Tim Lincecum successful in return, but his years as ace are long gone
On Saturday afternoon and for the first time in 357 days, former two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum took the mound in a major league game. Impressively, and for the first time in his last eight major league starts dating back to last May, he turned in a quality start, holding the A’s to one run over six innings in a 7–1 Angels win. But while Lincecum, who turned 32 on Wednesday, was effective in his debut for the Angels—his first appearance for a team other than the Giants, who drafted him with the No. 10 pick in 2006 and with whom he won three World Series titles and threw two no-hitters—he was not impressive. Lincecum may be back in the major leagues, but the pitcher who ranked among the National League’s best from 2008 to '11 appears to be gone forever.
Lincecum’s fall from the lofty perch of those peak seasons—his age-24 to -27 campaigns—came with shocking speed and force. An All-Star every year from ’08 to ’11, Lincecum was the NL Cy Young award winner in the first two of those seasons, a top-10 finisher in the latter two seasons, the league’s leading strikeout artist from ’08 to ’10 and the ace of San Francisco’s first World Series winner in the last of those three seasons. In the four years that followed, 2012 to '15, he wasn’t merely diminished; he was, according to the park-adjusted ERA+, one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball. Consider this summary of those two four-year spans:
In his last two starts for San Francisco on June 21 and 27 of last year, he allowed a total of eight runs in a mere three innings of work. The latter start, and thus his Giants career, came to an end when he was hit in the right elbow by a DJ LeMahieu comebacker in the second inning, but with three runs already in, he didn’t appear to be long for that game, anyway.
The comebacker sent him to the disabled list with a contusion, and it was during that absence that he was diagnosed with a torn left hip labrum and a degenerative condition in both hips. The key to Lincecum’s success had been a dramatic delivery devised by his father that deployed an extra-long stride to compensate for what the diminutive righthander (officially listed at 5'11") lacked in height. Lincecum’s diagnosis suggested that the delivery worked too well, shifting that stress and strain to his hips.
Lincecum had hip surgery in early September of last year and spent the off-season rehabbing, hoping that healthy hips would allow him to recapture his former glory. The Angels saw enough in a showcase that he held for teams on May 6 to sign him to a one-year, $2.5 million major league contract, hoping he could help prop up a rotation that had been hit hard by injury. On the very same day that Lincecum held his showcase, Los Angeles placed Garrett Richards and Andrew Heaney on the disabled list with damaged ulnar collateral ligaments. Veteran C.J. Wilson, meanwhile, had been sidelined by shoulder tendinitis since the start of spring training, and sophomore Nick Tropeano has since landed on the DL with shoulder problems of his own.
Lincecum made three warm-up starts for Triple A Salt Lake—the last of which, last Sunday, was very impressive, as he held Fresno to a single and a walk in seven scoreless innings, striking out eight in that game. That strong start prompted his call-up and stoked hopes that Lincecum might show some flashes of his old form with Los Angeles. But despite the encouraging results, Lincecum bore far more resemblance to the pitcher we saw in recent years with the Giants than the one who lit up the league at the end of the last decade.
The primary reasons for Lincecum’s fall were declining velocity (his average fastball dropped from 93.1 mph in 2011 to 88.7 mph by '15, according to BrooksBaseball.net), a declining strikeout rate (from a major-league best 9.8 per nine in 2010 to a below-average 7.1 last year) and the near-doubling of his home-run rate. On Saturday, Lincecum struck out just two men in six innings and saw his fastball average 89.5 mph, per BrooksBaseball. He didn’t allow a home run, but in his first inning of work, Stephen Vogt hit a ball high off the 15-foot wall in the Oakland Coliseum’s left-centerfield gap, 367 feet from home plate; that ball would have been a home run in most ballparks, including San Francisco’s AT&T Park.
To be fair, that was the only deep fly ball Lincecum allowed in the game. In fact, he didn’t give up very much hard contact at all: Vogt’s double off the leftfield wall was the only extra-base hit he allowed and the only ball to get past an outfielder. Of the three singles he allowed, one came on a broken bat. The hardest-hit balls he allowed, according to Statcast, were both tracked down for outs by his corner outfielders: a liner to rightfield in the fifth that Kole Calhoun caught on the run, and a sinking liner to left by Jed Lowrie, the last batter he faced in the game, that Shane Robinson charged and caught.
Those outs showed how much Lincecum relied on his defense in this game. He allowed a ton of balls in play against a weak offense in a pitcher-friendly park, surviving only because the A’s, who had the third-lowest-scoring offense in the AL entering Saturday’s game, hit a mere .211 on balls in play. He also allowed a ton of contact, in general: In addition to putting the ball in play 19 times, the A’s fouled off 18 pitches. In total, 63% of the 59 pitches thrown by Lincecum in this game that were designated strikes made contact with an opponent’s bat, and just 11% of those pitches missed an opponent’s bat, that compared to a league average of 17.2%.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Lincecum’s outing on Saturday was his heavy reliance on his split-change. Always his primary off-speed pitch, Lincecum has never thrown the pitch as much as a quarter of the time over the course of a full season, but it accounted for a full third of his pitches on Saturday, per BrooksBaseball’s accounting. His emphasis on the pitch is interesting not only for its own sake, but also in light of the success his new rotation-mate Matt Shoemaker has experienced due in large part to an emphasis on his own split-finger pitch. Shoemaker threw his splitter 21.6% of the time in 2014, a season in which he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He threw it with similar frequency earlier this year, a period during which he posted a 9.12 ERA and struck out just 17 men in 24 2/3 innings against 11 walks. Beginning with his start against the Dodgers on May 16, however, Shoemaker has thrown the pitch more than twice as often and has posted a 2.19 ERA and struck out 10.9 men per nine innings, with 60 strikeouts against four walks over his last seven turns.
It’s not clear that a similar strategy will work for Lincecum. In addition to his dramatically improved control, Shoemaker has also added several ticks to his fastball in conjunction with his new approach, averaging more than 93 mph with his four-seamer in June, a career high for any single month of his major league career. Nothing about Lincecum’s start on Saturday suggested improved control or velocity. Nonetheless, Angels pitching coach Charles Nagy appears to have sold Lincecum on a similar emphasis on his splitter.
Lincecum’s next start will come on Thursday in Anaheim, again against Oakland in a home-run suppressing ballpark, so it may be a while before he is truly tested. But it will be interesting to see if, knowing now that they are going to get a steady diet of low-80s splitters, the A’s come into that game ready to pounce on that pitch.
Over the longer term, the best-case-scenario for the Angels with regard to Lincecum may be that he pitches well enough over the next month to be traded to a contender, something that could happen even after the non-wavier deadline on July 31. Despite their win on Saturday, the Angels remain 13 1/2 games out of first place in the AL West and 7 1/2 games out of the AL’s second wild-card spot with the third-worst record in the league. Not even the Cy Young version of Lincecum could have salvaged this year’s Angels. What remains to be see is whether or not the Angels can salvage Tim Lincecum.