What can we expect from Tim Lincecum in 2018?
The last thing anyone heard about Tim Lincecum, he had disappeared from the public eye. After a disheartening campaign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2016, the pitcher known as “The Freak” dropped off the map apparently set to walk away from the game entirely. 2017 would be the first year since he broke in with the San Francisco Giants in 2007 that there would be baseball without Tim Lincecum.
Except he never left the game at all.
Yes, this is Tim Lincecum at @DrivelineBB.
Yes, Adam Ottavino took the picture while training here.
Yes, Tim will throw for teams at a showcase in the near future.
No, I have no other information for you.
Send all communication to firstname.lastname@example.org. pic.twitter.com/0N0cXHVUq8
— Kyle Boddy (@drivelinebases) December 19, 2017
While we, the general public, believed one of the best pitchers of this generation had left the game without so much as a note. Lincecum had instead moved back to Seattle to spend the year training full time at the elite training facility Driveline Baseball. As Kyle notes in the thread, he looked “jacked” and in a showcase not long after it was revealed that Lincecum’s fastball velocity was touching 93 mph.
Fast forward three months, we now know Tim Lincecum will pitch in a Major League game in 2018. It will probably be with the Rangers, with whom he just signed a 1 year/$1M deal. The only question left is – what exactly is a Tim Lincecum in 2018?
What Went Wrong?
After winning 2 Cy Young Awards, 3 World Series and appearing in 4 All Star Games with the Giants, Lincecum, already in the midst of decline, signed a 1 year deal to pitch for the Angels. From 2007 to 2011, Lincecum accumulated a 2.98, 17.6% K-BB% and 26 WAR – all excellent figures. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Lincecum’s effectiveness evaded him. Over the next 4 seasons, The Freak struggled to a 4.68 ERA, 10.6 K-BB% and just 3.2 WAR – well below the average Major League pitcher.
And then there was 2016 where a 9.16 ERA and a 7.16 FIP with Anaheim tells all that needs to be said. At fault – a fastball that had once touched the high-90’s sat at a less than pedestrian 88 mph.
That might be one of the sharpest velocity declines in baseball history. Baseball is a cruel sport – if nothing else, it’s honest – and it told Lincecum that with a fastball averaging in the high 80’s he was no longer a serviceable Major League pitcher.
So What is Tim Lincecum in 2018?
To answer this question, we have just one data point – Lincecum’s fastball velocity at his recent showcase – so we’re just going to take it and run with it. We know 2018 Lincecum was sitting in the 90-93 range in a bullpen session for scouts. We know that prime Lincecum averaged over 93 mph with his fastball. We know that bad Tim Lincecum managed just 88. So how do we turn this into a meaningful projection?
To start with I took Lincecum’s average 10 game ERA and Fastball velocity over his career and threw it into a plot. It looked like this:
As you would expect, there is a strong relationship between Lincecum’s fastball velocity and ERA. As Lincecum’s velocity improves so too does his ERA – makes sense. So we now know how Lincecum’s performance varies with changes in velocity. We also know what his velocity is in 2018. All that’s left is to plug it in right?
As I noted, Lincecum is currently working in the 90-93 mph range. You could argue that with the added adrenaline of an MLB game, Lincecum would work in the upper portion of that range. You could also argue that the wear and tear of a season will drag him back down to the lower portion of that range. Given we don’t actually know, let’s sit on the fence and assume Lincecum works in the middle of that range and shows an average fastball velocity of 91.5 mph in 2018. What can we expect from Tim Lincecum and a 91.5 mph fastball in 2018.
Thanks to the plot above we can throw it into a regression equation and find out.
From this method we can project, that based on his own prior performance, Tim Lincecum would finish with a 4.77 ERA in 2018 if he were to average 91.5 mph with the fastball. That’s not great but it’s certainly better than his stint with the Angels.
Of course, just averaging ERA’s across starts isn’t the most accurate method for doing this – an ERA of 9 in one inning shouldn’t hold the same weight as an ERA of 3 in 7 innings. Instead, it’s probably best to calculate the ERA’s manually. I did this and placed them into 1 mph buckets – it looked like this:
As it turns out our simple regression line wasn’t too far off these more accurate marks but nonetheless now we can focus in on how Lincecum’s performance might look at various spots in that 90-93 range. As it turns out, a simple .5 mph increase in fastball velocity from our 91.5 mark from earlier has The Freak looking like an entirely different pitcher. Tim Lincecum averaging 92 mph suddenly looks like a legitimate Major League starter. On the other hand, a 1 mph swing in the other direction has Lincecum as an almost unplayable pitcher. That’s how fickle this stuff is – 2 mph for Tim Lincecum might be the difference between turning in his best season since 2011 or once again finding himself without a job.
However, there is one more thing these numbers fail to tell us. Of 278 career appearances at the Major League level, 270 of those have come as a starting pitcher. These projections (if you can call them that) still think of Lincecum as a starter when all indications point to him relieving. Rather than being asked to work multiple times through an order, Lincecum instead will most likely be working in handpicked, one inning stints where he will be able to pitch at max effort for 20 pitches or so. This should have a noticeably positive effect on the right-hander’s performance and it’s one we can’t exactly quantify.
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There is plenty more that would need to be explored to present a reasonable projection for Lincecum in 2018. The quality of his breaking balls and his overall ability to command the baseball (something that was never a strength for Lincecum) are chief among them. However, after a year away from the game we just don’t have the data to say anything meaningful about them. Instead, we have this one data point that says Tim Lincecum is throwing harder now than he did in 2016. That’s something and for now it will have to do.
At times, Tim Lincecum has been both the very best and the very worst pitcher in Major League baseball and now he’s going to be pitching in meaningful games once again. That’s what makes this so fun. We can throw darts in the dark like we did here but in the end, we have no idea what Tim Lincecum is.