Tim Lincecum’s Future as Starter or Reliever

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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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Lincecum’s Mechanics Are Off (Video)

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Tim Lincecum’s mechanics are off.

That’s the problem that is causing his lack of control and probably his diminished velocity as well. Why the Giants, Dave Righetti, Bruce Bochy or Lincecum’s increasingly irritable and defensive father Chris (Yahoo Story) haven’t taken steps to correct what he’s doing wrong is a mystery to me. I’d be stunned if they haven’t studied the video of when Lincecum was at his best and what he is now.

If you look at the video clip below from the 2010 World Series, there are subtle differences between what he was doing then and what he’s doing now.

Back then, he went into his simplified motion, kicked his leg and hesitated for a split second giving his hand time to get the ball out of his glove and hang down in the dangled position before launching himself toward the hitter with a posture and release point befitting someone who was 3 or so inches taller than Lincecum’s listed (and questionable) height of 5’11”.

He’s compact and his glove is leading the way toward the plate so his entire focus and direction is heading in that direction. He’s turning his back to the hitter in a much more pronounced fashion than he is now and his leg is tighter in relation to his body.

Now look at the video from this season.

Lincecum is not hesitating as much. He’s rushing. His arm is dragging behind and he’s getting too low in what looks like an old David Cone-style drop-and-drive when Lincecum—in spite of his long stride that was indicative of an automatic drop-and-drive style pitcher—was a pitcher who stood up straight and tall.

He’s flying off toward first base rather than going straight toward the plate.

His release point is technically the same, but since his body is lower, he’s lower and he’s too open in his leg lift so he’ll be too open when he releases the ball. Hitters might be getting a better view of it coming out of his hand. His ball is flattening out, he no longer has his control and as a result of these mechanical flaws, he’s losing confidence and there’s been talk of skipped starts, demotions to the bullpen and even sending him down to the minor leagues.

These are correctable issues and Lincecum’s muscle memory would speed up the process. I’m not sure why they haven’t fixed what he’s doing wrong. It’s not hard to see.

At least it shouldn’t be for the professional pitching coach, manager who’s a former catcher and the dad who honed and perfected his son’s unique motion.

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Just In Time For Father’s Day

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It’s ironic that two players—one legitimate star and one would-be star—whose fathers are inextricably attached to their sons’ careers had opposite results on father’s day.

Colby Rasmus’s father Tony was portrayed as an unrepentant meddler in his son’s career. So much so that there was open verbal warfare between former Cardinals’ manager Tony LaRussa and Tony Rasmus that led to Colby Rasmus asking to be traded and being publicly chastised by Albert Pujols. Eventually Colby was traded to the Blue Jays in a deal that was widely credited with galvanizing the Cardinals’ clubhouse and bringing in pieces—Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski—that helped them rally to win the World Series.

Of course it’s simplistic to hold Colby responsible for the Cardinals’ woes up until the trading deadline, but for both parties it was best in the long and short-term to get him out of St. Louis.

Colby had a big day on Sunday—father’s day—going 3 for 4 with a double and homer in the Blue Jays’ win.

Tony Rasmus is still cryptically sniping at the Cardinals and LaRussa in interviews while simultaneously removing himself from the equation—link. He’s a stage father who’s gotten the blame for his son’s struggles. If that’s the case, shouldn’t he get the credit for when his son does well?

Is it fair? Is it accurate? Did Tony Rasmus’s involvement sabotage the Cardinals’ handling of his son? And did that same involvement create the player that was drafted in the 1st round?

Before you answer, think about this: across cross the continent in San Francisco another player whose father was an integral part in his career is slumping horribly.

Tim Lincecum started yesterday and again got shelled. The 2-time National League Cy Young Award winner allowed 5 earned runs and 2 homers in a loss. His record is now 2-8. His ERA is 6.19. He’s walking 4.8 batters per 9 innings whereas last season it was 3.6 and in his best season of 2007 it was 2.7. He’s pitched in some bad luck with a .336 BAbip, but that doesn’t assuage the worries about his lost velocity, control and command.

His once intractable confidence appears shot; no one is saying definitively what may be wrong with him; and the Giants hands-off approach with Lincecum is backfiring because he’s pitching badly.

It was a badge of honor for Lincecum and his dad Chris that the pitcher’s mechanics were honed and perfected by his father’s innovative techniques; that the team that drafted him was told in no uncertain terms that his motion was not to be tweaked; that he wasn’t babied with pitch counts and innings limits. These orders and his diminutive size scared off a great many clubs from selecting him, but the Giants took him 10th in the 2006 draft and were rewarded with a cult hero and superstar whose style and stamina belied the fears that permeated his story.

He didn’t ice his arm; the Giants’ coaches (including respected big league pitching coach Dave Righetti) weren’t permitted to alter him; he did things his way.

And his dad’s way.

Now what?

The critics were waiting for this and using the Lincecum rules as validation that what the Giants did was wrong; that Lincecum’s red flags are now glowing brightly.

Can Righetti and manager Bruce Bochy make suggestions to Lincecum or is it still hands off? Is Chris Lincecum trying to make adjustments to fix what ails his son? Is Tim hurt and they’re not saying so?

Are there any answers?

Amid all the chortling about Colby Rasmus and how the Blue Jays and their fans are pleased that he didn’t work out in St. Louis for reasons on-field and off, it’s ignored that his numbers are eerily similar to those that he posted with the Cardinals even when he was playing well. He has a slash line of .255/.312/.464 and 10 homers. He’s been good defensively in centerfield. He’s a 1.8 WAR player. It’s not bad, but it’s not great. He’s a cog, not the key. That’s better than being a pawn in the ongoing war between LaRussa, Tony Rasmus and the “draft guru” who had usurped much of LaRussa’s power with the Cardinals, Jeff Luhnow, before LaRussa won the turf war.

With the Cardinals, it was impossible to judge Colby on his merits.

That’s not the case in Toronto. He’s in a town where the fans are cheering for him; his teammates aren’t hounding him; the press isn’t baiting him; and the Blue Jays are going to need him to perform to take the next step into contention as a team. There’s not the historical expectation of winning nor the short-tempered, impatient manager with sway that there was with the Cardinals.

In San Francisco what was once viewed as a positive is now a negative and Lincecum is in limbo with rampant questions about hidden injuries and a possible shift to the bullpen.

In Toronto a father’s involvement isn’t taken as interloping, in part, because the Blue Jays have so much riding on Colby Rasmus’s success.

Whatever works.

But what works? And what doesn’t?

A father’s influence is judged based on whether it’s working or it’s not; whether it’s a positive or negative in results and perception.

Lincecum is a mess. Rasmus is what he is.

Fathers and sons were celebrated yesterday. It’s a fabric in baseball.

Sometimes that’s good.

Sometimes it’s not.

And sometimes we don’t know.

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