Saturday, May 9, 2015

The Curious Case of Tim Lincecum

Strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) and left-on-base percentage (LOB%) are often closely correlated. According to, "Most pitchers have LOB%s around league average (which is approximately 70-72%, depending upon the season), and pitchers that deviate from that average tend to see their numbers regress towards average in the future." The MLB average LOB% from 2008-present is 72.4%. 

However, if a pitcher has a high strikeout rate, it's reasonable to expect he'll also have a high LOB%. Also according to, this is because "Pitchers that record a high numbers [sic] of strikeouts can pitch their way out of jams more easily than pitchers that rely upon their team’s defense, so they are able to maintain LOB%s higher than league average." 

Take a look at the correlation for yourself over the last seven-plus seasons:

As K/9 rises, LOB% rises. As K/9 falls, LOB% falls. 

From 2008-11, Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum struck out 9.96 batters per nine innings and stranded 77.2% of baserunners. The National League averages during that time were 7.19 K/9 and 72.4 LOB%. So Lincecum had both averages beat handily, and that was perfectly explainable.

Moving to the present, Lincecum’s K/9 has decreased each of the last four seasons, from 9.19 in 2012 to 7.00 in 2015 (even after striking out eight Marlins in six innings in his last start). As Lincecum’s K/9 has decreased, so has his LOB%—that is, until this season.

Indeed, Lincecum’s LOB% fell from 78.5% in ‘11 to 67.8% in ‘12, and he couldn’t manage to reach even 70% in ’13 or ’14.

This year, however, Lincecum’s LOB% is 81.7%, despite having the lowest K/9 (7.00) of his career. Here's a closer look:

The most likely explanation is luck. Even in last night’s start there were three or four times Lincecum was bailed out by outstanding outfield defense. Additionally, the Marlins hit a few balls that looked like home runs off the bat that died and found gloves (or the wall) in the cold and expansive AT&T Park.

Another factor to Lincecum’s success is his HR/FB ratio. From 2012-14, 13.5% of fly balls allowed by Lincecum were home runs. Even from 2008-2011, Lincecum’s dominant years, his HR/FB ratio was 7.25%. This year, it's a microscopic (and unsustainable) 3.6%.

But one of the more curious and intriguing facts about Lincecum’s 2015 season is his ground ball rate. For Lincecum’s entire career before this season, he induced ground balls at a rate of 46.7%. He's never had a season in which it was higher than 48.9%.

So far this year, it’s 54.0%. The N.L. average GB% from 2008-present is 45.2%. Tim Hudson, who throws a sinker, has a career GB% of 58.1%. 

So Lincecum’s high GB% and low HR/FB rate make sense taken together. And they suggest that we could be looking at something more than just luck.

Lincecum has always had tremendous downward movement on his pitches. If he’s learned to harness his movement and pitch toward the bottom of the strike zone, the high ground ball rate could be sustainable. (This could, of course, cause a sustainable dip in his home run rate.) And the Giants infield boasts some top defensive talent in Brandon Crawford, Joe Panik, and Bradon Belt. So more ground balls would help Lincecum in a number of ways and could revitalize his career.

But inducing more grounders should be a matter of control if it’s intentional, and Lincecum’s 3.49 BB/9 this season is almost identical to his career average of 3.50. So it might be unrealistic to think that Lincecum suddenly has newfound command of his pitches.

Only one thing is certain. Lincecum is a very different pitcher now than he was when he took the league by storm from 2008-11.

With the new Tim Lincecum, we should absolutely expect his LOB% to regress toward league average (~72%) because of his below average strikeout rate.

A sustained high ground ball rate, then, seems like Lincecum's only hope of becoming highly effective at this point in his career. With ever decreasing velocity and strikeout rates, Lincecum’s must continue to induce lots of ground balls and limit home runs. We don't know if this will happen, but the numbers indicate that it just might.


All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Beautifully Managed (by Bochy, at least) National League Baseball Game

Tonight’s Giants/Angels game—San Francisco’s first interleague game of the year—was a striking example of the beauty of National League baseball. It was an also an example of manager Bruce Bochy’s mastery of N.L. technique.

In this low-scoring, nine-inning game, the Giants used all but one of their active position players, and that 'one' was their third string catcher.

The game started off at a torrid pace. Both starters—C.J. Wilson and Chris Heston—sailed into the seventh. The Giants led 1-0 on a first inning sac fly.

But in the top of the seventh, Kole Calhoun led off with a bloop single. Then David Freese grounded into what should have been a double play to Casey McGehee, but he booted the ball to Brandon Crawford who threw to second for a force out. The play was reviewed and upheld.

C.J. Cron singled to right and Matt Joyce singled to center, tying the game and putting runners on the corners. Bochy came out and Jean Machi replaced Heston. Machi struck out Chris Iannetta, then Angels manager Mike Scioscia made his first mistake. He let his starting pitcher hit with two outs and runners on the corners in the seventh inning of a tie game. Unsurprisingly, Wilson popped out and the threat was over.

The Giants took the lead once again in the bottom of the seventh on a two-out Andrew Susac single up the middle that scored Angel Pagan.

In the top of the eighth, Sergio Romo took over for Machi, whose spot didn’t come up in the seventh.

Erick Aybar reached to lead off the inning on an error by second baseman Matt Duffy. Then Johnny Giavotella singled on a soft liner to center.

With none out and the tying run on third, Romo struck out Mike Trout with a slider.

With Calhoun—a lefty—coming up, Bochy replaced Romo with Jeremy Affeldt. With runners on the corners and one out, Affeldt hit Calhoun on an 0-2 fastball.

This loaded the bases for David Freese, a righty, so Bochy brought in his closer, Santiago Casilla. What’s more, with the pitcher’s spot due to lead off the bottom of the eighth for the Giants, Bochy brought in Casilla on a double switch, putting Joaquin Arias at third base in place of McGehee.

Casilla got Freese to his a shallow fly ball to center, but Angel Pagan triple-clutched on the throw and Aybar scored from third.

So the game was tied again, 2-2, and Casilla got Cron to pop out to Buster Posey at first base to end the inning.

Scioscia removed Wilson from the game, and Fernando Salas pitched a scoreless eighth.

Casilla followed suit with a scoreless ninth.

Then in the bottom of the ninth, Scioscia brought in side-winding right-hander Joe Smith.

Buster Posey legged out an infield single to lead off the inning. Bochy sent out Gregor Blanco to pinch run.

Justin Maxwell sacrificed Blanco to second.

Susac walked and Blanco advanced to third on a passed ball that hit home plate umpire Bill Miller on the left knee. Miller collapsed in pain and remained on the ground for some time and was attended to by trainers. Miller remained in the game.

With runners on first and third and one out, Brandon Belt pinch hit for Santiago Casilla, who had been placed into McGehee’s spot in the lineup.

The Angels deployed a five-man infield and a two-man outfield, but Belt struck out looking.

Brandon Crawford came up with runners on the corners and two outs, a righty in Smith on the mound and Arias on deck.

Crawford was 0 for 3 but had hit the ball hard all night. Scioscia elected not to let Smith face Crawford and had him walked intentionally.

Bochy had lefty Joe Panik pinch-hit for Arias. Scioscia had nobody up in his bullpen.

He had to know Panik was on the bench, so he essentially chose to have Panik at the plate with the bases loaded instead of Crawford with runners on the corners. Panik is a career .299 hitter with a .339 OBP and Crawford is a career .242 hitter with a .312 OBP.

What’s more, both hitters are left handed and Scioscia didn’t even have one of his two lefties warming up.

Panik promptly lined a single up the middle and the ballgame was over.

It was a fascinating game. It was National League baseball at its finest. Bochy demonstrated his genius. Scioscia did not.

On a related note, Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright is out for the season after he tore his Achilles running to first base on a popup. Since the injury, many have been calling for the DH in the National League (although Wainwright himself said the DH has no place in the N.L.).

Baseball purists rightly denounce this effort. The National League game offers so much more in the way of strategy and bench management from having a pitcher in the lineup. Tonight was the perfect example. 

It was a beautiful. It was eventful. It was exceptionally managed (at least by the N.L. guy). It was a National League baseball game. May it never, ever change.