Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Lincecum or Gone?

Giants fans biggest worry this season is not what most of them have been worrying about.  The offense has actually been pretty good at producing runs, based on my win/loss system of observing the production of offense and pitching (see box to the side), the Giants offense has been 30-19 in producing 4 runs or more, which is a vast improvement over last year's poor, under .500 record.  At 4.08 runs scored per game, they are just slightly below the NL average runs scored of 4.14; as my analysis shown before, when the Giants pitching is humming along, they should be winning at a high pace, a division title pace.  Yet they are only 26-23, which is only an 86 win pace.  And this despite missing Sandoval for basically half of the season so far.

The thing the Giants most need to be worried about, and some fans are getting it and starting to turn their inner hater on him, impossible as it may seem since he blazed into our consciousness, is Tim Lincecum.  And he's aware of this, stating in an interview with Baggarly that "I don't want them to hate me".  And I see it in the blogs, there are Giants fans upset with Tim, and bloggers too.

Giants Thoughts

And there is good reason to worry about Lincecum.  While the Giants are only 26-23 overall, they are 2-8 in his starts, which means that they are 24-15 in other pitchers' starts, which is a 100 win pace.  If the Giants were even .500 in his starts, they would be 28-21 right now, a 93 win pace, which would be an excellent pace.

Even now, a two win difference makes a huge difference in the perception of where a team currently is and the pace at which it is going.  Leading to fans' extreme worries when the randomness of baseball sometimes takes over.  But Lincecum's struggles is not part of baseball's randomness, he has really been bad, like we've seen other Giants pitchers do, just that they don't have two Cy Young's on their mantleshelf.

And the offense has been supporting him well.  The offense has scored 4 or more runs for him 6 times out of his 10 starts, or 6-4 under my system.  Unfortunately, his ERA is 6.41 in his starts, making it hard for any team to win with him pitching.

Looking at his PQS scores, he has actually not been that bad, though obviously not to his normal standards, or even the Giants staff's normal standards.  He has avoided disaster starts in 7 of his 10 starts, but, of course, that means he has had 3 disaster starts, or in 30% of his starts, which is a huge number.  Plus, he just came off a good stretch of 6 starts where he didn't have a disaster start, ending that stretch with a 14% DIS.  However, he has had two disaster starts in a row now, a set back to his trying to get his bearings back.  Whence doft goesth our Big Time Timmy Jim?

Tim is Not Far Away

I'm no expert, but I don't think Tim is that far away.  He seems to have the malady that more ordinary pitchers have, which is "the big inning".  He was not that bad in that 6 game start sequence, ending up with a 4.25 ERA.  But that wasn't really noticeable because he got bombed in his first two starts (12.91 ERA) and thus while his ERA went down, it has still stayed very high, by anyone's standards.  So he's been doing what I see other, more ordinary pitchers do, cruise along well, but once the wheel comes off, the start comes to a crash.

While he should work at getting his walk rate down, as it is high right now at 4.9 BB/9, his biggest problem is his high .351 BABIP, which is hurting him worse, I think.  He has actually striking out more hitters this season than last, 9.8 K/9, so while his walk rate is nigh, he has a 2.0 K/BB ratio, which, while not up to his normal standards, is still a good ratio.  Pitchers with high strikeout rates can survive quite nicely with very high walk rates.  However, his extreme "bad luck" in BABIP is making his ERA skyhigh.

Not only that, he's been having "bad luck" in terms of runs given up.  Overall, teams are hitting .271/.358/.433/.789 against him.  Plugging that into the lineup calculator, that should result in a 5.29 runs scored average.  At his current 6.41 ERA, teams are scoring at more than 1 runs more than he should be giving up.

I have been writing "bad luck" but really, to me, it comes down to the issue of the big innings costing him (these issues are normally considered bad luck).  He has been very dominating otherwise, but when runners get on base, for whatever reason, he's been giving up the big hits.  He just needs to make that final leap to his usual greatness.

One can see this in his stats.  With nobody on-base, batters are hitting .243/.320/.400/.720 with 12 BB/35K in 115 AB, a contact rate of only 70% and 0.34 BB/K.  With a runner on first, batters are hitting .206/.250/.294/.544 with 2 BB/12 K in 34 AB, a contact rate of only 65% and 0.17 BB/K, he is able to bear down more on hitters.  But with RISP, batters are hitting .361/.468/.574/1.042 with 15 BB/11 K in 61 AB, a contact rate of 82% and 1.36 BB/K, where only the best hitters have a ratio above 1.0.  So he is clearly dominating most of the time, but when there are runners in scoring position, he is not even average or ordinary, he's one of the worse pitchers around.

Uncharted Waters

This is a relatively unique experience for Giants fans:  Lincecum struggling.  While it is not new - he had struggles in his second month in the majors in 2007, plus struggles (twice) in May and August of 2010, plus brief ones last season in June and perhaps Aug/Sept as well (it is all relative, this was not bad, both 3 PQS games, but bad for Lincecum relatively) - this is the first time he has struggled 1) at the beginning of the season and 2) for so long.  Both those factors heighten things for fans.

Usually, he struggles for one game, so it just usually seems like a blip within the stream of great starts he usually puts up.  A lot of those were related to firsts - first pro start, first major league start, first start as ace of rotation, first start at home as ace, first World Series start. The other more obvious struggles lasted for only 2-4 starts, so people noticed but didn't get into full-blown panic mode.  However, this one has lasted "all season" from start to present, so that is the only thing on people's minds.

If you took this season as a continuation of last season, his ERA would be 3.46, which is basically what he did in 2010 (3.43 ERA).  So he's basically pitching much like he did in 2010 over the last two seasons (2011 and 2012 so far), which makes sense because we all know that he hasn't been the same since his two Cy Young seasons.  Perhaps his second Cy Young put some pressure on him, but all pitchers get older and his velocity goes down as the wear and tear of a major league season takes it toll on a player, especially after a long post-season playoff stretch.  In any case, when looked at as a whole, he has been roughly the same over the past 3 seasons, 2010-2012, and what we are going through right now could be seen as a regression to the mean for Lincecum.

Under Pressure

I bring up the Cy Young because I think that his performance issues are more related to him being a thinker out on the mound.  Thinkers just think too much when they are on the field.  When they are able to block that out (as they get more experienced) or am lucky to play that way from the get-go, then they can throw just like they do in their bullpen sessions.

For example, the Giants have been perplexed by Barry Zito.  Not just for his performance so far for us, but because when he's throwing his bullpens, he's right on target and shows a lot more stuff then than in game conditions, as was reported recently.  Yet when he's in the game, that all goes away, all too often.

Big Money = Big Expectations

Why?  I think it relates to his huge contract that he signed with the Giants.  And you can count 126 million reasons why.  Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article on this phenomenon, about The Art of Failure.

There is an explicit mode, that kicks in when you are trying to learn the steps, the process of anything, including physical actions, and an implicit mode that kicks in once you are a pro at something, where you perform as you had practiced and gotten good at it.  However, if the athlete is a thinker, sometimes the pressure kicks in and pushes you into explicit mode, where you are the beginner once again, instead of the seasoned pro.

Zito is a thinker and so is Lincecum.  And it is my belief that the struggles of both of them is due to their big time contracts.  Zito and Lincecum have clearly lost velocity in recent years, but both have stuff that helps them dominate hitters when they got everything together.  You can see that with Zito, he would have a number of starts where he's dominating, then suddenly he's that bumbling starting that we've had for most of his contract.  But he's always been like this for us, up and down, almost like a rhythm.

Lincecum, however, has been GREAT for us, only faltering briefly, at most, never looking as lost as he's been thus far this season.  There has never really been any reason for him to worry that the fans might hate him.  There has never really been any reason for fans to hate him.  Until now.

Now that he got a huge contract - the largest per season contract for a Giants player, that was soon eclipsed by Matt Cain's deal, and it "shattered" the record for an arbitration eligible pitcher - I think the pressure is getting to him.  And it is not like he didn't get other high pressure rewards before - like his prior contract  or Cy Youngs - but this was the largest without qualification and the Cy Young was more like post-pressure, not in-season pressure.   Though obviously there is the pressure in the following season to live up to the press.

Still, this is largest in Giants history, the largest.  And while an athlete won't turn it down, there is that pressure of living up to your contract, even if you had done it before and feel that you can do it again.  It preys on the minds of thinkers.  And as I noted, he's a thinker.

He's actually talked about this before too, though obliquely on tangential topics.  He has talked about his preference for shorter term deals, which presumably then was related to his not knowing what he wants in 5 years but that fans saw as related to his wanting larger big money contracts, but could be viewed from this perspective as well.  Following is what Lincecum said when asked about negotiations before he signed his latest contract:
Asked why he did not prefer a lengthier deal, he said, "It's just easier for me mentally not to have to put that kind of pressure on yourself. Not that you don't want to succeed, but when you're signed to a long-term deal, it's like saying, 'I'm going to live up to every expectation.' That's why I like going year to year, so I can improve on it and not sit on what I've done."
So Lincecum acknowledged that the pressure of contracts get to him.  He focused mainly on the long-deal aspect of the deal, but when you are paid more than any other player ever in the history of the team, including players like Barry Bonds, that is another form of pressure that a player might feel, particularly since he noted the effect that a long-term deal has on him.  Maybe he'll be like Brian Sabean, getting a new 2-year deal every couple of years.

Here are some of Zito's thoughts on the issue, in a recent interview:
It's definitely an interesting ride. Sometimes life gets crazy, man. You have to make adjustments, internalize things.  
In the world that we're in every day, it seems like the biggest deal ever in the world. Baseball should not be the end-all, be-all. But a lot of us fall in that trap, man. 
It took a long time for me to realize that. I don't speak in black or white anymore, man. I made a lot of progress, but I know a relapse is a moment away. You can't assume you're ever out of the woods. 
It's self-inflicted pressure. It comes from caring too much, wanting to please everybody. It's just the human thing to do.
Barry Bonds Wants Role in Giants Organization

Given that Barry felt the need to go public with his desire to work for the Giants, I have to wonder if he's been trying to get this done already and not getting anywhere.  Else, why go public with this?  Seems like he can just call Baer personally on his private line or anybody in the front office, if he's willing to be a batting instructor or something.

Then again, I recall that he did come in for a stint in spring training to assist as an instructor and he was here front and center for one of the Giants Hall ceremonies, so it is not like the Giants don't want to be associated with him.  Maybe he wants more than the Giants are comfortable giving him right now.  Any thoughts?

In any case, I'm all for Barry Bonds helping the Giants hitters in any way possible.  I've heard too many stories from hitters describing how much knowledge he has and how willing he is to share it.  It would be a shame if he is not providing that sort of help to his team.  At minimum, I would assign him to work with Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford, and Emmanuel Burriss.  Time to fish or cut bait on Burriss, and I think Bonds should be able to help two lefties like the Brandons.

Giants Cained Up

As I've been writing on recently, after Matt Cain took over that start and did all sort of stuff to help himself win that game - redefining, perhaps, what it means to be "Cained" - the Giants have been playing well since then.  They have been 10-6 since then, and the offense, after prior to that scoring only 3.6 runs scored, they have been scoring 5.1 runs since that Cain game.  Whereas they hit .254/.303/.382/.685 previously, they have hit .275/.344/.395/.744 since.

Of course, a lot of that change in the offense can be attributed to a change around that time:  the installation of Gregor Blanco as starter.  In those 15 games since the Cain game, he has hit .333/.444/.483/.928, with 12 BB/17 K in 60 AB, scoring 14 runs in those 15 games, as well as driving in 6 runs, he was responsible for 19 runs in those games (1 HR).  A .452 BABIP and 72% contact rate says that he will not continue this indefinitely, but while he and Melky Cabrera are red-hot, the Giants need to take advantage of it.  Hopefully long enough so that when they cool off, Sandoval will return to the lineup and give continue the offensive firepower.

The pitching has also been good during this period, with a 3.64 ERA, but unfortunately the fielding defense has been horrible, boosting up that good ERA  to a bad 4.31 runs allowed.  Though that is a drop from how well they have been doing this season so far, with a 3.44 ERA for the season, good for 5th in the NL currently.

And that's generally how it has gone for the Giants pitching, they would be among the good but not among the top early in the season, but then the hot unsustainable starts that some pitchers have end or a pitcher gets injured or both, and the Giants steadily climb to the top of the heap each season, for the past three seasons, ending up among the top 3 in the majors.

Looking forward, the Giants should continue to do well, both in terms of how they are doing and their position in the NL West division.   They are entering a stretch of home play where 13 of the next 16 are at home (plus on top of that get 4 against Cubs, 3 Padres, 3 Astros).  Meanwhile, after this series against Brewers at home, the Dodgers get 19 of 25 on the road, tough road games in Colorado and Philly, as well as 3 in SF at the end of this stretch.  The Giants should be able to make up at least 2 games and get to under 5 games back.

At this point, the Giants need to concentrate on gaining a game in the standings each week or two, not think about how many games they are back.  Especially with Kemp returning back to the Dodgers' lineup.  If the defense could stiffen up, just a little, the team could have a nice win streak scoring so much while giving up so few.


  1. Maybe today's game is the game Timmy puts it all together? Once that happens, there is no reason this team can't rip off a 9 or 10 or 12 game winning streak, especially after Pablo gets back.

  2. Timmy: So he is clearly dominating most of the time, but when there are runners in scoring position, he is not even average or ordinary, he's one of the worse pitchers around.

    You nailed it.

    Zito and Timmy and the pressures of expectations and overthinking: its very interesting the way this is unfolding. Timmy and Zito have been very close over the years, we've been talking about that short term contract quote from Timmy for a while now. It may well turn out to be 100% true and not an agent's ploy.

    As long as Zito keeps the ball down and pitches to contact, he can then get that curve going at times which is still a plus plus pitch, he'll be OK most days. His pitch count was very nice last start.

    Here's hoping Timmy can put it together. We need to right that ship, sweep a series AND get our first 4 game winning streak. I think they can rattle some wins off as well. If they tighten up the defense and Timmy rights the ship.

    I've seen some ripping of Timmy on blogs as well. It's just a shame. People are fickle though.

    1. FYI, I bought the latest Baseball Prospectus book (I think Baseball Between the Numbers), and it's analysis is that there is no correlation between their PAP points and injury, a major black eye to their pushing concern over pitch counts.

      Like most things related to humans, it's complicated.

      He's actually put together a good DOM start today, but that error look to end up costing him a loss, as Edlefsen is getting lit up right now...

      Yeah, I know how fickle fans can be. I got whiplash watching them rush in and out regarding Randy Winn.

    2. And Goldschmidt. Always Goldschmidt.

      Zito just seems to run out of gas at 90 pitches though. Nothing to do with injury, the guy has been a horse on that front until last year, and the car accident might be to blame on that front. 2 times through the lineup on a good day, and then look out with Zito.

      Timmy is walking a couple batters too many, and having bad inning run up the pitch counts, but there are some positives from yesterday. He didn't give up the big inning, he got out of some jams.

      Winn? That's a bit harder than Timmy in my opinion. I fear Melky might be a similar case if the deal is big enough. Big time test of player evaluation and contract discipline coming up OGC.

    3. Yes, every Superman has his kryptonite.

      Exactly, the pitch count is nice as a starting point concept, but then you have to individualize it for each pitcher. In Zito's case, he's like Rueter, after a couple of times through the lineup, they start recognizing pitches, need to pull him out before the damage is too deep.

      I think if Tim can just cut one walk out, he'll be OK. Two gets him back to his former Cy Young glories.

      Yes, I think Melky is very similar to Winn, but with key differences. Winn was already 31 when we got him, 32 in his first season with us. Melky will only be 28 and if we gave him a 3 year contract, he would be only 31 in the final year of the contract. I'm thinking now that he's probably getting a 4 year plus option year type contract from someone.

      Related to that, Winn was 27 when he broke out and started being the average player that he was and he had his peak year at age 28, the following year, and at age 31, the year we got him. Melky was 26 when he broke out, but at a higher point, 120 OPS+ (Winn was 97 OPS+), and, assuming some cool-off, will end up similarly improved (maybe around 140-150 OPS+; he's at 172 right now).

      Have to think that the deal will be similar plus inflation, given that Melky is just breaking out and his poorer past still haunts the present. And thus I agree, he could be a similar case if he struggles with us in 2013 under the weight of the new contract. Beltran had similar issues his first season with NYM, then was back to his normal self.

      And yes, a big time test of player evaluation and contract discipline.

  3. My view is Lincecum is trying too hard when the stakes are high. Instead of making a good pitch, he tries to make a perfect pitch but fails.

    It seems like every time he's in trouble he goes for the changeup or slider that doesn't break, and that gets knocked hard.

    Ultimately I suspect he just has to trust his stuff: make a good pitch in a good location rather than a perfect pitch for a strikeout.

    1. Totally agree. He starts thinking, tries to make the perfect pitch, but then that throws him off.

      I think that is a great prescription for him: trust his stuff.

      Another good one is to learn from the master, Matt Cain.



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