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The Return of Tim Lincecum (?)


It may be hard to remember it now, but Tim Lincecum is only one of two active pitchers with multiple Cy Young awards (joining Clayton Kershaw). Even as it part of baseball´s recent memory, Lincecum's career unraveling has made it difficult to think about the days when he was the best pitcher alive. In a way, his career path turned out to follow what his critics feared just as he began to make his way in the big leagues, as many were skeptical that Lincecum could succeed with his short frame and peculiar mechanics.

The span covering 2008 to 2011 was a true peak that would be envied by many. Ace Lincecum finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting for those four seasons, and was the fifth-most valuable pitcher in that time frame. His strikeout rate was the best by a mile among hurlers with at least 500 innings, and he was an integral part of the 2010 World Series-winning Giants, going 4-1 in the postseason. Not even good luck could be credited for Lincecum's success, as his 2.81 FIP was the second best in that span, only behind Cliff Lee´s 2.79; Timmy was 26 and ready to dominate the sport for years to come.

After that time, the numbers have been cold and cruel. From 2012 to 2014, Timmy dropped to become the league's 107th-most valuable pitcher (!!!), combining for a paltry 3.2 WAR between the 3 seasons. This meant that Lincecum went from an undeniable ace to a pitcher barely above replacement. While the strikeouts were still a big part of his arsenal, so were the walks and the homers, which helped balloon Lincecum's FIP to 4.05 and to become a shell of his former self. Even with the Giants winning two more championships, Lincecum was relegated to just one start in those playoff trips, coming mostly out of the bullpen.

The span had its share of memorable moments, such as the 2012 NLDS relief appearance versus the Reds (1 run in 4.1 innings during a must-win game 4), and the two no-hitters thrown versus the Padres in 2013 and 2014, but they were mostly flashes in the pan and mementos of what Lincecum used to be.

Entering 2015, Lincecum was again penciled in to be part of the rotation, albeit one on a very short leash, according to manager Bruce Bochy. Even as he was to be playing for his next contract, not much was expected of Timmy (and probably San Francisco as a whole). He went undrafted in most fantasy leagues, and his 2-year, $35 million contract signed in 2013 was deemed as one of the worst in the game.

Memorial Day tends to serve as the first the season's first instance to stop and evaluate the situation for teams and players. That very day, Lincecum stepped up to the mound in Milwaukee and won a game in which he allowed three homers and four earned runs. The win may have been undeserved, and could have been considered a typical Lincecum start of recent vintage, but it was actually his worst start of the young season. That sentence alone may be surprising, but it is just what you need to know regarding Timmy in 2015: he has actually been good.

Through his first 9 starts, Timmy stands at 5-2 with a pristine 2.56 ERA, winning his past 4 decisions while beating the Angels and Dodgers in the process. At times, he has looked like the Lincecum of old, while avoiding some of the dreadful bad innings that plagued him during the last 3 seasons. In a Giants team that has recovered after a very slow start, Lincecum has been a rotation mainstay alongside Madison Bumgarner, just as the team waits for Matt Cain.

As it tends to happen when there are early-season unexpected results, we are left to wonder if Lincecum is actually really back to his old self or if he will return to the latter version of his career. Today we take a look at the most relevant stats regarding Lincecum's early results in 2015, and see if this is really a renaissance for the veteran righty.

We could be better served by starting with the bad news: in terms of underlying stats, Tim Lincecum is practically the same guy that was terrible from 2012 to 2014. Looking at his ratios, he is posting career-worst numbers in K/9 (6.84) and BB/9 (4.10), leading to a FIP of 4.04 that is nearly 1.5 runs higher than his ERA. That discrepancy can be explained by a few numbers that tend to regress rapidly: a .259 BABIP allowed, and 83.1% men left on base. Even as Lincecum benefits from playing in a pitchers' park and in front of a great defense, this level of luck simply can't be sustained over a full season.

Predictably, projection systems are not thinking about great results from Timmy going forward. ZIPS, Steamer, and Fangraphs have him pegged for around 115 innings, 6 wins, and an ERA in the low 4's. While the strikeouts should return and the walks can normalize, so will the direction of batted balls and the fate of base runners, which could derail Lincecum's season and get him back to the levels that saw him sink to replacement level.

If there is any hope for Lincecum going forward, it should fall on the fact that he is mixing his pitches more effectively than in recent seasons, with his slider returning to prominence.

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Batters have swung and missed at 28.57% of both his curveball and slider, which are close marks to what he posted in his Cy Young seasons. Also, he is limiting pitches in the fat parts of the strike zone, focusing on the bottom part of the zone to produce ground balls. In fact, his current 48.3% ground ball rate is also on pace to set a career high.

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When we see it graphically, it is understandable why Lincecum has been able to limit the damage, even as his rates are certainly unsustainable as a whole. The question now is, what can we expect from here to the end of the year?

Despite what the projection systems say, it is undeniable that Lincecum's progress is encouraging and a welcome development for the Giants. Instead of making the hard decision of sending a franchise icon back to the bullpen, the team can now trot out Lincecum every 5 days and expect at least a solid outing.

With the Giants being known for their loyalty to veterans, it will be interesting to see if Lincecum will be extended or allowed to test free agency by year's end. In a market that will highlight front-line aces like Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, and David Price, Tim Lincecum will be an outsider looking for a modest deal. Even as he has seemed eternal, he is still a manageable 31, and with enough talent to believe in a mid-career transformation to a finesse pitcher.

Counting out Tim Lincecum has been a theme since he began his career, but he had one of the best peaks of the 21st century, and with 3 World Series rings and two Cy Youngs, one of the most successful on the field. As he is trying to rediscover some of that magic, let's also recognize that baseball is more fun with The Freak thriving instead of being pummeled every 5 days.

 

 



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