Lincecum not unlucky, just pitching poorly

ESPN.com will be holding its second annual Franchise Player Draft on Thursday afternoon. It's a fun project where we gather 30 ESPN writers and TV personalities and conduct a fictional draft of every player in baseball, asking the question: Whom would you build a team around?

In last year's draft, Tim Lincecum went fifth, the second pitcher selected after Felix Hernandez.

This year? Nobody's going to take a pitcher with a 5.82 ERA.

So what's wrong with the two-time Cy Young winner? In some sabermetric circles, the issues are described as Lincecum merely having a lot of bad luck so far.

1. His batting average on balls in play is high -- .327 versus .281 in 2011 and a career mark of .296. So he's just been unlucky with a few bloops, flares and dying quails, or maybe just some bad defense behind him.

2. His strikeout rate per nine innings is still excellent -- 9.6 K's per nine, a touch higher than 2011 and just a tick below his career average. See? He still has dominant strikeout stuff.

3. He entered Wednesday's start with a .361 average with runners in scoring position? See, more bad luck. No wonder he began the game with a 6.41 ERA.

Add it all up and Lincecum will regress back to more normal levels and return to being one of the best pitchers in baseball over his next 20-plus starts ... just like always.

Maybe all that is true. Maybe some of it is true. But I don't think it's quite so simple.

Let me throw a couple heat maps at you. The first one compares Lincecum's pitch locations versus left-handed batters on 0-1 and 1-1 counts in 2011 versus 2012; the second does the same versus right-handed batters. (These don't include Wednesday's game.)

I think these graphics are pretty instructive. In 2011 against left-handed batters, Lincecum pounded the outside corner or bottom of the strike zone. But in 2012, his hot zones are more up in the strike zone and over the middle of the plate. As a result, Lincecum is getting hit harder on these counts. In 2011, for example, batters hit .205/.237/.323 after falling behind 0-1; in 2012, they're hitting .291/.336/.496 (again, before Wednesday's game).

Against right-handers, he's having similar location issues. In 2011, he had two hot zones on the inside corner of the plate and down in the zone; in 2012, there's a lot more red over the middle of the plate and no red on the inside part of the plate. His strikeout/walk ratio after being ahead 0-1 has declined from 11-to-1 to 4.7-to-1. When he got to a 1-1 count in 2011, batters hit .181; in 2012, .230.

The diagnosis, to me, isn't just bad luck, but location, location, location. This can certainly be seen in his walk rate, which is up by more than a walk per nine innings, but also in his command: He's leaving too many pitches in hittable areas, especially in counts where he usually has hitters at a disadvantage. The result? A higher-than-normal batting average on balls in play.

Hey, I could be completely wrong. I'm sure Lincecum has had some bloops fall in. I'm not sure I buy the bad defense angle, as Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito are all doing just fine.

Lincecum's box score line in the Giants' 4-1 loss to visiting Arizona on Wednesday looked better: 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 5 BB, 6 SO, 1 HR. (I'm not sure why one run was unearned; Arizona had Miguel Montero on third with one out when a fly ball was hit to Gregor Blanco in right field. He dropped the ball on the transfer, but I believe Montero was tagging up on the play.)

Giants announcer Mike Krukow said he thought he saw Lincecum throw some of his best pitches he'd seen a while, but as you can see with the five walks (one intentional), he was still all over the place. A few examples:

  • With Montero on third in the second, he walked Chris Young on five pitches. He threw three consecutive fastballs to Ryan Roberts and the 1-1 pitch looked pretty hittable, although Roberts got jammed slightly and flew out to right.

  • In the third, with a runner on first and two out, Montero hit a hard grounder to second that Ryan Theriot made a diving stop on.

  • In the fourth, after Paul Goldschmidt had walked, Roberts smoked a 2-0 pitch on a line to left field, but right at Melky Cabrera.

  • In the fifth, on a 2-2 count to Gerardo Parra, Lincecum threw a changeup that bounced in the dirt, an obvious ball. Parra walked on the next pitch. A year go, hitters had a .239 OBP against Lincecum after a 2-2 count; this year, .385 (before Wednesday). In 2011, Parra strikes out on that changeup.

  • In the sixth, Goldschmidt hit 1-0 curveball on low liner over the left-field fence for the go-ahead home run. It wasn't a terrible pitch, down at the knees, but was over the middle of the plate instead of down and away. Goldschmidt now has 12 career home runs -- four off Lincecum.

So maybe there is some luck evening out -- the diving stop, the liner to Cabrera -- but I saw a pitcher struggling with his control. I'm not expert enough to break down his mechanics, but at one point Krukow examined Lincecum's motion and suggested his release point was out of sync with his landing foot. That would certainly explain some of the command problems.

Look, Lincecum is likely to have better results moving forward, but my take is that will have to come from improved pitch location, hitting the corners and making better pitches when he's 0-1 or 1-1. It hasn't been bad luck; it's been bad pitching.