The Giants will roll into the 2015 season with Tim Lincecum as their fifth starter, but are the defending world champions making a mistake?
With three World Series titles over the last five years, the Giants have earned quite a bit of goodwill with their fans over the past half-decade. Accordingly, they have the luxury of experimenting with decisions that would normally be received with unbridled criticism by the franchise’s passionate fan base. Say, for example, handing a rotation spot to a pitcher who has been woefully ineffective over the last three seasons.
To say that Tim Lincecum has been a shadow of his former self since 2012 would be an understatement. The former Cy Young winner has posted a negative Wins Above Replacement in each of the last three seasons, and among the 123 starters with at least 300 innings pitched since 2012, Lincecum has the lowest combined WAR (-3.0). For most pitchers, one or two years floundering below replacement-level production would constitute not only a permanent demotion from the rotation, but also an outright release. But somehow, the Giants have overcome the downfall of their former ace to win two championships.
So after Lincecum spent this offseason re-connecting with his father and personal pitching coach as a last-ditch effort to clean up his mechanics and discover his former glory, Giants manager Bruce Bochy strongly hinted at the beginning of spring training that his one-time ace was a strong favorite to reclaim the rotation spot he lost late last summer.
For a short period in 2014, it seemed as though The Freak had found his mojo again. He no-hit the Padres in late June and entered the All-Star break with a 3.66 ERA. Sure, San Diego fielded the worst offense in the majors by a wide margin (and batted .171 in June, the lowest team batting average for a month in modern baseball history). But any team would gladly take a no-hitter and a sub-4.00 ERA from its No. 5 starter.
But in the dog days of summer, the bottom fell out again. During a span of four starts in late July and early August, Lincecum's ERA rose from 3.61 to 4.51. By September, he was out of San Francisco’s rotation, and made just one appearance in the playoffs. Lincecum ended up with a 4.74 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP, both upticks from an already mediocre 2013. His -0.67 WAR was the fifth-worst mark among all pitchers with at least 140 innings pitched last year.
The man who took Lincecum’s rotation slot last year, Yusmeiro Petit, was comparably excellent in his six starts to close the season, with a solid 3.93 ERA with 46 strikeouts and just five walks in 36.2 innings. Beyond Petit, it seemed likely that Ryan Vogelsong would retain his starting gig from last season after re-upping with the Giants on a one-year, $4 million deal in January.
But thanks to a generous two-year, $35 million extension handed to Lincecum by general manager Brian Sabean last offseason, there’s little doubt the three-time strikeout king will stay on San Francisco’s payroll for all of this season. And since he’s being paid starter’s money, the last spot in the defending champs’ rotation appears to be Lincecum’s to lose.
Lincecum is back in spring training with a refined windup and his old, familiar mullet-style haircut, and his early bullpen sessions have drawn praise from his battery mates. But rave reviews during spring training are worth a dime a dozen when seemingly every player is in the "best shape of his life." What would truly help is if the diminutive righthander could rediscover the blazing mid-90s fastball that, combined with his diving off-speed offerings, made him such a terror to face in his All-Star days. According to pitch-by-pitch information from SportsData, Lincecum’s average fastball velocity didn’t even scrape 90 mph last season.
Unfortunately, baseball history is littered with starters who declined along with their fastball velocity. The same cannot be said of pitchers who suddenly reversed that trend and returned to their former glory. If Lincecum is intent on doing that, he has a long road ahead of him.
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