What the “Freak” Is Going On?

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Tim Lincecum is just one of many pitching aces who’s lost his fastball. Neil Cohen wonders if it matters? (Hint: yes, if you’re Lincecum)

In our household, there are only two must-see TV “shows”—Game of Thrones and a Tim Lincecum start. We sit with eyes glued to the screen to see whether Daenerys “Mother of Dragons” Targaryen will unleash her fire-breathing dragons with the same intensity that we watch the San Francisco Giants pitcher struggle throwing what no baseball fan would consider anything close to a fireball.

Last year, Lincecum—winner of two Cy Young awards and known as “The Freak” (no one calls him “The Franchise” anymore) for his unorthodox windmill motion that seems to use every muscle in his 5’11”, 175 pound body—had one of the worst seasons ever for a starting pitcher, posting a 10-15 record with a whopping ERA+ of 68 (an average ERA+ is 100). Only a dominating post-season performance as a RELIEVER for a World Series champion salvaged Lincecum’s season.

This year, Lincecum has been better at times, throwing seven shutout innings in a recent start on May 12th, though that performance followed two consecutive disastrous performances where he gave up 19 hits and 10 runs in 12 innings. The San Francisco media in their usual “silver lining” way chose to focus on the fact that he walked only three batters in those two games. So his command must be getting better.

The “good” news for Lincecum is that by no means is he alone in losing a few mphs on his fastball. The list of pitchers is long and includes Matt Cain, Ubaldo Jimenez, CC Sabathia, Dan Haren, Jered Weaver (pre-non-throwing elbow injury) and Felix Hernandez, just to name a few. Even Mr. Fastball himself, Justin Verlander, was featured last month in a Yahoo story about losing close to 2 mph on his fastball from April 2013 compared to April 2012. His fastball lost enough oomph during April that the computer program Pitch f/x, used to record the location, type and speed of every pitch thrown, confused his “new” fastball for his “old” change-up. Yikes!

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At this point, you may be asking why this is happening to so many pitchers. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m going to be much help in this department—but not for a lack of articles, data and theories, enough to make both one’s head spin and wish he took more statistics classes. (I wonder what real problems the guys at Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs could solve if they weren’t so worried about the effect of park dimensions…but anyway).

What we do think we know is that it’s almost never good to lose fastball velocity and the ability to miss bats and get away with mistakes. According to this article, starting pitchers improve by about one run allowed per nine innings for every gain of 4 mph. And the boys (I’m assuming they’re all boys) at BP and FanGraphs have sliced and diced this every which way, looking at radar gun accuracy at different ballparks, weather, velocity month-to-month, effect of aging, injury onset and many other factors. We also know that, contrary to the widespread panic in certain cities across the country, losing one’s fastball is not a new thing (see: Dwight Gooden, Steve Avery, Fernando Valenzuela and others).

Some propose that increased use of a “cut” fastball causes a decline in velocity, which may or may not have happened to Dwight Gooden, who started to lose his fastball just a few years into his career. Some teams like the Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals don’t even allow their minor league pitchers to throw a cut fastball, though FanGraphs will tell you there’s no evidence to support this claim. Other well-researched reasons include lack of conditioning, faulty mechanics, undiagnosed injury (see Roy Halladay, Michael Pineda), reduced long-tossing in-between starts, use of pitch counts and over use (see King Felix).

All of this comes at a time when we’ve never seen so many young, hard throwers and historic number of strikeouts as pitchers throw harder and batters care less if they strike out. According to this article in The Wall Street Journal, in 2003, there were only three pitchers who threw at least 700 pitches 95 mph or better. There were 17 pitchers who did so in 2012, which begs the question: Will we be writing an article similar to this one about Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey in just a few short years? Only time will tell.

In the meantime, we all get to watch Timmy and his friends take the ball every five days and learn on the fly what we’ve always known—command, control, movement and deception are the keys to surviving long-term in the big leagues. (See: Greg Maddux)

Photo: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez

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About Neil Cohen

Neil Cohen lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and toddler son. A former corporate PR guy, he’s now enjoying his new gig as a stay-at-home dad. He writes about parenting, current events and sports at his blog Man on Third. You can follow him at @manonthirdblog.

Comments

  1. My theory- getting older sucks.

    Of course, offense is down for the 7th consecutive year (and now sits below pre-Steroid-era baselines), so maybe velocity isn’t so important compared to gains in other areas.

    • Neil Cohen says:

      Thanks Scott for reading. Some of these guys are really young (Felix, Lincecum, Ubaldo) to be losing their fastball so dramatically. Could be workload (I know Felix has thrown a ton of innings). I don’t disagree with you on velocity not being as important, as they say, any real major leaguer can hit a straight fastball no matter how hard it’s thrown. Personally, I think it has something to do with either throwing in between starts (long toss/conditioning) or related to other pitches they throw like change-ups hurting their velocity (a lot of the guys I mentioned in story throw change-ups). Just my own personal theory.

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