In part one on Wednesday, I talked about how Brad Lincoln was able to get more groundballs in 2011, which went a long ways towards halving his home run rate and making him more effective than he was with the Pirates in 2010. In part two, let’s tackle the deeper questions. What made Lincoln more effective last year and is it something that we can count on from him in 2012?
First stop: the pitch types tab on Lincoln’s FanGraphs page. Lincoln throws three pitches that are pretty distinguishable on the PitchFX charts, so the pitch types should be pretty reliable. In 2010, Lincoln threw his fastball 65% of the time, his curve 25% of the time, and his changeup 10%. Last year, he threw his fastball 70% of the time, his curve 12% of the time, and his change 18% of the time. In short, he threw his fastball a little more, his changeup a lot more, and his curveball a lot less. That’s a shift that could result in more groundballs, particularly if Lincoln’s fastball showed more sink last year. Let’s dial up the PitchFX
If you need a refresher on picking out pitch types from the break charts, go here. It’s really easy to see where Lincoln’s extra changeups are (right around the horizonal axis), and if you go just a little bit up and to the left from there [if you're looking at the graph in terms of traditional x,y coordinates I'm looking right around (-10, 5)] it looks like there might be a few more blue dots in the area that we’d generally associate with two-seam fastballs or sinkers.
It’s not a huge difference, though, so lets look a little bit deeper. I’m particularly interested in Lincoln’s solid four start run when he joined the rotation in late August of last year (between August 22nd through September 6th). Let’s pull those starts out on the same chart.
It looks like an awful lot of Lincoln’s fastballs in those four starts trended more towards two-seamers/sinkers, especially in comparison to 2010. More changeups and more sinkers; that’s got Ray Searage and Jim Benedict written all over it to me.
What’s interesting about this to me is that when Lincoln was drafted, it was generally established that his fastball and curveball were good and he needed a changeup to become an effective pitcher. In 2012, he threw the changeup 18% of the time with decent results (FanGraphs scored it as a tick above average) and he was still only marginally effective.
The reason for that is that he still just doesn’t fool many batters. A strikeout rate of 5.5 K/9 innings isn’t great and if you look at the plate discipline numbers of hitters facing Lincoln and compare them to league average, you can see that while Lincoln did a much better job across the board in 2011 (that is: getting hitters to chase out of the zone, getting hitters to swing and miss, lowering contact rates both in and out of the strike zone, etc.), he still gives up more balls in play than he should.
So why does that happen? The pitch value numbers would seem to indicate that it’s his fastball that’s being feasted on. With a groundball rate of over 50% in 2011, though, I’m not sure it’d be fair to speculate that his fastball is flat. It’s not quite the fastball that the Pirates hoped he’d have when he was drafted in 2006, probably, since it averages below 92 mph, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily a bad pitch, either. What stands out to me from poring over these numbers is this: Lincoln’s walk rate last year was not exactly exemplary (3.02 BB/9 isn’t bad, but it’s worse than his minor league numbers and it’s not great for someone with a strikeout rate below 6 K/9 and it’s also the only category he didn’t improve on from his ugly 2010 debut year), but he throws a lot of balls in the strike zone. PitchFX says that 52.1% of his pitches are in the strike zone, compared to a 49.8% league average in 2011.
Lincoln throws a lot of balls in the strikezone, doesn’t miss a ton of bats, and still walks a decent amount of hitters. The only conclusion I can take from that is that he’s not really fooling hitters, that they’re sitting on his curve and changeup waiting for a fastball that they can rope. I don’t know if that’s because he throws too many strikes or because he’s tipping pitches or because he and his catchers are jway too predictable with pitch sequence or because he just threw a ton of fastballs last year and his fastball command is way better than his offspeed command. I do know that based on 2011 alone that I think he deserves a shot in the rotation before Kevin Correia. If the coaching staff can find a way for him to keep hitters just a little bit more off balance than he has in the past (Tangent: I’m not talking about a huge improvement here and also, please keep in mind that this is a pretty nuanced situation that I’m not sure the coaches can help him with. If he’s tipping they can obviously fix that. If it’s an approach thing or if it has to do with fastball command vs. breaking ball command, they might be able to fix it but they also might not be able to do anything at this point in the guy’s career.) he might even make a decent back-end starter. I doubt he’ll ever be more than that, but right now I think the Pirates would be plenty happy if he could emerge as a #4 starter in 2012.