On Sunday afternoon, Tim Lincecum gave up five runs in 5 2/3 innings against the Rangers, swelling his earned run average to an even 6.00 and suffering his National League-leading seventh loss of the season in just his 13th start. The Giants, who are five games behind the first place Dodgers in the NL West, have gone 2-11 in those games; had they gone even 7-6, comparable to their 17-16 record in Lincecum’s starts a year ago, they’d be tied for first place.
Lincecum has had his struggles before. Last year, he allowed 16 runs in 15 1/3 innings across three consecutive starts in early June, then posted a 2.24 ERA over the remainder of the season, In August 2010, he went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA in five starts, then rallied to pitch the Giants to a world championship. However, those two rough patches combined comprised eight starts. He’s now 13 starts and more than two months into the 2012 season and has delivered just two quality starts (and he walked nine men in those two outings). It is time for the Giants to act.
Looking beyond the results, the most significant changes in Lincecum’s performance this season have been declines in his velocity and control, both of which make one wonder if he has a possible shoulder injury. This spring, there was a lot of scuttlebutt about Michael Pineda’s lost velocity. Pineda, whom the Yankees acquired from the Mariners in the offseason, was getting good results in spring training, posting a 3.31 ERA and striking out 16 in 16 1/3 innings across his first five exhibition starts, but he had gone from being one of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball in 2011 to a pitcher struggling to keep his fastball in the low 90s in March. The velocity drop proved more significant as he opened the season on the disabled list and had season-ending labrum surgery on his pitching shoulder on May 1. In April, Roy Halladay’s loss of velocity raised a red flag. Halladay only lost one mile per hour off his average fastball, and eight of his first nine starts were quality, but he still wasn’t pitching at his previously established level. The velocity drop proved significant as he hit the disabled list with a strained shoulder at the end of May.
Lincecum has lost two miles per hour off his fastball from a year ago, has walked 4.7 men per nine innings -- an increase of more than a walk per nine innings from a year ago and two walks per nine innings from his second Cy Young award-winning season in 2009 -- and has the second worst ERA among all qualified pitchers in the National League. I find it difficult to believe that he’s not hurt, and I believe the time has come for the Giants to treat him as though he is. Lincecum is not doing the team any favors by taking the ball and getting lit up time and again, and if he is in pain, he's only exacerbating the problem. San Francisco needs to skip Lincecum’s next start and take that time to have his arm examined. If the doctors can’t find anything, perhaps the rest will help. If they find anything at all, no matter how minor, the Giants should put Lincecum on the disabled list, retroactive to Sunday.
The Giants' hesitation to act before now is understandable. Lincecum has struck out 77 men in 72 innings this season, he has always pulled out of his slumps before and he did turn in a quality start two turns ago (7 IP, 2 R, 6 K against the Diamondbacks, though with five walks mixed in). They also don’t have much in the way of organizational rotation depth. Beyond the current starting five, the only other pitcher to start a game for San Francisco this season was righty Eric Hacker, a 29-year-old minor league journeyman in his second stint with the Giants’ organization who owns a 4.76 career ERA at Triple-A. The Giants also have 27-year-old former Marlins prospect Yusmeiro Petit at Triple-A. Petit, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2009, has given up 50 home runs in 229 1/3 major league innings (two per nine innings), and has a 5.57 career ERA in the majors.
The idea of pulling two-time Cy Young award winner and franchise player like Lincecum from the rotation in favor of one of those two sounds crazy. Consider, though, that Hacker has made just one start for the Giants this year yet has only one fewer quality start than Lincecum this season, and that Petit’s 5.57 major league ERA and Hacker’s 4.76 Triple-A ERA are both lower than Lincecum’s current mark. Lincecum is pitching below replacement level, a level defined by pitchers like Hacker and Petit. What’s more, Hacker and Petit are pitching well for Fresno. The former is 9-2 with a 3.27 ERA, and the latter has posted a 3.21 ERA, 3.76 K/BB ratio, and 0.7 HR/9.
Lincecum has averaged just 5.5 innings per start his year, while San Francisco's bullpen has thrown fewer innings than that of any other team in baseball. If Hacker or Petit could hold the competition to three runs over five innings (a 5.40 ERA), something Lincecum has equaled or bettered just three times this season, they’d be doing more to put the Giants in a position to win than Lincecum has while giving the team and its ace time to figure out what’s really wrong with him, potentially creating an opportunity for the return of a fully-effective Lincecum in the second half of the season. It’s clear now that Lincecum isn’t going to snap out of this on his own. The Giants have to intervene.
-- By Cliff Corcoran