Fantasy Baseball Mechanic: Diagnosing Tim Lincecum

      April 13, 2012 @ 06:57:10 PDT


My older brother was one of those kids that took apart things just so he could learn how to put it back together. I'm not a car guy, but I've emulated that sticktoitness in other avenues, including the dissection of baseball players.

Fantasy baseball gamers often forget how much real-life fixes can yield better numbers. Fixing a corrupted machine offers potential for productive output.

Every so often I'll don my Fantasy Baseball Mechanic uniform and dive into the nuts and bolts of players' struggles or success. No additional overcharges, either.

I've outsourced a (keyword) big job to Closer Hot Seat (where, apparently, I moonlight). I had to clear out the shop for this high-maintenance appointment:

Tim Lincecum, SP, San Francisco Giants

Slim-bodied machine who has outperformed build in recent years showing signs of ...

All right, enough schtick. Lincecum was almost universally among the top 10 SPs drafted in mixed leagues. No time to waste with clever formatting and prose.

Plus, I'm too irked on behalf of my Tout Wars mixed team to develop humorous prose.

Background

Troubling facts about Lincecum's career:

  • Four straight seasons of at least 212 1/3 innings pitched
  • BB/9 fell below 3.00 only once in that duration.
  • K/9 has declined in each of the last three seasons, including drops of more than half a strikeout in each of the last two.

The workload and velocity concerns loomed in the back of my mind even as I called out "22" on the 27-year-old at Tout. But when it turned out to be the winning bid, I was hardly upset.

Let's just say his first two outings - including Wednesday's, the shortest of his career - haven't ingratiated him to this fantasy manager.

Arsenal and mechanics

Big Time Timmy Jim is stuck in spring training mode. His fastball topped out at 92 mph Wednesday night (only touching it in the first inning); that was around what his average was last season. It marked a notable dip from his first two outings in 2011, when he touched the mid-90s consistently. Last season, his average four-seam heat finished 1 mph better than it did in 2010.

Why the early setbacks? Lincecum took his time incorporating his breaking pitches into his spring tune-ups and said he wasn't going to use his slider early on in the season in order to conserve his durability. Though not showing signs of imminent concern, Bruce Bochy admitted the slider could be a problem for the righty's elbow over time.

But more frequently using the pitch that may have saved his career in 2010 could ignite a turnaround. If he's working with less velocity - on purpose, or as a result of a workload comeuppance or a reason I'll talk about in a bit - he'll need his former bread and butter to bring him closer to prior levels of output.

The problem here is that he's trying to rely on a substandard fastball the same way he did in his younger years. It ain't working.

His split-fingered changeup, which he learned as a major leaguer, was his most valuable pitch last year, per Fangraphs PITCH f/x, and has ranked among the best of any pitch in the entire league. But it has been responsible for some of his early struggles, too.

When the mph difference between a fastball and changeup dwindles, so does the effectiveness of the string pulls. Maybe he can recapture some of the magic his two-seamer showed a few years ago - that's a way to compensate for dimming punch.

But in his two starts this year, the spin, movement and release point of his pitches have dropped off across the board significantly from 2011, according to Lincecum's handy Brooks Baseball player card. All three were issues for him this March and continue to be in his ongoing quest for his normal arm slot. He's nibbling more with the pitch that used to be his establisher, and it's biting back early on: The five first-inning tallies he has allowed so far, in fact, are just three behind his total from all of 2011.

Without knowing anything further, I'm inclined to blame a flaw in his funky mechanics (beat reporters have, as well), not a physical ailment, fatigue catch-up or an altered approach. Remember, a fouled-up release point and arm slot can cause a drop in velocity, as well. Being the pint-sized launcher he is with the unique delivery he carries, Lincecum's stride has a thin margin for error if he loses coordination.

Wednesday's clunker

Though he tailed off on his heat before his third-inning exit and only got two called strikes and two swinging strikes all game, he at least started out with more velocity than he did in his first game.

He was up in the zone often, though, and wasn't showing the consistent sink he loves, but he was noticeably showing his discomfort with Hector Sanchez, who had to step in to catch for the shingles-inflicted Buster Posey, who crouched for Lincecum's slightly less horrid season opener.

San Francisco Giants SP Tim Lincecum
Freaking out over the Freak?

Safe to say the Lincecum-Sanchez chemistry was nowhere near that of Lincecum-Posey. Lincecum was aggressively shaking off Sanchez's signals. Sanchez's two passed balls put a runner on third and scored one. Lincecum hung plenty of pitches.

How much of that had to do with him not trusting Sanchez to block them in the dirt? More importantly, if San Fran doesn't put Posey behind the plate for every one of his starts, how will he adjust to Sanchez or Eli Whiteside, whom he struggled with last year? The Giants recently traded Chris Stewart, who was statistically his second favorite finger-putter-downer in 2011.

Also, that proclamation that Lincecum wasn't going to use his slider ... it looked like he was fibbing. My eyes detected he threw a few, but, to be fair, there were a couple of pitches that the MLB.tv PITCH f/x called a slider that hardly resembled one. Some tailed away in two-seam fashion. Some looked like his split-changeup. Some resembled funky curveballs. Not sure if they were entirely flubbed and his release tipped they were sliders, or they were mistaken readings.

Maybe he got in his own head a bit, too. On the second pitch of the second inning, he caught his right spike on the mound and fell. With someone who has so many issues going on with velocity and mechanics, that's one more concern thrown on the pile.

Positives?

His hittability didn't play well at Chase Field and Coors Field, the sites of his first two outings, but his command peripherals ain't bad: 10 K, 3 BB in 7 2/3 innings. Here's where K percentage comes into play: Maybe you take away some of those punchouts if his in-play luck were better, but one way or another, there's probably some fortune involved. In fact, two of the extra-base hits he allowed Wednesday at least had a shot at being stopped for an out, or at least limited the bases allowed, which could've changed his situation for the better.

Working in his favor, to challenge those K% questioners: Six of the seven whiffs he recorded in his first game came with nobody on base. In fact, he struck out four Arizona Diamondbacks in a row at one point - no help from added base runners to balloon his K/9.

Trust Dave Righetti as a pitching coach, too. He turned around Ryan Vogelsong's career last season and has plenty of talent to work with in this case.

Estimate

I'll repeat this vital point: Remember, a fouled-up release point and arm slot can cause a drop in velocity, as well.

His complex dollar-picker-upper delivery needs to be perfect. Right now, it isn't.

The unfortunate combo and timing of this defect and him going at less full speed has scared his owners; the fact that it came on the road against arguably two of the National League's best offenses didn't help. Hopefully, the next time he faces them, he'll have all of his munitions at hand. I'm not really to say he's burnt out; he still has plenty of elite baseball in him.

While such struggles with velocity often hint at an injury, I'm not ready to speculate on that. Arm slot issues don't necessary point in that direction; a lack of fine-tuning in his herky-jerky delivery has delayed him out of the gate.

Next week he's slated to face the Philadelphia Phillies at home (vs. Roy Halladay) and the New York Mets on the road (vs. TBD). The Phillies ain't the same as they used to be, and the Mets are still offensively vulnerable. Tout Wars is a weekly lineup league, and I'm not sitting him, but I understand if you do, especially in dailies if you want to avoid the Phils, at least.

Maybe this is just a case of adjusted expectations: Would you be overly disappointed if he's becoming more like a Zack Greinke type of SP1 than a Clayton Kershaw or Roy Halladay? If we give him the benefit of the doubt and give him 1 mph back on his average four-seamer in the next few weeks, you can still expect him to approach an elite 9.00 K/9 - maybe with a rougher walk rate and an ERA closer to it was in 2010 (3.43).

Is that terrible? Heck no. It's still ace-like.

Keep your eyes peeled for anything Lincecum and Righetti are doing to fix the righty. Don't abandon ship after two starts, especially when he isn't yet using his complete arsenal. You're not going to get a trade offer equal to what you drafted him for at this point anyway.

Are you staying the course with Lincecum, or selling him to the first to take the bait? Sound off!

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About Tim Heaney

Tim's work has been featured by USA Today/Sports Weekly, among numerous outlets, and recognized as a finalist in the Fantasy Sports Writers Association awards. The Boston University alum, who competes in LABR and Tout Wars, has won numerous industry leagues in both baseball and football.

During baseball and football season, he appears on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio on Thursdays and Sundays, and every Wednesday on 1570 AM WNST in Baltimore.

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