On Saturday, September 13th, the Giants, who stood 14 games under .500, allowed Tim Lincecum to throw a season high 138 pitches in a complete game victory. Not only was it a season high for Lincecum, in terms of pitches thrown, but also a season high for any major league pitcher. Bruce Bochy and the Giants looking to help boost Lincecum’s chances for a CY Young Award, let the young right-hander throw deep enough into the game to earn his first career complete game. By the 8th inning the Giants were up 3-0 and Lincecum was already at 106 pitches. By the 9th inning the Giants were up 7-0 and Lincecum was at 118 pitches.
Bochy was quoted as saying:
“That’s big for a pitcher to get that first shutout,” Bochy said.
Bochy also acknowledged that Lincecum’s Cy Young Award candidacy entered his mind. Lacking a complete game, Bochy reasoned, might hamper Lincecum’s chances against Arizona’s Brandon Webb, the other top contender for the distinction.
“I didn’t want that in the record when they talk about Cy Young votes,” Bochy said.
And this is my biggest problem with Lincecum’s game. The Giants are valuing short term rewards — a possible CY Young Award — over the long term benefits of Lincecum’s health. When you make decisions based on an award, you’re doing it wrong.
Now, it’s true that Lincecum may be a different beast and that the waters are murky when it comes to pitching loads like this, but the Giants — Bruce Bochy, Brian Sabean, Dave Righetti, etc. — were doomed the minute they valued short term benefits over the long term positives that Lincecum can bring. Lincecum could very well turn out to be fine after this start, or it could be the beginning of injury problems, or he could have always been heading towards injury problems. If you extend the time line long enough, everyone gets hurt, I get it. But, those scenarios aren’t necessarily the most troubling part of this equation to me. My problem is the mindset that’s buried in that Bruce Bochy quote. It’s the mindset of being unable to look towards the future.
It’s a mindset that’s plagued the Giants for the last few years.
So, while I wasn’t a fan of the actions of Bruce Bochy on Saturday, I’m still a fan of baseball. And it was exciting to see Lincecum dominate for 9 innings and throw his first complete game. I’m not arguing against that. I don’t think anyone is. But, after the game was finished I immediately wanted to examine it through the scope of PITCHf/x for a couple of reasons:
1. To examine the composition of his first career complete game. Looking at: the pitches, velocity, location, break, outcomes, and all the other good stuff that PITCHf/x data can tell us.
And, maybe more importantly
2. To see if I could detect any changes in Tim Lincecum’s delivery as the game progressed. “Changes” is a nebulous word, but I wanted to look at his arm angle to see if he was lowering it as the game moved into the later stages. Pitchers will often lower their arm angles when fatigued and I did notice, with only my eyes, that Lincecum seemed to drop down a few times during the game.
Also, be warned that this post includes a ton of plots. Let’s check out the first plot.
Lincecum came out firing heat and quickly started to mix in his offspeed pitches. Lincecum’s average FB velocity on the day was 94.3mph. He topped out at 96.6mph. Much like the last velocity plot we looked at with Tim, he really mixes his pitches well. His fastball is in the 95mph range and then he’ll drop his changeup — a change that he sells incredibly well — in the 85mph range, giving that pitch a good 10mph separation in velocity. Anything below 80mph should be Lincecum’s curve.
I’ll note here that if you look at the table, you will notice that the pitch total only adds up to 133 pitches. That’s because PITCHf/x had missing data on 5 pitches and as a result, the following percentages are taken out of 133 instead of 138. Lincecum threw his fastball 68% of the time, his changeup 21% of the time, his curveball 8% of the time, and his slider just 3% of the time.
Now, let’s examine his break plot, both horizontally and vertically:
Tim Lincecum throws four pitches: a 2-seam fastball, a sharp curveball, a changeup, and a slider.
Lincecum runs his fastball in on RHB’s, and that might be because he throws a 2-seamer which has more horizontal movement in on a RHB than your standard 4-seamer. On average his fastball broke in 4 inches on RHB’s. His changeup broke in even slightly more at an average of 4.58 inches in on RHB’s. Because Tim is a right-hander, his curve breaks down and away from RHB’s. His slider should move away from RHB’s, too. Our plot indicates that it did move slightly away, but mostly stayed centered.
The changeup and the fastball both work themselves in on right-handed batters, meaning that it breaks away from LHB’s. RHB’s will get the curve and slider and LHB’s will get the changeup. Both will get the fastball. Lincecum threw 24 of his 29 changeups to LHB’s. He threw 6 of his 10 curves to RHB’s. His slider was thrown 1 time to a LHB and 3 times to a RHB.
Lincecum gets the most vertical break on his curveball, it breaks 4.19 inches on average. You’ll notice that the curve is a much tighter break than a Barry Zito curve. This is because Lincecum throws his curveball at just under 80mph, or the average velocity on a Zito fastball in 2010. The greater the speed produces the tighter break, where as Zito’s curve is in the low 70′s or uppder 60′s. The slider is getting the next best vertical break and the changeup and fastball are separated even more vertically.
Now that we’ve seen the movement on Lincecum’s pitches, let’s check out a couple of location plots. The first being where Lincecum threw his pitches by type and the second being results of what happened after Lincecum threw his pitches.
You’ll notice that Lincecum peppers the strike zone with his fastball. High, low, down the middle, inside, and outside, it didn’t matter, he threw his fastball to all portions of the zone. Why can Lincecum do this when Barry Zito can’t? It’s simple; velocity. Remember, Lincecum threw his fastball on average at 94mph. His velocity combined with some deception he might be creating in his delivery, and the running movement of the pitch, allow him to throw it repeatedly and without hesitation. The FB is a plus-pitch for Tim.
While Lincecum threw his fastball all over the zone, he was more selective with the location of his offspeed pitches. You will notice that the majority of his offspeed pitches are either down or out of the zone. The large group of changeups in the lower left hand corner of the zone were thrown to lefties because the pitch moves down and away from them. A good portion of his changeups are down and out of the zone. Those are great pitches because they are harder to elevate. The curve was mostly placed in the lower half section of the zone.
Now let’s check the outcomes by location:
Swinging strikes were distributed pretty evenly throughout the strike zone. Lincecum had 19 swinging strikes total. 7 on the change, 7 on the fastball, 3 on the curveball, and 2 on the slider. If you examine the location plot by pitch-type above, you can see where each of the pitches were swung at and missed. Padres’ hitters fouled off 29 of Linecum’s pitches and you can see them spread throughout the strike zone. Of the 29 fouled pitches, 24 of them were fastballs, 4 were changeups, and 1 was a curveball. In total, 32% of fastballs thrown by Lincecum were fouled off. Another 16% went for called strikes and 8% went were swung at and missed. If you totaled it all up, 56% of Lincecum’s fastballs created a strike. A good strategy for Lincecum would be to pound away with the fastball and then drop in his offspeed pitches.
Lincecum’s release point:
Lincecum’s release point is an oblong grouping. You’ll notice that it’s different than Matt Cain’s more circular grouping that we plotted a couple of days ago. I mentioned earlier that I thought Lincecum might have been dropping his arm slot during the game and the release point plot shows us that he dropped down a couple of times to throw his curveball and fastball. Most of his curves came out of the similar release point that his fastball, changeup, and slider came from but he did alter his arm slot a couple of times. Lincecum’s overall release point is pretty consistent, he’s not changing his release point drastically for any of his pitches which mean that batters will have a harder time picking up on what’s coming. Certain pitchers will drastically drop their arm when throwing a breaking ball and hitters will be able to pick up on that.
To see if Lincecum was altering his release point in the later stages of the game, I plotted each pitch-type’s release point by game stage. I decided that splitting the game up into 3 sections would be the easiest way to look at segments of his release point. I used innings 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9 as a way of splitting things up. Let’s examine the plots. I didn’t include the slider in these plots because Lincecum only threw 4 of them.
Lincecum’s release point with his fastball was the most consistent in innings 1-3. It expanded some in innings 4-6, the red grouping, and remained similar in innings 7-9. Lincecum did slightly lower his arm slot between innings 4-9 when compared to his initial innings 1-3. I’ll note here that I have no idea if this is a common occurrence for Lincecum — the lowering of his release point for his fastball as the game progresses — or not because I haven’t looked at many of his individual games, but he did alter his release point some. I think the good news is that it didn’t drastically change from innings 4-6 in innings 7-9. I would assume that if fatigued, his release point would have widened and lowered even more by innings 7-9. Not much to worry about here.
This release point plot has a smaller sample size than the fastball, Lincecum threw just 10 curves in the entire game. I’m not sure you can draw much from this plot but I wanted to include it anyways. Lincecum’s release point for his curve changed a couple of times, most drastic are the two pitches around -2ft on the horizontal axis and 5.5ft on the vertical axis.
The changeup release point looks pretty consistent, too. Nothing sticks out, to me, as a huge difference in the release point of his changeup. Most changeups fell between -0.5ft to -1.5ft on the horizontal axis and between 5 and 6ft on the vertical axis.
Lincecum is an amazing, fantastic pitcher. And I’ve stressed repeatedly on this blog of how much of a tremendous value that Giants are getting from him this year. The quality of his pitches, especially his fastball and changeup, are off the charts. He’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year and he should win the CYA, hands down.
But, I think the Giants have bordered on careless with his usage at times this year. This isn’t about pitch counts, they are a proxy at best, but this is about the entire year and the way this team has handled Lincecum. I heard a great quote from another Giants blog — sorry I can’t remember which one and who said it — but it boiled down to: “The worst thing that can happen after pulling Lincecum is 1-2 innings of Tyler Walker”. At this point, it’s not about building his stamina, or workload, he’s met all of those goals this year but in his past 4 starts, the Giants have pushed him like a playoff team in contention.
The line between building stamina and growing as a pitcher is a fine line. We don’t know where it is, but that doesn’t mean we should totally ignore it and run headlong the other way. Put it this way: I might pass out after drinking 10 or 15 beers, who knows when I will actually pass out, but that doesn’t mean I should go drink 30 beers to find my limits.
The good news: Lincecum did maintain his velocity as the game went on. Looking at the velo plot at the top of the page shows that he was still getting it up to 95mph in the last stages of the game. I was also concerned about his release point but the release point plots show that he remained pretty consistent throughout the game. There were some slight changes in his fastball and curve release point. From a “stuff” viewpoint, Lincecum seemed to maintain his pitch quality throughout the game.
At the end of the day, the question still remains: How did this game effect Lincecum, if at all? And the answer is: We won’t know yet, if ever. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to err on the side of caution, even if you don’t exactly know where that side begins. One thing I can say is that the Giants do not need to make their decisions based on petty short term rewards like a CY Young Award, which is what I fear they are doing right now. It clouds judgment and reasoning abilities and I’m afraid that it will lead to problems down the road.
Disclaimer: Do not consider this a post as an open invitation to discuss the merits of pitch counts or to haul along some classic misguided viewpoint of “you must finish what you start”. Again, I’m not interested in hearing them right now. This is an issue that’s been beaten to death since Bruce Jenkins’ terrible article. Do not drag them into this post. Thank You.