Tim Lincecum's slider and the return of the whiff

Jason O. Watson

I like this version much better

Trying to dissect a successful Tim Lincecum start and all the questions of "why" surround it is much like staring at the sun -- ultimately it's futile and you'll just end up with a headache. But, I've always been interested in watching things with my eyes and then checking the data to see if what I'm seeing matches up with what the numbers say.

In Tim Lincecum's last start against the Atlanta Braves he pitched, dare I say, brilliantly. He punched out 11 hitters in seven innings and he did it with a combination of darting, diving breaking pitches in the dirt and a couple of timely defensive plays behind him.

In other words, this is probably the blueprint game for Lincecum these days: mixing speeds, junk-balling, and using his other pitches to make batters chase. The fastball command is still on the fritz, but he's always had very good secondary offerings, as evident by his 24 percent strikeout rate. (Among starting pitchers, that's the 25th best rate in baseball.)

In Lincecum's last start against Atlanta, he threw 39 sliders. That marks the most sliders thrown in a Lincecum start this season. Interestingly enough, Lincecum threw 31 sliders -- his previous high -- against Atlanta in this May 5th start.

Here's our table for slider count by start:

Game Slider Count
04/03/2014 29
04/09/2014 16
04/15/2014 25
04/20/2014 30
04/26/2014 16
05/02/2014 31
05/07/2014 23
05/12/2014 39

As a team, the Braves lead the majors in strikeout percentage (24.3). No other team swings and misses more than the Braves, and it appears that a slider-heavy approach was the right one to take. Before the 2012 season, Lincecum famously stated that he was going to scrap the slider. But if Lincecum is truly throwing fewer sliders, it's hard to tell. By FanGraphs' PitchF/X pitch-types, Lincecum threw the slider 21.3 percent in 2012, 21.2 percent in 2013, and he's at a career high this season at 27.7 percent.

Here's a whiff-rate graph courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Slidergraph_medium

In 2014, batters are missing the pitch more, whiffing at an all-time high of 23.39 percent. That's an even better rate than in 2011 when the pitch really became a solid weapon for Lincecum.

Before the end of last season, I posited that Lincecum, if he were to succeed, would need to do so with the use of his curveball. He showed a nice boost in both whiff rate and usage of the curve at the tail-end of last year. And while it was nice to see, the numbers with the curve, so far, haven't shown up in this season. But, I think the theory from last year's post still stands. Lincecum still needs to use his secondary offerings -- maybe more than ever -- to be a successful pitcher these days. In a sense, he's a very intriguing pitcher to watch. You almost get the sense that from start-to-start he's looking for answers. The same thing that makes him intriguing also makes him frustrating -- the tinkering, the adjustments, the constant state of flux.

Could the slider help Lincecum salvage his career? Who really knows? Sample size issues are huge at this point in the season, but that doesn't mean it won't be fun to watch and root for.

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