Is Tim Lincecum Back?

Tim Lincecum is currently sporting a 2.00 ERA, so has the former Cy Young winner rediscovered his old form?

On May 8, Tim Lincecum recorded his second straight scoreless outing, lowering his season ERA to 2.00 in the process.

It might seem like the former Cy Young winner is back on track after three straight subpar seasons, but we cannot say this is truly the case yet.

It’s true that Lincecum’s 56 ERA- and 85 FIP- are welcomed sights for Giants fans. After “The Freak” posted a 4.0 fWAR season in 217.0 innings in 2011, he has been worth 3.7 fWAR in 575.1 innings since.

There are caveats to both his ERA and FIP though, which is why we should hold off on declaring Lincecum “back.”

Strand Rate and the Three True Outcomes

As you probably know, there are numerous flaws in ERA, as it is prone to ball-in-play and sequencing luck which make it dangerous to trust, especially in small samples.

Lincecum’s batting average on balls in play of .277 is nothing out of the ordinary, but he has been fortunate in terms of stranding runners.

He has stranded 81.7% of baserunners this season, ranking 14th in the Majors, surpassing both the Major League (74.3%) and his career (73.6%) averages.

Knowing what we know about how strand rate regresses, you can bet this will come down, taking his ERA in the opposite direction.

But what about his FIP, which after league and park adjustments is 15% better than the league average this season and marks a 37-point improvement over his rate last year?

It certainly suggests Lincecum has been pitching well, but regression seems to be in order here also.

His strikeout rate (19.4%) and walk rate (9.7%) are right in line with his numbers last season (19.9%, 9.4%, respectively), so the big drop in FIP is solely due to a decrease in home run rate.

Lincecum allowed 1.10 home runs per nine innings last year, but is allowing just 0.25 home runs per nine innings this season. He has upped his groundball rate to 54.0% from his career mark of 46.9%, but has also allowed an unsustainably low 3.6% home run per fly ball rate.

His career average of 9.3% suggests balls should start to leave the yard at a higher rate going forward, and there is little to suggest weak contact on fly balls is driving the low home run per fly ball rate.

Lincecum has generated an infield fly on 3.6% of his fly balls, tied for the 14th lowest rate in baseball, according to FanGraphs. He is also 139th out of 152 pitchers who have allowed at least 10 fly balls in terms of batted ball velocity on fly balls (91.25 miles per hour) and 85th in terms of batted ball distance on fly balls (316.94 feet), according to Baseball Savant.

These figures support the idea that Lincecum is fortunate to have allowed so few home runs and will probably not be so lucky going forward.

It makes sense, then, that his xFIP- (which takes a player’s FIP and adjusts it by replacing his home run per fly ball rate with the league average figure), is 99 (essentially league average).

Considering his xFIP- over the past three years was 98, in terms of results, it is probably fair to say that there is little besides HR/FB variation separating the Lincecum that struggled from 2012-2014 to the one taking the mound this season.

A Closer Look

When taking a closer look at Lincecum’s approach this season, the first thing that stands out is that his fastball usage has declined dramatically, dropping to 20.51% from 28.08% last season, after using the pitch 32.43% of the time from 2007 to 2014, according to Brooks Baseball.

This makes sense, given the pitch’s velocity has dropped, coming in at 87.6 miles per hour this season and has been on the decline since 2012, according to PITCHf/x via FanGraphs.

The pitch generated a miss on 18.73% of swings last season, ranking 178th among pitchers who threw at least 100 fastballs last season, per Baseball Prospectus. Opponents hit it hard as well, with a line drive rate of 29.37% and isolated power of .172 against the pitch.

The decline in fastball use is most pronounced against lefties, who have seen the pitch 8.0% of the time in 2015, compared to 18.0% of the time last season.

An uptick in sinker usage (26.13%) has corresponded with the decline in fastballs, which would seem to explain the rise in ground ball rate.

Lincecum is throwing his splitter at about the same rate as last season (23.60% in 2014, 25.95% in 2015), and it remains his best pitch in terms of whiffs per swing (36.4%). His splitter and slider (which he has thrown 14.5% of the time this season) are also the only pitches with which he is reliably putting hitters away.

The two pitches are the only ones Lincecum throws that generate a put-away percentage (whiff rate with two strikes) above 15%, according to Baseball Prospectus’ PITCHf/x leaderboards.

Lincecum’s overall put-away percentage of 17.42% ranks 92nd in the league among starters who have thrown at least 50 pitches, explaining why his high overall whiff rates have not translated to a high strikeout total (his 10.6% swinging strike percentage is tied for 26th in baseball, according to FanGraphs).

Control issues also continue to be problematic.

Lincecum’s career first strike percentage ranks below the big league average, but he is on pace to set a new career low here, with a first strike rate of 52.8% that is third worst in the National League, according to Baseball-Reference.

By falling behind hitters so frequently, he is forced to “groove” more pitches than ever. Brooks Baseball defines grooved pitches as pitches thrown right down the middle of the plate, and Lincecum has “grooved” a considerably higher rate of pitches this season.

Hitters are only 5-for-15 on these pitches so far with a .133 ISO, but it is not exactly difficult to imagine Lincecum’s 88 miles per hour fastballs thrown in the middle of the plate getting drilled in the future.

This is especially true given these grooved pitches have left opponents’ bats with an average velocity of 95.80 miles per hour (ranking 90th among the 130 pitchers who have thrown at least five pitches in this zone), according to Baseball Savant.

ERA Estimators and Projections

As mentioned, Lincecum’s xFIP- is 99, while some other ERA estimators suggest he has actually been below average.

His 4.09 SIERA is worse than the Major League average, as is his kwERA (3.73) (kwERA is essentially FIP without home runs, meaning it only looks at strike outs and walks, hence the "k" and "w"; it is incredibly simple but is still on-par with its more complicated cousins in terms of effectiveness).

His cFIP (FIP adjusted for context) of 105 ranks 71st among the 124 pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings this year, according to Baseball Prospectus (cFIP is scaled so that 100 is average).

In terms of Baseball Prospectus’ new Deserved Run Average (which incorporates a multitude of contextual factors and grades a pitcher on a per plate appearance rather than per inning basis), Lincecum ranks 42nd with a 3.76 (note that DRA is a backwards looking metric, so it implies Lincecum has been lucky to have a 2.00 ERA without prescribing what his ERA should be going forward).

Finally, our projections see Lincecum pitching to a 4.10 ERA for the rest of the season, with a decline in both strikeout rate (18.6%) and walk rate (10.1%).

When he was at the top of his game, there were few pitchers more fun to watch than Lincecum. Unfortunately, despite encouraging early results, it does not seem like “that Lincecum” has returned.