May We Start Panicking About Tim Lincecum?

DENVER, CO: Carlos Gonzalez #5 of the Colorado Rockies scores on a wild pitch as pitcher Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants to give the Rockies a 5-0 lead in the third inning at Coors Field in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The Giants ace has a 12.91 ERA after two starts, and it's more than just statistics that lead to concern, as Lincecum just hasn't been throwing as hard as he used to.

Tim Lincecum didn't have a great spring training. Not terrible. Not at all. But not great. Nor even good, statistically speaking. And there was an odd story near the end, when Lincecum announced that he would essentially scrap his slider this season -- he threw hundreds of sliders last season, and effectively -- at least early on. To save his arm.

This, of course, led to a question: Is there something wrong with Lincecum's arm that needs saving?

From just before the season, Andrew Baggarly (via CSNBayArea.com):

Asked a follow-up question about Lincecum's health, Bochy insisted that the two-time Cy Young award winner has no physical issues. It's true, Lincecum hasn’t thrown hard this spring. But that is not atypical. He often starts out slow before zipping 94 mph on the gun when the season begins. More important, he says, is location of his two-seamer so he can get ahead of hitters and try for more efficient, contact outs.

It's still cause for concern, though. (That will always be true for Lincecum. People will always be at the ready to predict a breakdown. Story of his life.)

Lincecum did not appear concerned as he prepared to join the team flight back to the Bay Area. Although he struggled to get his fastball down all spring, he threw all heaters in his final two innings and said it’s the best he’s felt.

"Good, fine, everything felt the same," Lincecum said. "Best the fastball location has been all spring. I feel ready to get back out there and pitch in a real game. I’m out there pitching for a purpose, and that’s to win."

Lincecum finished spring training with a 5.70 ERA. He didn't pitch that badly; he struck out 16 batters in 24 innings, and walked only six. But his performance paled next to those of Matt Cain (2.10/26/4) and Madison Bumgarner (2.59/27/6).

Which actually sort of tracks what happened in 2011, when Lincecum finished with the Giants' third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio, behind Bumgarner and Cain, and the Giants' third-best home-run ratio, behind Bumgarner and Cain. Based purely on last season, we might have guessed that Lincecum actually entered this season as the Giants' third-best starting pitcher. Based purely on this March, we might have guessed that Lincecum actually entered this season as the Giants' third-best starting pitcher.

He's started twice this season and has a 12.91 ERA. He's struck out 10 batters in 7⅔ innings, but also given up 14 hits, two of them home runs. It's not so much those numbers that lead to concern, though; not among the cognoscenti, anyway. It's that Lincecum's just not throwing like he used to throw.

From FanGraphs' Chris Cwik:

After his first start, some writers wondered about Lincecum’s velocity. A look at the Pitch f/x data confirms those questions. Last season, Lincecum averaged 92.2 mph on his fastball. In his first start of the season, his fastball averaged 90.0 mph.

--snip--

Velocity loss has been a growing concern for Lincecum, and the speed on his pitches has been in steady decline since his rookie season. After compiling 15.5 WAR between 2008 and 2009, Lincecum dropped to 9.3 the past two seasons. While 9.3 WAR is still good enough to make him the 12th-best pitcher during that time, he rated as baseball’s top pitcher in 2008 and 2009.

--snip--

While Lincecum has seen some signs of decline in the past couple years, this latest velocity change could be a sign that something is seriously wrong. Unless he regains his lost velocity, or he alters his repertoire, his run as an elite pitcher might be in jeopardy.

Of course, Lincecum has altered his repertoire, junking his slider. According to Andrew Baggarly, Lincecum has thrown only two sliders this season. Both of them in Wednesday night's Denver debacle.

I believe Lincecum will remain an effective pitcher, even while averaging only 90 with his fastball. But based on everything we've seen, there's essentially no reason to think he'll remain an outstanding pitcher while throwing 90. He was phenomenal at 94 and excellent at 92, but 90 just seems too little, particularly for a pitcher who's jettisoned what's historically been his third-best pitch after his change-up and fastball ... and the effective difference in speed between his change-up and fastball seems to be shrinking by the minute.

This might be much ado about nothing. Lincecum might dial up his fastball against the Phillies next Monday night and throw seven strong innings, and we can forget we ever had this conversation.

You wanna bet on that, though?

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