Back on June 25, Tim Lincecum no-hit the Padres, and when he followed with a string of strong outings, it appeared as though the two-time Cy Young winner might have found a way out of the wilderness in which he'd wandered for most of the past 2 1/2 seasons. Alas, his rebound proved to be short-lived, and after a month of further struggles, he's been pulled from the Giants' rotation in favor of Yusmeiro Petit, making him the world's most expensive relief pitcher.
By now, the contours of Lincecum's decline are familiar. After winning back-to-back Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009, his performance took a dip, though he remained a frontline pitcher in 2010-11. Where he tallied 15.4 Wins Above Replacement with a 2.55 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine in those award-winning seasons, his 7.9 WAR, 3.08 ERA and 9.5 K/9 in the next two were still strong showings. He capped the 2010 season with a strong postseason run that included a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout of the Braves in the Division Series and a 10-strikeout, eight-inning performance in the World Series clincher, helping the Giants capture their first title since 1954.
His 2012 and 2013 seasons, however, were a sub-replacement level slog. In that span, he posted a combined -2.3 WAR with a 4.76 ERA, figures offset only by a brilliant stretch of relief work in the 2012 postseason, in which he helped the Giants win another World Series, and his first career no-hitter in 2013.
Lincecum spent last season apparently bound for the uncertainty of free agency, but on Oct. 23, he signed a two-year, $35 million extension to remain with the Giants — a head-scratching move that seemed to have more to do with loyalty and past glories than an honest assessment of his current abilities. Indeed, he wobbled through the first half of this season to the point that he carried a 4.90 ERA and 4.16 FIP into that June 25 start against the Padres. However brilliant his performance was, it came against the majors' lightest-hitting team amid an historically futile stretch; the Padres hit .171/.237/.255 in June, producing the lowest batting average of any team in any calendar month since 1914.
Indeed, weak-hitting competition helps to explain Lincecum's subsequent roll. Over a five-start stretch that began with that no-hitter, he put up a 0.96 ERA in 37 1/3 innings covering two starts against the Padres and one apiece against the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Marlins. Only the latter was averaging even 4.00 runs per game at the time; they scored three of the four runs Lincecum allowed during that stretch.
In Lincecum’s six starts since then, four of which have come against above-average offenses (Dodgers, Pirates, Brewers and Nationals), he's been scorched for a 9.49 ERA and 15 walks across 24 1/3 innings. He had just one quality start in that stretch (six innings, three runs against Milwaukee on Aug. 5) compared to four disaster starts (more runs than innings pitched); in each of those four starts, he lasted no more than 4 1/3 innings. The final straw was Saturday's 2 2/3-inning, 10-baserunner, six-run drubbing by Washington.
In all, Lincecum now has a the second-worst ERA of his career (4.64) accompanied by career-worst marks in both FIP (4.21) and strikeouts per nine (8.1), not to mention an unsightly combo of walk and home run rates (3.8 and 1.1 per nine, respectively). At 68-62, the Giants are hardly out of the playoff hunt; they have a 1/2-game edge over the Braves for the second NL wild-card spot and are five games behind the Dodgers in the NL West. But given that they're amid their third straight losing month and have gone just 26-41 since June 8 — when they were 42-22 — manager Bruce Bochy can ill afford to send the current version of the 30-year-old righty to the mound every five days.
Via the San Francisco Chronicle's Henry Schulman, here's what Bochy had to say on Monday:
Now, Bochy said, the pitcher needs to "clean up his delivery."
"He’s been working hard," Bochy said. "Sometimes you can tinker a little bit too much. You want to get him back to where he was six weeks ago. He was throwing as well as anybody."
...As for Lincecum pitching out of the bullpen, Bochy said, "He’s done it. He’s done it in important parts of the season, too. He’s all for it. He knows this is a good time to back him off."
Petit will start Thursday's game against the Rockies, after which the rotation will be re-assessed. The 29-year-old righty, who put up a 3.56 ERA in seven starts and one relief appearance for the Giants last year, has pitched brilliantly out of the bullpen (1.84 ERA with one homer allowed in 27 appearances covering 49 innings) but has been roughed up in six starts (6.32 ERA with six homers in 31 1/3 innings). Overall, he has whiffed 9.7 per nine while posting a 3.59 ERA and 2.77 FIP; he has stifled righties (.177/.199/.244 with zero homers in 171 PA) but been raked over the coals by lefties (.269.333/.470 in 147 PA).
In the meantime, Lincecum will pitch out of the bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning, a role reminiscent of the one in which he flourished in October 2012. In five relief appearances totaling 13 innings that fall, he posted a 17/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio, allowing just one run. He has just two regular season relief appearances in his career, including a 14th-inning save against the Phillies back on July 22, a date that marks the point of inflection between his brief run of dominance and his more recent struggles.
While the Giants' bullpen has been among the NL's best, their rotation has been a sore spot for most of the season. Among the original starting five, only Tim Hudson (2.99 ERA, 115 ERA+) and Madison Bumgarner (3.17 ERA, 108 ERA+) have prevented runs at a better-than-average clip. Ryan Vogelsong (3.78 ERA, 91 ERA+) has been subpar, and both Matt Cain (4.18 ERA, 82 ERA+, and now done for the year) and Lincecum (74 ERA+) have been dreadful. Jake Peavy has delivered a 3.18 ERA (109 ERA+) in six starts since being acquired from the Red Sox, but that showing has come amid Lincecum’s collapse and a 4.87 August ERA from Hudson.
General manager Brian Sabean still has five days before the Aug. 31 waiver deadline to trade for a starter who could help the team for a playoff push. Surprisingly, Sabean didn't put in a claim on Bartolo Colon, whose solid performance (3.82 ERA, 3.35 FIP, 68 percent quality start rate) is offset by his age (41) and cost for next season ($11 million). That said, he passed through waivers unclaimed, meaning that he now can be traded anywhere. Also known to have cleared waivers is Houston's Scott Feldman, though his combination of performance (4.34 ERA, 4.36 FIP) and price ($18 million in 2015-16) makes him less appealing.
For that matter, the same can be said for Lincecum, who's still owed about $3 million for this year plus $18 million for next year; the Giants aren't likely to offload much of that salary even if they straighten him out and trade him elsewhere this winter. But that's a problem for another day. Via the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the team has a 57.3 percent chance at reaching the postseason, so any incremental gain they can muster from shaking up their rotation — whether via an outside addition, a revamped Lincecum, or Petit — would greatly improve their chances. Time is running short, so they'll have to hope that one way or another, they'll soon find a solution.