Tim Lincecum barely resembles the pitcher who won back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008 and '09. (Jeff Chiu/AP)
Both are former Cy Young winners, both pitch for the same team and both are currently underperforming as they head toward free agency. But despite their similarities, Barry Zito and Tim Lincecum are facing two starkly different futures.
On Wednesday night, the Giants called upon Zito to start for the first time this month, and he failed to deliver, getting rocked for six runs in 3 2/3 innings by the Red Sox in a game that turned into 12-1 laugher. It was the kind of performance that got the 35-year-old lefty relegated to the bullpen nearly three weeks ago in the first place -- even with injuries to the San Francisco rotation -- and it may have been his last shot at breaking back into the starting five, even in a lost season for the defending world champions.
Zito has made 21 starts for the Giants, but since pitching reasonably well for the first six weeks of the season, his performance has hit the skids. Only two of his last 15 starts were quality starts. On the heels of a streak where he lasted at least five innings just once in five outings, he was exiled to the bullpen, where his performance has hardly improved. He has a 9.89 ERA in nine starts on the road this year, and given his 5.63 ERA overall (and 7.03 mark since May 8), the question isn't so much what the team will do once his seven-year, $126 million contract is up at the end of this season, but whether he'll even finish the season on the roster.
The Giants have gotten very little for a contract that ranked as the largest ever for a pitcher when it was signed, and which still ranks eighth among pitchers according to Cot's Contracts. The contrast between Zito's performance in Oakland, where he won the 2002 AL Cy Young award and was part of a "big three" with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder -- anchoring the Moneyball-era A's during a seven-year stretch when the club won four division titles and one wild card -- is striking:
Both of those stints include partial seasons; Zito debuted for Oakland on July 22, 2000, and threw 92 2/3 innings that season; and with the Giants in 2011 he was limited by a foot sprain to 53 2/3 innings. But accounting for those smaller workloads still doesn't mask his across-the-board decline; relative to the league average, his ERA is 38 percent worse than it was in his days in green and gold. After pitching at least 213 innings in each of his six full seasons in Oakland, he hasn't topped 200 even once in San Francisco, despite making at least 32 starts in five of his seven seasons. Only once has he been worth more than 2.0 WAR as a member of the Giants (2.6 in 2009), and three times he's been below replacement level; this year, he's at a staggering, MLB-worst −2.1. That makes him the game's least valuable pitcher during a year in which he's making $20 million. While salaries have continued to skyrocket since Zito signed, one enduring lesson from his deal is this: Don't invest $18 million a year in a pitcher who doesn't miss bats with consistency.
Zito's perennial underperformance didn't prevent the Giants from winning two World Series during his tenure. While he didn't make the postseason roster in 2010, he was a key part of last year's title run. He pitched a crucial 7 2/3 shutout innings in a 5-0 San Francisco win in Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals when the Giants were down 3-games-to-1, and followed that performance up with 5 2/3 innings of one-run ball in the World Series opener against the Tigers. Pennant flags fly forever, and if you told 30 general managers that they'd come away with two championships for every $100 million deal they handed out, baseball's supply of pens would run out of ink for all of the contract signings.
Lincecum once seemed a shoo-in for a nine-figure contract (more on that below) but now a more curious fate awaits him. His two-year, $40.5 million deal expires at season's end and the two-time NL Cy Young winner's performance on that high-dollar, short-term deal has actually been worse than Zito's over that span: a 4.88 ERA and -2.5 WAR in 2011 and '12, compared to his teammate's 4.73 ERA and -1.9 WAR, with much of the difference due to a larger workload (339 innings to 304 1/3). Digging a bit deeper -- because the result is still somewhat counterintuitive given their contrasting strikeout rates (9.2 for Lincecum to 5.7 for Zito) -- when you include unearned runs both are identical at 5.15 runs allowed per nine, and Lincecum has pitched in the slightly easier selection of ballparks (a weighted average park factor of 87.8 for him compared to 89.1 for Zito).
Like Zito, Lincecum rose to the occasion during last year's postseason run, albeit in different fashion. Though his lone start was a 4 2/3 inning dud in the NLCS game preceding Zito's gem, he threw 13 innings of one-run ball with a 17/2 strikeout-to-walk ratio out of the bullpen, a performance that not only raised the question of whether his future is as a reliever, but also whether other managers should emulate the way San Francisco's Bruce Bochy used him in the middle innings.
Lincecum has actually pitched considerably better this year than last, cutting his ERA from 5.18 to 4.53 and his walk and homer rates from 1.1 and 4.4 per nine to 0.9 and 3.5. Even so, the 29-year-old righty has been roughed up for a 5.40 ERA in six starts since tossing a 148-pitch no-hitter against the Padres on July 13. He gave up nine hits and eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings in his first start after the no-no, which exemplifies the inconsistency he has shown all season. Underlying all of this is a struggle to maintain his unorthodox delivery, one that has contributed to his fastball velocity falling 2.3 mph since 2011, from 93.1 to 90.8.
When his back-to-back Cy Young awards (2008-2009) were still fresh in memory, Lincecum sidestepped the possibility of a long-term deal with the Giants, choosing not to sign a reported five-year, $100 million offer. That would have been similar to the five-year, $112.5 million extension to which the team signed Matt Cain last April. (Cain was offered more more money because he was free-agent-eligible while Lincecum was still in his two final years of arbitration eligibility). The two sides went the two-year route instead, and for what it's worth, Lincecum has said he has no regrets about that decision.
The Giants will almost certainly make a one-year qualifying offer to Lincecum so as to at least get a compensatory draft pick if he departs as a free agent, but the extent to which they truly desire to retain him is unknown. They held off trading him at the July 31 deadline, a move that might have required him to waive a previously unreported limited no-trade clause; the Tigers, with their bullpen in turmoil, were said to be interested in him as a reliever.
The possibility of a full-time move to the bullpen is one to which Lincecum has said he's open. Back in June, he told CSN Bay Area's Andrew Baggarly, "If my career takes that turn I'm definitely open to changes, especially if it's beneficial to the team I'm playing for." Such a move would likely lessen the average annual value of his next deal, particularly since the day of the eight-digit salary for closers appears to have passed; of the 10 pitchers who have averaged at least $10 million a year over at least one deal, only the contracts of Jonathan Papelbon and Rafael Soriano will still be in effect following Mariano Rivera's retirement at season's end. Without the encumbrance of a lost draft pick via the qualifying offer, a switch to closing could entice more teams to consider the mercurial Lincecum, though with it, he could find his options limited.