Tim Lincecum’s Future as Starter or Reliever

Because Tim Lincecum had such a poor season and has been effective as a reliever in the post-season, there’s been speculation that his future might be in the bullpen. Let’s look into my crystal baseball with facts and realistic analysis on the side.

The age-old debates regarding Lincecum

He cannot escape his diminutive stature, nor his stage-father. Lincecum was taken 10th overall by the Giants in the 2006 draft and the Mariners have forever been roasted by their fans for taking Brandon Morrow instead of Lincecum, who was a local kid and starred at the University of Washington. But Morrow is a prototype who’s 6’3” while Lincecum is listed at 5’11”. For the record, I would have taken Morrow as well.

What made Lincecum’s perceived risks riskier was his father Chris Lincecum’s status as Tim’s one-and-only coach and that his son’s motion and training regimens were not to be interfered with in any way. All things being equal, most teams would shy away from the smaller pitcher, but would take him anyway if they liked him better. If you add in the presence of these rules from Lincecum’s father and it’s understandable that the Mariners chose to go with Morrow and other teams chose different players.

The Giants looked brilliant with the hands-off strategy when Lincecum arrived in the big leagues in 2007 with a near 100-mph fastball and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He has been a top pitcher in baseball until this season. Then he started struggling and the size excuse; the inability of the Giants’ staff to make adjustments to his issues; and questions of longevity, overuse at a young age, and durability cropped up again.

Truthfully, we have no idea what’s going on with Lincecum’s mechanics, health, fitness, and alterations. It could be that the Giants are more proactive with him than we know; it could be that Tim is no longer going to Chris for advice. (This is not unusual with players who were taught and nurtured by their fathers—Keith Hernandez had long spells of impasse with his father.) Great pitchers have had poor seasons mid-career. Jim Palmer went 7-12 at age 28 in 1974 and rebounded at 29 to win the Cy Young Award in 1975 (and another one in 1976 with 2nd and 3rd place finishes in 1977 and 1978). Bret Saberhagen went 7-12 with an all-around awful year in 1986 the year after winning the Cy Young Award and World Series MVP, but returned to form. Saberhagen was about as small as Lincecum.

Lincecum is not used to poor results. Logically, because he was able to overcome the obstacles to make it this far with his uniqueness, it’s silly to again pigeonhole him for what he’s not as the teams that avoided him in the draft did.

His optimal use

There might come a day that Lincecum will need to move to the bullpen, but that time is not now. He’s 28, not 38. In 2012, he still threw 186 innings and wasn’t on the disabled list. That’s not the 200+ innings with dominance he regularly provided before 2012, but one bad season doesn’t mean you toss the history out as if it never happened. His strikeout rate is what it’s always been. He’s been wild and has allowed more homers than he ever has. That tells me his location is off and that he’s been wild high. His fastball is no longer what it was, but 92 is fast enough to be effective. He has to adjust.

As much of a weapon that Lincecum has been as a reliever this post-season and as poorly as he pitched as a starter, that would not work over a full season. Those 200 innings he provides and reasonable expectation of improvement to something close to what he was from 2007-2011 makes a 2013 move to the bullpen untenable.

Money

Lincecum, with free agency beckoning after 2013, would resist moving to the bullpen based on finances, and he’d be right to do it. The greatest relievers in baseball—Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon, among others—don’t get more than $13-15 million per season. Lincecum, in 2013, is due to make $22 million. As a free agent reliever, he does not make anything close to that. As a starter who is 29, will give 200 innings, and might win a CYA? That’s worth $150 million+.

What the Giants need

How are they replacing those 200 innings if they decide to make Lincecum a reliever?

That the Giants are up 3 games to 0 in the World Series and are on the verge of winning a championship is a signal to the rest of baseball as to the lack of importance of a star-level closer. They lost Brian Wilson to elbow surgery early in the season, tried several permutations in the ninth inning before settling on Sergio Romo, who was a 28th round draft choice. Using Lincecum in the post-season as a reliever when he’s slumping as a starter makes sense; using him as a reliever over a full season when he’s at least functional as a starter is absurd.

And Lincecum

It’s been said that Lincecum was not in shape when the season started. It’s not a matter of him arriving fat. I doubt that Lincecum could get fat, but there’s a difference between being fit and being fat. Before, Lincecum could do what he wanted in terms of exercise, diet, and extracurricular substance ingestion (namely pot), and pitch well. Now, as he’s approaching athletic middle-age, he has to take better care of himself. With all that money on the line and the returning motivation to again shove it to his critics, Lincecum is going to dedicate himself to the game and being ready in 2013. He’s a competitor and wants to get paid, so he’s not going to the bullpen. Being a starter is best for everyone involved and that’s where he’ll remain.

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