First, let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way: Tim Lincecum is throwing about two miles per hour slower this season when compared to 2011. Also, let me go ahead and get this out of the way: I think the velocity-stricken panic is a little overblown. So don’t take this post in that direction in the comments, please.
A density graph comparing Lincecum’s fastball velocity between 2011 and 2012.
As you can see, in 2011, Lincecum’s fastball was generally between 92-93 mph; this season it’s been much closer to 90 mph. You can click on over to FanGraphs’ velocity charts on Tim if you’re interested in looking at this stuff in a little more depth.
While I do think the lower velocity is a tad concerning, I don’t think it’s the death knell that many are predicting. As far as I can see, I do think Lincecum can be a successful pitcher at 90 mph — he’s still missing bats this season — but I worry more about what a loss in velocity might mean as an indicator of health (see: Wilson, Brian). If he’s healthy and this is natural aging taking place, I’m pretty alright with this new Lincecum. If so, we’re probably not going to see the Cy Young vintage Tim, but he’s still got the chops to be an above-average pitcher in the National League. And, the Giants are in control of him for two more years, which seems like just the right commitment length. If he’s hurting, I’m obviously not alright with it.
However, the biggest shock this season to me, at least, hasn’t been the down-trending velocity — it’s been going on for awhile now — but rather the amount of pitches that it’s taking for Lincecum to get through five and six innings of baseball.
To this point, Lincecum has thrown 493 pitches in 2012. Here’s the average pitches per inning for Lincecum during the first three innings of baseball. I’ll also make a comparison to his 2011 season.
Inning 2012 2011 Difference 1 22 17 +5 2 18 16 +2 3 20 16 +4
When compared to last season, Lincecum is throwing five more pitches in the first inning, two more pitches in the second, and four more pitches in the third. At first glance, that might not sound like a lot, but averaging 22 pitches in the first inning leaves the average pitcher with about 80 pitches to get through the rest of the game. Clearly part of the problem is Lincecum’s walk-rate which has spiked to 4.39 walks per nine (career 3.35 walks per nine). It’s an interesting development to see an increase in pitches per inning for a player that’s wanted to pitch more to contact — and it kind of punches holes in the “pitch to contact, you’ll go deeper into games” theory.
In the long run, I think Lincecum will get things figured out. (I’ll keep saying that to myself until it’s proven not to be true.) And I think we could see some positive indicators as soon as he can get his walks down and get a few quick innings to start the game.