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Lincecum On The Edge

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The arbitration-avoidance contract figures are trickling in today: Sir Gregor of Blanco, $1.35 M, Hunter Pence $13.8 M -- which would have been an even $14 mil but the Giants docked him for his crucial role wasting so many sunflower seeds in the playoffs last year -- and Buster Posey, $8 M. All roughly according to plan, although don't be surprised if the one-year deal for Posey is a placeholder for something longer the parties agree to in coming months. I'll update the list here as needed.

But there are other figures published recently that I find more fascinating right now. Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs has begun to explore a new statistic, or, if you hate that word, a new way of looking at pitches. With Edge%, he's trying to measure a pitcher's control within the strike zone, or just beyond. In other words, how well does a pitcher work the edges of the zone?

For Tim Lincecum in 2012, the answer was "Not very well, indeed, sir."

His average fastball speed, as we all know, has been trending down. Most pitchers suffer the same fate. The question is, can they compensate with more craft and control? If 2012 was Lincecum's transition year to savvy veteranhood, it didn't portend well. There's a super-cool animated heat-map GIF on the page linked above, and I recommend everyone go see it for a visual demonstration of Lincecum's struggles. In seven words: Throwing too much shit down the middle. His Edge% was the worst of his career, and he's never been particularly good at nibbling the corners.

Zimmerman implies that Lincecum needs to change his mindset. He's no longer a young fireballer who can blow hitters away.

If Lincecum is going to make it as a pitcher, he is going to have to figure out a way to pitch to the edges instead of just throwing across the plate. He no longer has the velocity to throw it past players.
That might be true, but I suspect something else was going on. Zimmerman assumes that all those meatballs were fastballs. But Lincecum did not have meatball bias in 2012. For long stretches, he would often throw all of his pitches in a bad spot. In fact, his change-up and slider in 2012 went from being good pitches to bad pitches. Here are the numbers for his change-up, starting in 2009 when the change became the league's best nastygram.

The bottom number is 2012. I'm not sure how Fangraphs measures pitch goodness or what scale those numbers represent, but it's a big positive to negative swing. Go here and you'll see a similar but less extreme decline for his slider.

Before I looked up the Fangraphs' pitch value data, I had a suspicion this was so, in part because the impression of Lincecum 2012 that lingers into the new year is hanging off-speed stuff whacked for extra-base hits by the likes of Tony Gwynn, Jr. The change-up definitely lacked bite. It's possible it also lacked deception because of the decreased gap between Lincecum's declining fastball speed and his 83-MPH changeup. But I suspect a lot of the balls down the middle represented in the Fangraphs heat map were off-speed pitches.

This is all quite worrisome and would be downright ulcerous if not for Timmy's post-season run, in which the snap returned to his off-speed stuff and his fastball had a bit more life to it. How much more life is hard to say -- I vaguely remember him hitting 91, 92, perhaps 93 on occasion, but my memory is, uh... crap, what was I saying? Oh yes -- and Fangraphs' post-season stats aren't loading on Lincecum's player page for some reason, so I can't say for sure. But it wasn't just a better fastball that turned things around. It was the breaking stuff; the change-ups diving in the dirt, the sliders snapping across the edges of the plate. If he can regain the positive grades on those pitches, however Fangraphs comes up with them, the fastball velocity and location won't matter as much. If he can't, I don't think better location of his 89-MPH two-seamer will help much. 

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