He is a star pitcher for the San Francisco Giants. He has been consistently excellent during his career — especially the last three seasons, in each of which he has reached double-digit wins and posted a sub-3.15 ERA. He has rocketed to an 8-2 start with 96 strikeouts this season, with a 2.18 ERA and a WHIP of 0.85. He recently authored what many are calling one of the most impressive games ever pitched.
His name is not Tim Lincecum. His name is Matt Cain.
Lincecum, meanwhile — well, it'd be an understatement to say that Lincecum has scuffled through the first third of the season. And if the Giants want him to turn it around, they're going to have to tell him to adopt a different mindset on the mound very soon.
The Freak — aka The Franchise, The Freaky Franchise or Big-Time Timmy Jim, depending on which of his Sportscenter ad-inspired nicknames you prefer — has been the dominant ace of the Giants staff essentially since he broke into the big leagues in 2007, winning the Cy Young award in each of the two subsequent seasons. But he hasn't looked anything close to that pitcher so far this season.
His career winning percentage is .597, with a record of 71-48. His winning percentage this season, though, is a mere .222, with a 2-7 record on the mound. His career ERA sits at a healthy 3.17, with three seasons below 2.75. His ERA this season, though, is an even 6.00. Opposing hitters are currently hitting .265 off him, an increase of nearly 40 points above his career mark. He's allowed four or more earned runs in nine of his 13 starts.
What's odd about this startling transformation from arguably the best pitcher in the majors to a barely-serviceable fifth starter is that he is still striking hitters out at an extremely high rate. He's striking out more than a batter per inning, and his 9.63 strikeouts per nine innings ranks eighth in all of Major League Baseball — well ahead of last season's strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw.
That number is below his career mark of 9.9, but close enough so as not to be a glaring discrepancy — and is in fact half a strikeout improvement over last year.
Lincecum can clearly still miss bats with the best of them. So what's his problem? From some of his other underlying stats, there appear to be three red flags.
First is that the rate at which he has given up hits has dramatically spiked. For his career, he's given up 7.5 hits per nine innings. This season, however, he's allowing 9.4 hits per nine — an increase perhaps helped by the fact that opposing hitters are batting .332 on balls put in play against him. For context, the league average for that particular statistic is .291, and Lincecum's career mark is .296.
Secondly, he has walked an alarmingly high amount of hitters. His highest full-season rate for batters walked per nine innings pitched prior to this year was 3.6. This season, he is walking nearly five batters per nine — way above the league average of 3.1 per nine. Combine both the last two red flags with the fact that he is stranding a far smaller percentage of runners this year than in years past, and presto! Many more runs have been scored off Lincecum.
But the most serious red flag is one that Lincecum perhaps cannot control himself — his declining velocity.
In Lincecum's first three years in the majors, he threw a heater that averaged — in succession — 93.6 mph, 94.0 mph and 92.4 mph. In his last three years, including this season, his fastball has averaged 91.2 mph, 92.2 mph and — most worryingly — a mere 90.2 mph this season. This is a massive problem relative to Lincecum's repertoire, specifically his changeup — which has long been his most effective pitch.
A changeup, no matter how much it moves, needs an effective fastball in order to work. To maintain the required deception, it needs to be significantly slower than a pitcher's fastball. That way, the hitter is forced to make an earlier decision on the pitch. He's then unable to correctly identify the pitch as a changeup and starts his swing too early — either missing the ball completely or pulling a weak ground ball.
With Lincecum's velocity significantly down, hitters are now able to stay back and wait the pitch out just a split second more — which allows them to identify the changeup and then swing accordingly or lay off if it's out of the strike zone. In fact, Lincecum's changeup has been his second-least effective pitch this year, according to data compiled by PITCHf/x.
He's still getting the strikeouts, but with the extreme diminishment of his changeup as an effective pitch, Lincecum simply isn't getting the overall results anymore. Because of that, the Giants need to change how he pitches.
No longer can Lincecum attempt to be a strikeout artist. Those days are over, as they are at some point for every pitcher.
What San Francisco has to tell their diminuitive former ace is to instead pitch to contact. It's a mindset espoused by several pitching coaches, with an eye toward reducing pitch counts and inducing pitcher-friendly contact rather than batter-friendly contact.
With this as a strategy instead of "strike out everybody coming to the plate," it would be well within reason to see everything going wrong with Lincecum start to turn around. His walks would go down because he'd stop trying — and failing — to fool hitters with pitches out of the zone. His hits would go down, because he'd be inducing worse contact.
Most importantly, he would be pitching according to the Tim Lincecum of 2012, not the Tim Lincecum of years past. You can't fit a square peg in a round hole — and Tim Lincecum can't pitch the same way he did when he won two Cy Youngs if he's simply not that pitcher anymore.