3% BB%, 21.9% K%, 39.0% GB%, 15.8% HR/FB, .362 BABIP, 92.4 MPH FBv

Sabathia’s fastball averaged 93.7 MPH in 2007, and he regularly topped out north of 95 while turning in a dominating season for the Indians. After throwing 241 innings and then another 15 in the playoffs, Sabathia showed up to the start of the 2008 season without his best fastball. His velocity was down over 1 MPH in April, and in his second start of the year, he topped out at 93.6. In his third and fourth starts of the season, he gave up a combined 20 hits in 7 1/3 innings pitched. He ended the month with a 183 ERA- and the highest BABIP of any staring pitcher in baseball. His peripherals were okay, though, and while his xFIP- of 100 wasn’t great by his standards, it did suggest he wasn’t totally broken.

As soon as the calendar turned to May, Sabathia flipped a switch and became the best starting pitcher in baseball. His velocity came back, he posted an ERA of 2.44 or below in each of the next five months, and he finished the year with +7.6 WAR – still the best mark he’s posted in any season to date. Sabathia’s career year began with him showing reduced velocity and getting torched. It ended with him getting Cy Young votes in both leagues.

Jon Lester, 2009.

30 IP, 7.7% BB%, 25.4% K%, 44.0% GB%, 16.7% HR/FB%, .383 BABIP, 92.5 MPH FBv

Lester had a bit of a weird year in 2008, as he began the year throwing 90 and ended it throwing 94. He showed up in 2009 throwing a little harder than he had in the previous April, but down several ticks from where he was in September of the prior year. He was also giving up hits and home runs in bunches, so even though his strikeout rate was up and he was still holding his walks down, he posted a 115 ERA- against a 75 xFIP-. His peripherals were good, his results were bad, and his velocity was inconsistent at best.

Unlike Sabathia, his struggles with hit prevention continued into May, where he allowed a .361 BABIP and another 16.7% HR/FB rate in his second month of the season. The velocity was picking up, though, and the peripherals were still good, but the results continued to not line up with his underlying numbers. At the end of May, he’d thrown 65 innings and had an ERA of 5.60 thanks to his BABIP and HR/FB issues. His ERAs by month, from June to September: 1.85, 2.60, 2.41, 2.52. He ended the year with +6.4 WAR, the best mark he’s posted in any season of his career.

Jake Peavy, 2009.

31 IP, 9.7% BB%, 23.9% K%, 45.9% GB%, 12.9% HR/FB, .341 BABIP, 91.6 MPH FBv

Peavy had been red flagged heading into 2009 after spending a month on the DL with elbow soreness in 2008, and his early season struggles in 2009 looked like more evidence that there was something physically wrong with his arm. His velocity was down about 1 MPH and he was getting hit hard each time he took the mound even while he continued to post pretty solid walk and strikeout numbers. In May, his fortunes reversed, as his BABIP fell to .237 and he posted a 2.13 ERA in 42 innings.

He did eventually land on the disabled list and miss most of the second half of the season, but considering it was a right ankle injury, I don’t think we can really state the the early season BABIP and HR/FB issues suggested that he was going to have ankle problems two months later. He has had shoulder problems since getting traded to San Diego, so it’s possible that his early 2009 struggles were indicative of some underlying arm problems, but they didn’t manifest themselves in the short term, and he had success immediately following his bad first month of 2009.

Javier Vazquez, 2009.

6.0% BB%, 31.3% K%, 42.0% GB%, .361 BABIP, 4.2% HR/FB, 90.4 MPH FBv

Like Lester, Vazquez ended his 2008 season on a very high note in terms of velocity, sitting at 93-94 and topping out at 96. In April of 2009, he was 90-92 and rarely even cracking 93, all while running a .361 BABIP at the same time. His results were still pretty good, thanks to a crazy 42/8 K/BB ratio and only 1 HR allowed, but he was certainly hittable, and his ERA- of 82 wasn’t anywhere close to his xFIP- of 52.

Starting in May, Vazquez’s velocity came back and his peripherals won out – his BABIP was under .300 in every month for the rest of the season, and (stop me if you’ve read this before) 2009 ended up being the best year of his career. His situation is less analogous to Lincecum’s because he didn’t also have a significant HR issue and his BB/K was so good that the results were still strong, but he is an example of a reduced velocity/high BABIP combination that showed no predictive value whatsoever.

Ryan Dempster, 2011.

31 IP, 10.6% BB%, 19.2% K%, 45.1% K%, .344 BABIP, 23.7% HR/FB, 90.3 MPH FBv

The velocity drop here isn’t as drastic as in several of the other cases, as it was more a narrowing of the range of fastballs than a huge shift in his average speed. In 2010, Dempster’s fastball was 88-94, while he began last year more 88-92. The results, though, were atrocious, as he gave up 21 extra base hits and ran a 9.58 ERA over the first month of the season. His peripherals were not good, but he was still getting ground balls and running a nearly 2/1 K/BB ratio, but he just couldn’t stop people from blasting the ball all over the park.

As usual, that changed pretty much once May began. After giving nine home runs to 151 batters faced in April, he gave up just six in the next three months combined. His 9.58 ERA in April gave way to a 3.94 ERA over the rest of the season, a mark just a bit better than his the 4.34 xFIP he posted during his disastrous April. He ended up throwing 200 innings for the fourth straight year, and he’s off to a fine start to the 2012 season as well. If there was any underlying issue causing him to be so hittable last April, it resolved itself pretty quickly.

This isn’t to say that Tim Lincecum is definitely healthy and is going to start dominating at any second now. He might be dealing with a legitimate physical issue that’s causing the velocity issues and contributing to all the hits and home runs he’s allowing. That said, we have to realize that early season velocity issues aren’t that uncommon, and they have often just gone away in previous years. We have to beware of confirmation bias when we see a guy throwing with diminished stuff and getting hit, as it can be easy to decide that the diminished velocity is the cause of all the extra hits.

In reality, the two things may have nothing to do with each other. Lincecum’s velocity is down, and through his first three starts he’s getting hit, but that doesn’t mean that the reduced velocity is the driver of the increase in hits allowed, nor does it mean that this trend is likely to continue.

Lincecum could end up on the DL with a serious health problem that explains his early season struggles. Or he could start throwing 95 again in his next start and win the 2012 NL Cy Young award. There’s precedent for both outcomes, and it’s not even easy to say which is more likely. All we really know right now is that we don’t really know enough to jump to conclusions.

The velocity is still a legitimate concern, and will be until if comes back, if it ever does. The hits and home runs are a less legitimate concern, but not something that we can completely ignore. They’re just a minor consideration given the amount of data we’re dealing with. Just beware of combining the two issues and deciding that their dual presence is definitively a sign of a larger problem. It might be, it might not be. It certainly wasn’t for Sabathia, Lester, or Vazquez.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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