Friday, June 27, 2014

Lincecum's Lost Greatness

Lincecum was lights-out against the Padres in a rare strong performance for him (SBNation)
Tim Lincecum's no-hitter on Wednesday was sad, in a way. Not just because it confirmed how pathetic the Padres offense has been this year (ranking last in runs, hits, OPS, and total bases; barely scoring three runs per game and batting .213), but because it reminded the baseball world of the great pitcher Lincecum used to be. Notice the past-tense. He can still be that pitcher from time to time, but more often than not these days he turns in a bad start rather than a good one. Wednesday's outing was only the second all year in which he completed more than six innings, allowed zero runs, or recorded a GameScore over 70.

Tim Lincecum's no-hitter was a great feat, no doubt. It was his second in less than a year, making him one of just 32 men in baseball history to pitch multiple no-nos. But it is also a reminder of the splendid pitcher he once was, rather than the mediocre pitcher he is today.

Not too long ago, Lincecum was unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball. He won consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, joining Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to win back-to-back Cys in the National League. In 2010, he paced the Senior Circuit in strikeouts for the third straight year and topped the majors in K/9. In 2011 he compiled a 2.74 ERA and fanned 220 batters, good for fifth and third in the NL, respectively. He was an All-Star all four years, and at 27 still seemed to have several fine seasons in front of him.

We all know what happened next. Lincecum didn't break down, as so many great young pitchers seem to do, especially nowadays with the Tommy John epidemic ravaging hurlers left and right. Many thought that he would because he was a little guy who whipped the ball so unnaturally hard, but it hasn't happened yet. He's remained remarkably healthy and durable, to his credit, stringing together six straight seasons of at least 32 starts and on pace to do it again here in 2014.

No, his arm didn't fall off. What happened to him happens to everyone who repeatedly throws a baseball upwards of 90 miles per hour hundreds of times a week and thousands of times a year. His arm, once a live wire capable of electric stuff, started wearing down. He lost zip on his fastball, so to compensate he started relying more on his offspeed stuff (mainly sliders). In turn, his command suffered. He became more hittable and less accurate, never a good combination.

And so Lincecum has struggled. Since the start of 2012, a span of 81 starts and roughly 475 innings of work, he has a 4.70 ERA that, when adjusted for league and park, has been 27 percent worse than average. That ERA is so bad, in fact, that it ranks as the seventh-worst in baseball among qualified pitchers, placing him in the same low-rent neighborhood as Edinson Volquez, Joe Saunders, Felix Doubront, and Edwin Jackson. Per Baseball-Reference, Lincecum's also been worth 2.5 wins below replacement level during that time.

And yet, the Giants just gave him a two-year contract last winter that will pay him $17 million this year and $18 million the next. Which begs the obvious question, what was Giants general manager Brian Sabean smoking? Lincecum's deal makes the five-year, $90 million extension he gave Hunter Pence look good.

If Sabean was banking on Big Time Timmy Jim recapturing his glory days, he was sorely mistaken. Predictably, Lincecum's already declining strikeout rate has continued to fallAll pitchers lose velocity as they get older, and once it's gone it never comes back. Not even the best pitchers can avoid this inevitable erosion of skills, as Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and the now-retired Roy Halladay have recently discovered. All those pitches and innings take their toll sooner or later.

No-hitters aside, Lincecum clearly isn't the pitcher he used to be. So unless he develops impeccable command (like Cliff Lee) or becomes a master at changing speeds (like the deceptive Koji Uehara), he'll continue to be erratic. Occasionally great, but in the end the bad will outweigh the good. In his prime he was the Freak, capable of seasons that rank with the best of Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. Now, he's just another guy, a back of the rotation innings-eater. A washed-up has-been at the age of 30. He's become the next Barry Zito, sans the never-ending contract. At least Lincecum's has a light at the end of the tunnel.

So look on the bright side, San Francisco. On the one hand you're still a World Series-caliber team despite paying your former ace $17 million to actively hurt your team, and on the other you're only stuck with him for one more year. Hopefully next time his contract expires, your front office will be wise enough to let him go.


  1. I couldn't agree more about Tiny Tim's premature plight. It doesn't take common sense to realize that when you pretend to be Bob Gibson(which ,of course, only one human is), bad things happen to your arm. As for the 17-million-bucks deal, I've seen worse front office capers. What about the Chicago Cubs practically giving away a fellow by the name of Lou Brock, and the sale of Alfonso Soriano in the middle of a banner year(Hmm, wonder why the Cubs can't ever reach the World Series)?

  2. Agreed, Lincecum's deal is nowhere near the worst of all-time, but he was clearly in decline when the Giants gave it to him. Like I said, at least it was only for two years.