Tim Lincecum’s calling card has always been his elite strikeout ability. Since he broke into the majors he has never failed to strikeout at least 23% of the batters that he has faced. From 2007 to 2013 no other starting pitcher has a higher strikeout percentage. Only Justin Verlander has more strikeouts, but Verlander has an extra 13 starts and just a 30-strikeout lead.
Long story, short: Lincecum is good at striking people out and that has been what has made his spring interesting.
So far this spring in 14.2 innings, Lincecum has struck out just 4 of the 61 batters he has faced this season (6.5%). To get an idea if this was a planned thing, Steve asked him about that after yesterday’s 5.1-inning, no-strikeout outing:
I think my mindset’s been to try and stay within the zone a lot more. I’ve had my walks here and there, but (the key is to) bounce back from them – not back-to-back walks, that kind of thing. I think I’ve been trying to stick more in the zone, the bottom part of the zone where I think I am inducing more contact. I think I’ll go for the strikeouts when I need them. I don’t think I’ve really had that feeling of needing them yet. I’m trying to work on things that I need to. That’ll come when it needs to, I suppose.
Trying to dig deeper into this quote, it looks like the focus the spring isn’t on pitching to contact, per se, but instead to focus on minimizing walks, with more contact coming as a result of being in the strike zone.
It is tough to read too much into spring stats, but the drop in strikeouts is very noticeable. With strikeout rate being one of the first pitching stats to stabilize, his change in approach is interesting and a stark departure from his career numbers or even his previous spring training stats.
For comparison I went back and calculated his strikeout rates from springs past:
- 2013: 21.1%
- 2012: 14.7%
- 2011: 28.0%
- 2010: 25.4%
- 2009: 23.3%
- 2008: 21.6%
- 2007: 23.3%
The only real departure was in 2012, when his strikeouts dipped below 20%. But he still managed a K/9 above six during that spring, more than twice what he has done this spring. In general he has produced a lower strikeout rate in the spring than the regular season, but never has it been close to this low.
This strategy was foreshadowed earlier in the spring during some of the early bullpen sessions after working with Tim Hudson:
“When you see a guy who’s been in the game that long, you [ask], ‘How has he stayed in the game that long? What has he done to simplify the game for himself?'” said Lincecum, who compiled a 20-29 record with a 4.80 ERA the last two seasons. “I take a look back at years when I’ve scuffled, or the last couple of years where it has been a pretty bad run, and I look at guys like him who have had success even in later years and how they did that.”
Lincecum’s metamorphosis from flamethrower to finesse artist has been ongoing for a couple of years. Perhaps Hudson’s arrival via free agency will accelerate his transition. Lincecum led the National League in strikeouts for three consecutive seasons (2008-2010) and averaged nearly a strikeout per inning last year. Now, he said, what he really wants to induce from hitters is not swings and misses, but “crappy contact.”
There is nothing wrong with trying to take a page out of Hudson’s playbook with the “crappy contact,” however Hudson has always been a great groundball pitcher who pounds the bottom of the strike zone with sinkers. That has not been the game plan before for Lincecum, who has primarily pitched off of his four-seam fastball over the sinker, also while not being nearly as focused on attacking the bottom half of the strike zone as Hudson.
It is possible that with a few high-strikeout starts, this all turns out to be a moot point. But at the moment it sure looks like Lincecum is on his way to trying to turn himself into a new style of pitcher. The results — before yesterday’s one bad inning bounced his spring ERA from under 2.00 to over 4.00 — had been very positive, so it will be interesting to see whether he can carry this new approach over into the regular season and achieve similar results.