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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Tim Lincecum Trade Pa-Troll

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*NOTE 8:22 AM, NYC: The original piece on Bleacher Report that was linked was significantly altered after mine was published. The words “herky jerky” were removed and the entire context was changed.

Reading the teaser headline and you’d automatically take the “news” on a slow day as an inviting and irresistible lure to read the article.

But clicking and reading reveals the truth and the truth is that there’s no “there” there.

I saw the mentioning of the words “Tim Lincecum” and “trade” on Twitter and instantly knew it was nonsense and/or trolling because: A) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum; B) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum; and C) the Giants aren’t trading Lincecum.

Being it’s a slow day (do the math), I checked the search engines to see if there was anything to explain this silliness in a sensible, reasonable fashion.

I found this on Bleacher Report in which a Lincecum trade is speculated.

Sort of.

In the next two years.

But not now.

Of course it’s ludicrous in every sense.

It’s ludicrous that Lincecum and Barry Zito are compared in any way.

It’s ludicrous that Lincecum is treated like a normal pitcher.

It’s ludicrous that the Giants are going to start a rebuild in the next two seasons.

Ludicrous.

How do you compare Lincecum to Zito? With the Athletics, Zito was a contact pitcher who benefited from being on a very good team and having great luck on balls in play. Lincecum has left lineups in ruins. Zito’s fastball could never approach the Lincecum fast lane in spite of Lincecum’s fastball having dipped slightly from its upper-90s heyday; he’s still plenty fast enough to strikeout 230 hitters a year. Zito is trying to trick people and get by on guile.

Zito’s margin of error was nonexistent and it’s worse now; Lincecum gets by when he’s off his game because of pure quality of stuff.

Lincecum cannot be compared to “normal” pitchers, nor can he be placed in any specific category because he’s been treated differently since the time he signed. The Giants were not allowed to alter Lincecum’s mechanics; this was one of the reasons so many teams were reluctant to draft Lincecum. It’s the same way today even as he has two Cy Young Awards and a championship ring; to this day I wonder what pitching coach Dave Righetti says to Lincecum when the pitcher is struggling and Righetti visits the mound. Do they talk about girls? The weather? Fisherman’s Wharf?

Because Lincecum has always been left to his own (and his dad’s) devices, he’s something of a closed society about which nothing can be physically determined in a sociological baseball study. The conventional rules don’t apply to him and, by extension, nor do the concerns.

With that in mind, it cannot be said that the skinny pitcher with the unique motion is going to replicate other pitchers whose arms blew out in year three of an eight-year contract. He’s altered all the rules so far and can’t be pigeonholed.

As for a Giants rebuild, forget it.

You may have a short memory of the way GM Brian Sabean runs his club, but going back to the Barry Bonds years, it was always build around the stars; ignore the draft and minor league system; and try to win with veterans to augment Bonds.

In short, Build Around Barry.

The concept that Sabean is “stupid” because he’s old-school and follows a blueprint that doesn’t emanate from new age statistics is easier to process than trying to understand what he’s doing, but if you look at it, it makes sense.

Bonds was the most dangerous hitter in baseball and the Giants were contenders as long as he was around; it made perfect sense to run the team the way they did during that time. When Bonds was gone, the Giants rebuilt through the draft with pitching and they finally broke through and won the World Series that eluded them with Bonds. Sabean isn’t going to tear the thing down by trading Lincecum for a package of youngsters because that’s not what he does. He’ll ride it as long as he can and move on.

Simply because there’s a media-created “genius” across the Bay who always has a reason (excuse) for doing the things he does isn’t a determinative factor in which GM is better. If you go by the flexibility in knowing what he has and what to do with it, Sabean is a successful GM also functioning under a budget, but without the lusty propaganda.

As long as the Giants have two star pitchers, Matt Cain and Lincecum; an All-Star talent, Madison Bumgarner; and a top-tier closer, Brian Wilson, they’re going to be competitive if they hit at all. Whereas they were built around Bonds 10 years ago, now they’re Timmy’s Team.

The linked column doesn’t stop with simple practical idiocy; it delves into unprofessional randomness by ignorantly calling Lincecum’s motion “herky jerky”.

Doug Fister is herky jerky; Lincecum is a Tom Seaver-like study in using one’s whole body to generate power.

Then it says: “You give an eight-year contract to a fully built workhorse, not a small-framed pothead.”

You can question his size—I’ve done it myself—but to call him a “pothead” considering what some other pitchers have indulged in (Dock Ellis pitched a no-hitter on LSD) is a cheap shot to “prove” a non-existent theory and add a tier to the reasons to trade him.

These “rumors” of a Lincecum trade are crafted by those who attempt to see into the “future” with their mystical powers of prescience and are providing generalities that can be adjusted after the fact to make it appear as if they were “right”.

On a quiet day on the baseball front, it’s a non-story to accumulate webhits and pageviews—something that Lincecum’s name is always good for.

Honest speculation of a possibility is one thing; a flashy headline designed to fool the reader isn’t.

It’s the perfect storm—at least until you read the content and realize you’ve been played. Poorly.

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Get Yu Darvish

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I had prepared to write about how pitchers from Japan have a small margin for error and terrible history, especially when the hype-machine is so stifling that no one could possibly succeed. That history with the likes of Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Irabu should make clubs reticent about the astronomical posting bids for the right to even negotiate with them. In addition to that, the number of pitchers who arrived without the media exposure and did well—Hideo Nomo, Hideki Okajima—should give greater pause before going all in with cash and expectations.

Part of my argument was intended to be centered around the same teams that passed on Aroldis Chapman being after the latest hot commodity, Yu Darvish.

I still don’t know how Chapman wound up with the Reds and not the Yankees or Red Sox—he was the real deal before he signed and is the real deal now.

But after looking at video clips of Darvish, he’s going to be a dominating pitcher in the big leagues.

His motion combines the height and ball-hooking quirkiness of Rick Sutcliffe; the deception and charisma of Tim Lincecum; and the leg drive and finish of David Cone.

Watching Darvish in the video below, you see the similarities to Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe was 6’7″, had a set of mechanics that no pitching coach in his right mind would teach, but were actually technically perfect in terms of balance and usage of both arms and intimidating size. The hooking of the wrist toward the forearm is said to be bad for the elbow, but that’s the way he threw; sometimes it does more damage to alter a natural motion that it would be to try and fix it; in some cases, it’s the oddity that makes them effective.

Darvish turns his back to the hitter similarly to Lincecum, he collapses he back leg to load up for the drive to the plate, and uses a leverage-based torque to generate power. The difference being he’s doing it at 6’5″ while Lincecum is (supposedly) 5’11”.

Cone was listed at 6’1″; was actually around 5’11” and threw everything at the hitter from a variety of arm angles; Darvish is said to throw a wide array of pitches including the conventional 4-seam and 2-seam fastballs; a wicked off-speed curve; a forkball; and a slider.

Here’s Cone as he’s just about to release:

And here’s Darvish:

I would totally ignore the results against against Japanese hitters—that’s a mistake that’s repeatedly made in trying to translate the success from Japan to North America. It’s happened not only with the above-mentioned pitchers who didn’t work out as hoped, but with hitters like Tsuyoshi Nishioka who was played up as a batting champion when he signed with the Twins and was a disaster.

With his unique heritage of an Iranian father and Japanese mother; a clear love of the spotlight; and the goods to back it up, Darvish is going to come to the big leagues and be a sensation.

The teams that miss out on him due to being gun-shy after prior errors are going to regret it. He’ll be a devastating force as a big league pitcher.

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Waiting (Hoping?) For The Breakdown Of Tim Lincecum

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Tim Lincecum got knocked around by the Diamondbacks in the Giants’ 7-2 loss last night.

The Diamondbacks’ broadcasters—I’m not sure who they were, but it wasn’t Daron Sutton and Mark Grace—were discussing Giants V.P. of Player Personnel Dick Tidrow and his suggestion that Lincecum, when he was drafted, go straight from college to the big leagues so his “max effort” innings (1000 was the number) would be used by the big league club and wouldn’t be wasted in the minors—the Giants would get “max” use from his “max” effort.

Needless to say, the Giants didn’t do that.

This was all said while Lincecum was getting pounded for the second straight start after having been brilliant from late June until recently; whether it would’ve been an issue had he struck out 16 and pitched a 2-hit shutout is unknown, but I’d guess the answer is no.

But he hit the magic number of 1000 last night.

“Magic” as in a nice, round number of convenience. Sort of like planning a military operation around the days of the week. It’s a random parameter and an imaginary smoking gun.

There’s a palpable rhetorical chafing among certain members of the Giants organization that they were and are completely left out of the Lincecum world. From the time he was drafted, there was an edict not to mess with his mechanics. And they haven’t. I still wonder what pitching coach Dave Righetti says to Lincecum on his visits to the mound. What is there to say? Coaches and front office people don’t like being marginalized, so they shake their heads and wait for the “I told you so” opportunity as if they want the guy to get hurt so they can be “right”.

Where the number 1000 innings got its start, I don’t know. When I was a kid, I was so dumb I thought that on the day of my 13th birthday, my voice would change as if that magical moment would flip a switch to adulthood.

Not much has changed.

Pigeonholing human beings and their physical limits is ridiculous.

No one mentions the pitchers who weren’t treated like delicate flowers that would shatter in a gentle breeze because it doesn’t “prove” their hypothesis. Greg Maddux; Randy Johnson; Nolan Ryan; Tom Seaver—they did something novel known as pitching. We’re seeing it with Justin Verlander now. Brandon Webb was allowed to pitch; was the best pitcher in baseball for 5 years; won one Cy Young Award; could’ve won two more; and got hurt with his career likely over. Would he have been better off to have been babied? Maybe he would’ve lasted longer, but I can’t see how he could’ve been a better pitcher; but he definitely could’ve been worse.

With the Verducci Effect and other such silliness, the above-mentioned names are considered outliers to the norm. But what’s the norm?

The “norm” that once existed was what was enacted—they were allowed to pitch. This was before the proliferation of laymen doing research and scrutinizing players from the time they’re amateurs; these laymen are creating a culture of paranoia.

Is Lincecum a part of the Seaver/Ryan/Maddux “norm”? Or is he part of today’s “norm”?

Lincecum, in his formative years, was kept in a Todd Marinovich-like cocoon (without the fascist father and the heroin) in his on-field endeavors and had perfect, undeviated mechanics from the time he started to now. How is he even part of this discussion? Because his development was different, he’s different and since he’s not one of “them”, he’s an exception to that which is supposedly documented as fact.

These innings limits and expectations of breakdown make it easier. Easier to explain away in injury. Easier to justify diminished velocity and results. Easy to shift the blame from someone, anyone in the organization and chalk it up to an arbitrary number of innings and pitches. It’s like someone having a heart attack—you don’t know why it happened and there’s no one to blame if there’s not a direct cause.

Just let the man pitch without the retrospectives, comparisons and groundwork to say, “it’s not my fault”. Please.

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