Matt Garza, Phil Hughes and Tim Lincecum: Three Case Studies of Pitching

Matt Garza, Phil Hughes and Tim Lincecum are not, strictly speaking, similar pitchers. One is a two-time Cy Young Award winner, but has bizarre mechanics and struggled mightily in 2012. One has drifted between the bullpen and starting rotation, been hurt and rushed, and yet, has huge upside. The other had a long track record of good health, but then, missed a half season at a remarkably inopportune time.

No, they aren’t similar pitchers. Lincecum lives on his changeup; Garza is a slider guy; Hughes uses a change-and-curve blend. They are three years spread in age. They haven’t even followed similar developmental paths.

Yet, all three will be free agents after the 2013 season. That in itself is peculiar, because again, their career arcs have been so different. Since they will presumably lead the pitching market next winter, though, it’s worth a long look at what each one does well (and poorly), and what they can each offer us in terms of instruction about the mysterious nature of pitching.

Tim Lincecum: Falling Star

I mentioned above how important a weapon Lincecum’s changeup is. He dominated with it early in his career, his bizarre mechanics adding to the pitch’s deceptiveness. It took a giant step backward in effectiveness in 2012, and it isn’t too hard to see why.

Since his rookie year of 2007, Lincecum has loast 3.6 miles per hour, on average, on his fastball. He’s lost 2.9 miles per hour, on average, on his curve. However, his change has slowed down just 0.5 miles per hour, on average. (Another data set measuring the same things has those numbers at -3.2 miles per hour on the heat, -1.0 on the curve, and no change in the change.)

The pitch still moves well, so batters haven’t begun hammering at it. Instead, they’re letting them go. Including 2012 data, his career averages are 7.37 percent called strikes and 24.36 percent swings and misses, out of all changeups thrown. Isolating 2012, though, the figures were 5.86 percent called strikes and 22.96 percent whiffs. From roughly 35.5 percent balls, he shot up to 40.39 percent.

This is the devilish nature of pitcher aging. Some guys, especially guys with dominant breaking pitches or big builds, guys who sustain velocity throughout games, throughout seasons and from season to season, need not worry about losing a little as they go. That’s the cost of performing the brutally unnatural action of overhand throwing 3,000 times per year.

Other guys, though, don’t weather that fade as well. Lincecum is small, and always relied somewhat on his long, lunging, deceptive delivery. Not entirely; guys who rely on deception entirely (or even almost entirely) don’t win Cy Young awards. They don’t have five-year peaks. They have one or two good (not great) seasons. No, Lincecum has good stuff, and doesn’t rely so heavily on deception that it was easy to foresee this tailing off.

To whatever degree a pitcher does rely on deception, though (and every pitcher does to some degree, especially if they use a changeup), any loss of velocity chips away at their margin for error. In Lincecum’s case, maybe that margin for error has been slimmed too much for him to work comfortably within it. The stuff is still (mostly) there, and Lincecum missed as many bats (measured by swings and misses as a percentage of all pitches) in 2012 as he ever has, but his walk rate shot up, as did his line-drive and home-run rates. These things all suggest that Lincecum was trying harder than ever not to make mistakes, but made them anyway, and that those mistakes (being easier to brace for than they were when he had more intimidating heat and a better chance of embarrassing you with the wicked change) got hit harder.

None of which is to say conclusively that I know why Tim Lincecum fell apart in 2012. It’s very difficult to say, really. It’s probably a combination of things. Some of those things are very likely beyond his control.

For that matter, it’s possible the collapse wasn’t even all that real. Lincecum could well bounce back in 2013 and hit the market coveted anew as a strikeout machine. Control is the problem, which means the problem is likely at least partially mechanical, and maybe he can iron it out. For now, though, he’s a risky proposition.

Phil Hughes: Too-Gentle Giant?

Whereas Lincecum’s control abandoned him in 2012, Hughes had never been better at pounding the strike zone than he was last season. His walk rate (I am now using, and will henceforth always use, Stat Corner’s formula for walk rate, which does not count intentional passes but does include hit batsmen) dropped from 8.3 percent in 2011 (and higher before that) to 6.4 percent.

Unfortunately for Hughes, though, that improvement in control came at a price. He surrendered 35 home runs in 2012, with 10.9 percent of all flies leaving the park. That figure is a bit higher than the league average, but consider: Of all outfield fly balls hit against him, 49 percent went to the batter’s pull field. That’s above the league average (47%). That matters, because the league-average home-run rate (as a percentage of all flies) on pulled hits is 32.0 percent, whereas it’s in single digits for balls to center field and the opposite field. You figure, given the shallow corners and deep alleys at Yankee Stadium II, that it was even more important for Hughes than for the average hurler to keep opponents from yanking the ball in the air, and he didn’t do it. Sure enough, 22 of opponents’ 35 bombs happened at home.

If you just looked at Phil Hughes, you’d be stunned that he walked 6.4 percent of opponents, but gave up a bunch of home runs. You’d probably be amazed that he averages only 92 miles per hour with his fastball, and that after all but eliminating his cutter in 2012, he has no secondary power offering.

Hughes stands six-foot-five and weighs a sturdy 245 pounds. He’s shaped like a power pitcher. One would expect the kind of numbers you see from John Lackey or Carlos Zambrano, pitchers of similar overall ability, guys who used to walk 75-95 batters per season but find ways to get outs and reach back for the big fastball or slider when necessary.

That’s not Hughes. He doesn’t pitch that way. He throws comfortably in the low 90s, and rarely digs for extra velocity. His secondary offerings are so tough on lefties that he has (essentially) a zero career platoon split (.733/.732 in OPS), and that lefties hit just .211/.270/.340 against him in 2012. He has a very good changeup, and used it very cleverly: He actually went to the pitch more when behind in the count against lefties.

*Time for a quick aside: Hughes helps illustrate a theory I have been slowly formulating for some time, but will have to find time to test before I espouse it with more conviction: I think the nature of the platoon advantage is such that one ought to ignore (more or less) strikeouts and walks when trying to evaluate a pitcher’s platoon skills. For instance, although Hughes allowed a .928 OPS to righties (more on those struggles below) and just a .610 figure to lefties in 2012, he had a 4.94 strikeout-to-walk ratio against righties, and a 2.79 ratio against lefties. In his career, with basically the same overall results, he has fanned 3.75 times as many righties as he has walked, but the ratio for lefties is 2.01. I have seen the same phenomenon elsewhere, notably with Kris Medlen of the Braves.

I think guys with good sliders and fastballs really punish same-handed batters, because batting against a same-handed pitcher is much more an exercise in guesswork than batting against an opposite-handed one. You pick up the ball later against same-handed guys, so you have less time to decide whether to swing, and what kind of pitch you think is coming. If the platoon-type offerings aren’t elite, you have more or less the same chance to hit the ball hard if you guess right. Strike-zone control, though, will always favor the combatant with the platoon advantage. Again, just a theory. I’ll expand on it as able. If you have $1,000,000 sitting around and want to know about this really badly, you have an avenue to speeding up the process.

Now, about those problems against right-handed batters. You read correctly above. Right-handed batters racked up a .308/.342/.586 line against Hughes last year, with 54 extra-base hits in 393 plate appearances. That’s 59 percent worse than the league-average performance by right-handed pitchers against righty batters, more than off-setting his being 37 percent better than the league-average righty arm against lefty batters.

I have to wonder whether junking the cutter hurt him there. That pitch had not been working for Hughes, at least not since he returned to the rotation in 2010, but it was a pitch he threw 20 percent of the time against righties. He replaced the cutter with a slider that actually worked pretty well (36 percent whiffs when righties swung at it) last year, and he threw his curve more to righties, but the overall picture was not pretty.

It might well be that Hughes is going to break out in 2013, by throwing that slider way, way more (he tossed just 125 of them, eight percent of all pitches, against righties in 2012). A right-handed starter with very good command who can get left-handed hitters out has all kinds of upside. Again, though, it depends on whether he can have confidence enough to throw that slider twice as often, and on whether it plays as an average or better pitch for him.

In the meantime, there’s one other thing about Hughes we should ask, and it’s this: Does he need to be more willing to walk batters from now on?

Cutting his walk rate was neat, and certainly helped his xFIP, but the power Hughes gave up in 2012 makes the ultimate value of his tradeoff questionable at best. He was probably too willing to challenge batters, especially while in the process of retooling his secondary repertoire to better combat right-handers.

Dan Haren used to have this problem. He was always great in terms of strikeouts and walks, but his home-run rate was always high. Back when he was dealt to the Angels (a shocking move at the time), people speculated on why the industry opinion of Haren seemed so clouded by his problems giving up power. The answer became clear once Haren got to Anaheim: He was choosing to trade power vulnerability for control, and that was an imperfect decision. Working with much more margin for error (Angel Stadium is a far pitcher-friendlier park than Chase Field in Arizona), Haren cut his home-run rate in half for his first 330-plus innings with the Angels, and became more an ace than he ever had been before. Hughes either needs to make that slider an out pitch against righties, or start working the edges of the zone more and occasionally give up one base to save the other three.

Matt Garza: Stressed Out

Both Lincecum and Hughes are still with their original, drafting organization. The coaching staffs and direct authorities have changed, to be sure, but neither man has ever had to learn a radically different pitching paradigm. Neither has been rudely handed over to someone with a wholly different plan for their development and protection than the one they had been on previously.

That’s pretty much all Matt Garza has been able to do, ever since the Minnesota Twins drafted him. That makes his career narrative a bit more important, and maybe it makes his skill set a bit more difficult to pin down.

All the way up the chain, Minnesota drilled into him their standard-issue, boilerplate pitch-to-contact philosophy, such that despite his nasty stuff, Garza fanned only 17.5 percent of opposing hitters in his two half-seasons with the parent club.

Perhaps frustrated by a pitcher with more weapons than feel for any of them, the Twins dealt Garza prior to 2008. The Tampa Bay Rays were a better place for Garza, but they, too, are dogmatic in some ways.

I have written about this before. Theo Epstein, among others, has always said keeping pitchers healthy is the next or newest market inefficiency. The Rays, of course, have as much or more to gain from the successful tapping of that inefficiency as anyone in baseball. They have, I believe, discovered one way to do so, and they do it religiously.

The first part of the Tampa formula is slow development and careful handling of young arms. Part of this decision is in itself financial: They can’t afford to call up a prospect before they’re ready, because they need young and cost-controlled players perpetually at the center of their roster. The other part of that decision is to ensure they have guys who can rack up innings as soon as they have full-time starting roles.

They ensure the longevity and viability of their biggest arms (despite heavier workloads than are the norm in today’s game) through the second crucial element of their pitcher management: The Rays make their guys throw fastballs. This is not optional. Garza has a good changeup, an absolutely filthy slider and a usable curve, but the Rays had him (and most of their other pitchers) throw tons of heat.

Garza threw fastballs just over 63 percent of the time in his Twins career. In three years in Tampa Bay, that number spiked to 71.5 percent. That change of approach served him very, very well: Garza’s mentality is such that rearing back and daring opponents to hit the ball suits him delightfully. It was certainly an adjustment from Minnesota’s approach, but it wasn’t diametrically opposed thereto, and Garza showed a good blend of the abilities to pound the strike zone and to miss bats. He won the ALCS MVP award in 2008, threw a no-hitter in 2010, and didn’t miss a start between April 2008 and the end of 2010.

While the fastball-heavy approach Tampa Bay prescribed for Garza kept him healthy and effective, it somewhat limited his potential to dominate opponents. When the Chicago Cubs traded for Garza during the 2010-11 offseason, he was off the leash. He threw his fastball just 53.4 percent of the time in 2011, a quarter less often than he had in Tampa Bay. As a result of his breaking balls having more chances to twist batters into knots, Garza finished fourth among big-league starters in 2011 in both chase rate (the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which opposing batters swung) and the total percentage of pitches at which batters swung and missed.

While his walk rate barely moved, his strikeout rate shot to a career high. Garza improved his ERA, FIP and xFIP in 2011 from his established norms. Although be would later comment that the season was frustrating and unenjoyable under manager Mike Quade, Garza had emerged as a very legitimate starting pitcher, the front of even a good rotation. It reinforced what everyone ought to have known already: Any pitcher who is above average in the AL East will be dominant in the NL Central.

At the end of 2011, the Cubs changed everything. They overhauled their front office and their field-management staff, and Garza had practically changed organizations again. Not only that, but from the end of the 2011 World Series on, Garza became one of baseball’s hottest rumored trade commodities. There was no end of articles, speculating about whether the Cubs should deal Garza or extend him; about what he should command in trade; and about who might be most interested.

No trade materialized. Whether the Cubs preferred to try extending him or just never got the offer they were waiting for, they went into 2012 with Garza at the front of their rotation, and the whispers about trades swelled to a more unabashed gossip by the time the calendar turned to July.

I have so far glossed over something about Garza that we need to go into some detail about now. Garza hurt his elbow as a kid. I can’t remember the exact story, and I hope you’ll forgive me, but I don’t intend to look it up just now. It seems to me it might have involved a bicycle. It was a non-throwing injury.

At any rate, Garza has always had some chronic neuropathy, soreness and occasional inflammation in that elbow. It’s not by any means debilitating, and it’s likely not something Garza feels or thinks about on a regular basis, but it has flared up a time or three. His lone DL stint as a Ray came thanks to an inflamed radial nerve. He missed three weeks in 2011 with a sort of spontaneous contusion on his elbow.

It flared up again on July 22, mere days before the Cubs would almost certainly have dealt him for a handsome prospect package. They were far out of contention. Garza left a start that day against the Cardinals early, and although some thought it was because he had been traded, it turned out to be due to what was diagnosed as a stress reaction in the elbow. As soon as that happened, any chance of dealing Garza evaporated, and with no incentive to risk him further, the Cubs shut him down.

It wasn’t the Cardinals start in which things really went wrong, though. That happened July 5 in Atlanta.

Looking at the box score from that day, one would think Garza had a fairly innocuous (though crummy) start. He faced 19 batters over four innings, allowed five runs on five hits, walked three, fanned six and watched three balls leave the park.

That’s a bad line, a bad start. But it only scratches the surface of what Garza really went through that day.

The game-time temperature that night was 96 degrees, and Garza came out loose and throwing hard. He fanned Michael Bourn on three pitches. The trouble started immediately after that, though, as the next four batters went single, home run, single, home run. Garza managed another strikeout against Dan Uggla, but spent nine pitches on Andrelton Simmons, and ultimately let him get away and walk.

Next up was Juan Francisco. What happened next is chronicled well here, but the short version is, Garza won the most Pyrrhic victory in the history of at bats. He threw 16 more pitches in order to get an eventual groundout from Francisco. That’s 44 pitches in a stressful, infuriating four-run inning, on a scorched-syrup night. Garza probably hurt himself then, or else, he did so sometime over the next three innings, during which he threw 50 more pitches.

It’s no one’s fault. Garza certainly didn’t mean to let that first inning drag into eternity. Manager Dale Sveum wouldn’t have had time to stop that inning, even if he had wanted to, and Garza’s temperament would have made pulling him a nightmare of a decision, anyway.

It’s also not the end of Matt Garza. A team with more to gain from getting him back to the mound last season probably could have done so. He says he’s throwing without pain and on a normal winter schedule, and I believe him. His numbers slumped somewhat in 2012 from the great ones he had in 2011, but a lot of that was noise. He pitched at least his last few starts at less than 100 percent. He got very, very unlucky en route to allowing 15 home runs. (Over 16 percent of all flies against him left the park, despite his allowing only 40 percent of flies against him to be pulled. Wildly unlucky.) He’s fundamentally as good a pitcher entering 2013 as he ever has been.

On the other hand, it’s fair to wonder if using his fastball more (like, Rays career more, a lot more) is the only way Garza will be able to stay healthy going forward. If that’s true, obviously, he will be forced to go back to the sort of attack he employed in Tampa, pounding the zone and letting his good velocity and movement be his margin for error. He can be a very good starter either way, but if he has to throw the fastball more in order to stay on the mound, he loses some of his potential to be great.

The Big Questions

The 2013 season will answer a lot of the most important questions about these three. Obviously, how each man pitches will go a long way toward determining where each pitches in 2014, and how much they get to pitch there. At a deeper level, though, there are non-performance things we need to know, things that can teach us something broadly true of pitching as a craft. Here are the questions I’ll be eager to see answered:

Should Lincecum move to the bullpen?

Obviously, Lincecum got hit hard in 2012, and there’s no easy and encouraging explanation for that. He had real trouble in many facets, especially control, and especially when pitching on four days’ rest, and especially late in outings.

Still, when the Giants chose to send Lincecum to the bullpen for the playoffs, in favor of Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, I was skeptical. Then Lincecum pitched in relief.

The sharpness was back. The velocity gap between his fastball and changeup widened a bit. His breaking stuff was tighter and harder. He didn’t walk batters.

Kevin Goldstein (now of the Houston Astros, formerly of Baseball Prospectus, a prospect guru) once heard from multiple scouts who wanted Lincecum to become a reliever. Not an average, one-inning reliever, mind you, but a multi-inning weapon in a mold long broken. He has a rubber arm, and so many different ways to go after hitters, and some who scouted him in college said Lincecum’s mechanics could really collapse after about 75 pitches in an outing.

Obviously, if he still has a chance to straighten himself out, Lincecum should stay in the rotation. Even aggressive usage would only allow him to pitch 50-55 percent as many innings in relief as he could in the rotation. However, if those relief innings are going to be substantially more effective, and if he can be used much more flexibly, maybe the tradeoff calculus starts to make sense.

Will Hughes be a Yankee beyond 2013?

If I’m guessing right now, I’m guessing no. The Yankees need to re-sign Robinson Cano after 2013, but assuming they do so, they’ll have no more than $60 million with which to fill in 16 roster spots if they want to fulfill their insistent promise to come in under the luxury-tax threshold of $189 million in 2014. (They do.)

If Hughes departs New York for some team with a less vicious primary opponent set or a more forgiving home park, maybe he would really take off. That margin for error doesn’t exist for him right now.

The more interesting question is whether his slider will continue to develop, and whether it would do so better in New York or elsewhere. Jeff Samardzija, who is similar to Hughes in several ways, found a very real and significant improvement in his slider in 2012. I wonder whether Hughes could do the same, or whether that kind of biting breaking ball is just not in his arm. Hughes spins the ball really well, but Samardzija has plus-plus velocity Hughes can’t match, and that arm speed might be a big reason Samardzija’s slider played up. I expect that Hughes will improve this year, but finding a real wipeout breaking ball is a bit incompatible with Hughes’ established skill set.

Can Garza afford to keep changing gears and scenery?

Garza is a fiery guy, very intense. He’s not especially well-suited as a professional or a competitor to the kind of instability that has defined his career. He seems happy and well-adjusted off the field, but I wonder if he can continue to adjust as often (or as drastically) as teams have asked him to and still do what’s truly best for himself as a pitcher.

An extension with the Cubs would be the quickest path to settling in and smoothing out the rough edges for Garza. Unfortunately, like any prospective trade partner, the team would probably need to see Garza prove his health during the spring before making the kind of commitment Garza is likely looking for.

Any trade would be a tough break for Garza, because he would (probably) be asked to change what he does as a pitcher again. In the end, though, that’s still the most likely scenario. If not during Spring Training, then sometime this season, the Cubs will try again to deal Garza, in order to boost their rebuilding process that little bit more. It will probably be 2014 before we know where Garza will be in 2014, which is unfortunate. He’s not quite in the same position as new teammate Edwin Jackson, and he’ll probably land a richer deal, but Garza has a lot of the same hurdles to clear.

Three pitchers, three very different stories and styles, one big season forthcoming.

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