Hit and Run: Tim Lincecum, Joe Mauer turn back clock for Giants, Twins
1. Peak Freak?
By the look of his 2.08 ERA, one might think the old Tim Lincecum—the one who won back-to-back National League Cy Young awards in 2008 and '09 while blowing hitters away—is back. It's not quite that simple, but after three years of getting knocked around while only occasionally flashing glimpses of his dominant form, the 30-year-old righty is putting up zero after zero. On Wednesday night, he shut out the Dodgers for seven innings, the third time in four starts and the fourth time out of eight that he's held his opponent scoreless.
By now, the arc of Lincecum's career is familiar. He was one of the game's top pitchers from 2008 to '11, winning Cy Youngs in the first two of those years, receiving down-ballot votes in the latter two and posting a 2.81 ERA, 2.81 FIP and 10.0 strikeouts per nine while making the All-Star team in all four seasons. But from '12 to '14, despite being paid like a superstar, he was rocked for a 4.76 ERA and 4.05 FIP with just 8.5 strikeouts per nine; his home run rate nearly doubled and his walk rate inched upward. At times, he could recapture his glory: He was dominant out of the bullpen in the '12 postseason and spun a no-hitter against the Padres in each of the past two seasons. Far more often, though, he was erratic or worse, pitching his way out of the rotation more than once and producing a combined -2.9 WAR.
With the average velocity of his fastball down about five miles per hour from its 2008–09 peak—89.0 mph this year, via Brooks Baseball, instead of 94.7 mph from '08—Lincecum has backed off the usage of his four-seamer and slider in favor of his sinker:
Via the new mix, he's generating a career-high 50.4% ground-ball rate and has already produced six double plays, an average of 1.1 per nine innings, which is double his rate during his three seasons of wandering the wilderness.
That said, it is probably too early to suggest he's truly back at peak Freak. Lincecum's 4.0 walks per nine match the highest rate of his career, set in his 2007 rookie campaign, and his 6.8 strikeouts per nine are a career low, as is his 1.7 strikeout-to walk ratio. His FIP is a respectable 3.28, but only because he's allowed just one home run in 47 2/3 innings. Even pitching half his games in AT&T Park, he's not going to get through the year with a HR/FB rate of 2.4%; his career mark is 9.3%, and he's been at 12% or higher in each of his last three seasons. His 4.19 xFIP—which uses a league-average HR/FB rate as a proxy for home run rate—is double his ERA, strongly suggesting that regression is just around the corner. To a lesser extent, so too does his current .273 BABIP, given that his career mark of .301 has been quite stable over the years, with a high of .316, a low of .286 and a difference of just seven points between the two multi-year stretches highlighted above (.301 and .308, respectively).
Lincecum's performance may not be sustainable at this level, but he has helped keep the Giants afloat, banking wins at a time when they've been without two-fifths of their intended rotation in Matt Cain and Jake Peavy. Cain has yet to appear this season while he works his way back from a flexor tendon strain. He hasn't even started incorporating breaking balls into his bullpen sessions, let alone face live batters or go on a rehab assignment, and thus he may not be back until July. Peavy, who's been out for a month due to a lower back strain, is scheduled to make a rehab start for Class A San Jose on Friday, after which he'll be reevaluated.
Offensively, San Francisco only got outfielder Hunter Pence back in the past week and is getting less than nothing from Casey McGehee at third base. Still, the Giants are 22–18, second in the NL West, sitting 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers (against whom they're 6–2 this year despite just a +4 run differential) and one-half game out of a wild card spot.
2. Whatever happened to Mauer Power?
Speaking of partying like it's 2009: On Wednesday night, Joe Mauer picked a good time to hit his first home run of the season, launching a game-winning solo shot in the 13th inning off of Antonio Bastardo that sent the Twins to a 6–5 victory over the Pirates.
The home run was the 32-year-old Mauer's first since last Aug. 17 off the Royals' Jeremy Guthrie. He hit just four last season, batting a thin .277/.361/.371 for a 107 OPS+, and even with one finally in the books for this season, he's currently at .284/.341/.381 for a 101 OPS+, one point below his previous career low set in his injury-shortened 2011 season. The mark would be passable for a catcher, but Mauer moved to first base at the start of last season due to ongoing concussion concerns, and it's well below not only his 132 career OPS+, but also the 116 of the average AL first baseman. In other words, he's been a drag on a robust offense that ranks third in the league in scoring at 4.58 runs per game.
Power was never truly Mauer's bag, as only once has he hit more than 13 homers and only four times in 10 full seasons has he reached double digits. He broke out for 28 homers in 2009, the year he won AL MVP honors and the slash-stat triple crown with a .365/.444/.587 performance. Via Bill Petti's interactive spray chart tool, Mauer's average fly-ball distance in '14–'15 is down 10.5 feet from '10 (as far as the data goes back) and 4.9 feet from '10–'13. Where he averaged 289.0 feet in '10 and hit nine homers en route to a .327/.402/.469 line, and 283.4 feet from '10 to '13 combined, he's at 278.5 feet now, with the expected run value of those flies falling from 3.2 per 100 in the larger set to -2.6.
Via Brooks Baseball, here's a graphic that provides a fairly damning illustration of Mauer's slugging percentage by strike zone segment, breaking up his performance into 2010–'13 and '14–'15 chunks so as to move past his peak power period. Whereas in the earlier stretch, Mauer's slugging percentages were above .500 in six of the nine segments and below .400 in just one, the balance is now two above .500 and five below .400. Breaking the data into upper, middle and lower thirds, he's lost the most punch in the highest part of the zone:
Keep in mind that none of those slugging percentages incorporate the at-bats that end in a strikeout, and that Mauer's 18.2% strikeout rate in 2014–'15 is double his '10 rate (8.1%) and well above his 13.0% mark from the '10–'13 stretch. Overall, his slugging percentages for the two periods are about 75 points lower than what’s suggested by eyeballing the above: .447 for the former and .374 for the latter.
It's not a pretty picture, but the Twins are off to a 23–17 start nonetheless. They've done so despite the loss of starter Ervin Santana to a PED suspension, the struggles of Phil Hughes and Ricky Nolasco and the failures of young position players Kennys Vargas and Danny Santana to live up to their promising 2014 performances. Minnesota may not wind up contending, but if Mauer and some of those other players can get going, it could at least break its four-year string of sub-.500 finishes, turning the corner toward a time when top prospects Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano become centerpieces of the lineup.