Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: A usual summer swoon for Tim Lincecum?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants

Data: 5-5, 3.41 ERA, 92 1/3 IP, 3.01 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, 3.03 K/BB

Malfunction: Lincecum, the birthday boy who turned 27 Wednesday, just hit a rough patch: In his last three starts, he's given up 16 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, as his ERA has risen from 2.22 to 3.41. The funny thing is, almost the same exact thing happened at this time last year. In his last three starts in May 2010, he gave up 14 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings, as his ERA rose from 1.76 to 3.14, so I wrote a Slumpbot column about him then. As you know, he was pretty good after that, putting up a 3.58 ERA over the rest of the year, and he was even better in the playoffs, where he posted a 2.43 ERA in six appearances en route to a World Series championship. So is this just an annual early summer dead-arm, or is there any more to worry about?

Diagnosis: Last year, the main concern was control, and it's the same issue this year. His strike percentage is down to 61 percent, and his first strike percentage is down to 52 percent. That, too, is remarkably similar to last year.

Here's what I wrote in Slumpbot last June:{YSP:MORE}

Lincecum has been missing his spots. For his career, 63 percent of his pitches have been strikes and over his past five starts, it's been 60 percent. Far worse has been his first-pitch strike percentage, which was 57 percent last year, but is only 51 percent this year, so he's starting far more batters on a hitter's count.

But after that, he rebounded to career rates: Last year, his final strike percentage was 64 percent, and his final first strike percentage was 57 percent.

The main difference from last year is that his average fastball velocity last year was 91.3, while this year it's up to 92.7, which is his fastest average fastball since 2008. The other two issues worth noting are his 133-pitch complete-game shutout on May 21, and Buster Posey's season-ending ankle injury on May 25. For his part, Lincecum claims he isn't fatigued, he's just overthinking it: "I don't feel like I'm getting tired. I don't feel like anything's broken... I think the key for me is just to get my mental state right and fix what's going on."

He certainly was able to do that last year, and his elevated fastball is a welcome sign for his arm health. He's also substantially increased his groundball percentage, which is another sign of this intelligent pitcher learning to adapt and stay at the top of his game. Manager Bruce Bochy claims his recent struggles stem from a simple issue of fastball command, which is exactly what catcher Bengie Molina said last year. Obviously, Lincecum got over the hump then.

Reboot Directions: Lincecum still has one of the best pitches in baseball — no, it's not his fastball, though he has the sixth-speediest average heater among NL starters. It's his filthy changeup. As long as he's healthy, he'll rebound. It isn't terribly shocking to see a pitcher struggle with his control for a few starts in the middle of the season, and we have evidence that Lincecum is able to find it again. There isn't anything to worry about just yet.

Which other players are struggling?

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Jason Bay, New York Mets .207/.303/.273, 2 HR, 11 RBIs, 4 SB, 1 CS, 20 BB/44 K
Jason Bay had a horrible year last year, struggling to perform in his first year of a $66 million contract with the Mets and then missing the last two months of the season due to a concussion. This year, he's already been on the DL with a strained rib cage, and he's visited a sports psychologist to try to understand why he's capable of reaching the second deck in batting practice yet has the lowest slugging percentage on the Mets. Manager Terry Collins first moved Bay down in the order, from cleanup to the sixth spot, and benched Bay on Tuesday night, as well as twice last week. It's clear that something is seriously not right with Bay — before coming to New York, 13.4 percent of his fly balls went over the fence, but in a Mets uniform only 3.9 percent of his fly balls have cleared the fence. At first blush, Bay's homer drought in 2010 resembled teammate David Wright's homer drought in 2009, the first year of Citi Field — and even though Wright rebounded to 29 homers last year, he's only hit six homers this year, so Citi Field may just be an awful place to be a right-handed slugger.

But it's hard to dismiss the after effects of the concussion. Bay is striking out and walking at rates not too dissimilar from his career average, and some of his batting average drop can be explained by the fact that his Batting Average on Balls in Play is 53 points below his career average. But the catastrophic drop in power, coupled with his admission that he's sought psychological help, indicates that he believes a lot of the problems are in his own mind — the part of his body that got severely injured last year. For right now, the Mets should keep him down in the order, and he should focus on hitting line drives rather than trying to sell out for power in a tough park for a right-handed hitter. If that power is still there, it will come — even with all his problems, Bay is still outhitting Dan Uggla, after all. Slumps happen. But the effects of concussions can linger long after the initial blow.

Michael Young, Texas Rangers .305/.344/.431, 3 HR, 42 RBIs, 4 SB, 1 CS, 17 BB/45 K
The Rangers' most expensive player was unhappy this offseason when his team signed Adrian Beltre to play third base, making him officially positionless. So far this year, he has played DH, first base and second base, filling in for the vastly less expensive Mitch Moreland and Ian Kinsler. Unfortunately, the Rangers' most expensive player is also in a pretty wicked slump. He's just 8 for 51 in June, and in the month of games since May 14, he has a .599 OPS with one homer. That's not good for a 34-year-old who's making $16 million and who only plays defense two or three times a week. Young's contract makes him pretty hard to trade, and he doesn't have much value to another team — while he has some defensive versatility, he isn't a very good fielder anywhere, and he's only a useful hitter if he's hitting .300, because he has a below-average walk rate and slightly below-average power. The Rangers are stuck with him unless they eat a lot of his money, which they were unwilling to do in the offseason. Nothing has really changed: His season stats are almost identical to his career stats (.300/.347/.448), and he's just overpaid. A player without much power and with a below-average walk rate is going to go through slumps because he's so dependent on BABIP. The Rangers will have to hope that he winds up around .300 as usual.

Kyle Drabek, Toronto Blue Jays 4-5, 5.70 ERA, 72 2/3 IP, 5.44 FIP, 1.79 WHIP, 0.92 K/BB
On Tuesday, the Blue Jays sent the struggling Drabek back to Triple-A, after he allowed eight runs to the Boston Red Sox on Sunday. He started out the season strong, allowing three or fewer runs in four of his first five starts. But then he allowed four or more runs in five of his next nine. The biggest problem for Drabek is simple control: He has walked more men than he's struck out, and that's simply unacceptable at any level of baseball. In the minors, Drabek's K/BB was 2.18, which is fine but not terrific, but he was always young for his level, and in fact this will be his first trip to Triple-A, as he spent all last year at Double-A, when he was all of 21. Maturity concerns have dogged him — the Sporting News quoted a scout as saying, "Maybe this will be a wakeup call for him. He needs to grow up." Most of all, he needs to rediscover the strike zone. Odds are very good that we'll see him back in the majors this year, but the Jays won't rush him — even with the best hitter in baseball fueling their offense, they have no illusions that they'll be able to leapfrog the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox into the playoffs in 2011. They're building for the long haul, and Drabek's going to be a part of it. But the minors are the perfect place for him right now. He should stay until he's completely ready.

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