Tim Lincecum’s Change-up is Back

The demise of Tim Lincecum has been greatly exaggerated. He proved as much Saturday, tossing a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. While Lincecum hasn’t put up vintage numbers, he’s shown big improvements from 2012. At the same time, some of the reasons for Lincecum’s 2012 struggles are still present. His velocity hasn’t improved, and his walk rate is still less than ideal. The main reason for Lincecum’s improvement has been the resurgence of his change-up.

Over his career, Lincecum’s change-up, which is sometimes classified as as splitter, has rated as his most effective pitch. Despite that, Lincecum had relied more on his slider the last two seasons. That worked fine for Lincecum in 2011. Both his slider and change remained effective. Things were much different in 2012. Lincecum’s velocity with his slider dropped from 85.73 mph to 84.03 mph. It wasn’t the same pitch, and was pounded for a -3.3 pitch value.

But that wasn’t the most confusing aspect of Lincecum’s 2012. For whatever reason, Lincecum’s change even worse than his slider. Per BrooksBaseball.net:

Year Usage Velocity Ball Whiff rate AVG SLG
2008 18.37 84.23 37.12 25.12 0.202 0.290
2009 21.27 83.85 31.72 26.59 0.139 0.199
2010 23.03 84.53 30.04 26.19 0.186 0.285
2011 15.35 84.46 41.79 18.98 0.124 0.248
2012 16.05 83.81 42.45 21.41 0.273 0.485

The biggest thing that might explain Lincecum’s hesitancy to use the pitch in 2011 and 2012 is his inability to throw the change for strikes. In both years, Lincecum saw his ball percentage jump above 40%. Lack of command was a larger issue in 2012, as the pitch was pounded for a career-high .273 average and a .416 slugging percentage. Both numbers are way out of line for Lincecum.

That’s changed this year.

Year Usage Velocity Ball Whiff rate AVG SLG
2013 23.07 84.46 30.45 25.74 0.180 0.272

Lincecum has seen the pitch jump back to previous levels. As far as the change-up is concerned, Lincecum’s velocity is back (the same can’t be said about his fastball). Perhaps more importantly, Lincecum has rediscovered his feel for the pitch. He’s been able to throw it for strikes with more consistency, nearly matching his career-best rate in ball percentage. And now that he’s locating the pitch again, it’s become impossible to hit.

That was fully on display Saturday. Lincecum took his change-up usage to another level against the Padres. Of his 148 pitches, Lincecum used his change a whopping 47 times. The pitch had a 34.04% whiff rate in the start, and was thrown over the plate 76.60% of the time. If there was any doubt about Lincecum’s change-up being back, Saturday’s game proved it.

Even though he’s found his change-up, there are still some questions about Lincecum’s performance going forward. For the second straight year, Lincecum’s ERA is about a run higher than his FIP. While that would typically be a reason for optimism, Lincecum’s is still showing troubling signs. His velocity hasn’t improved on his other pitches, and his home run rate hasn’t fully regressed. There’s a chance those issues are related.

Still, rediscovering his best pitch has led to improved performance. For the first time in his career, Lincecum has shown that he can be an above-average pitcher while throwing just 90 mph. His best days may be behind him, but Lincecum’s 2012 struggles seem like an aberration. He’ll have to settle for being merely above-average now, and that’s just fine considering how he looked at times last season.

Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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ouch. i think you may be mistaking his 84mph changeup for his new fastball.