Tim Lincecum’s Last Best Chance

What you probably already know is that next winter’s free agent starting pitching crop has the potential to be historic, not only due to the amount of talent currently unsigned beyond 2015 but for the hundreds of millions of dollars they’ll surely command. With the obvious caveat that extensions for some of these guys are possible before they hit the market, just bask in the names entering the final years of their contracts.

There’s David Price, and Jeff Samardzija, and Johnny Cueto. Over there, you’ve got Rick Porcello and Mark Buehrle and Doug Fister. Next to them, Jordan Zimmermann and Yovani Gallardo and Scott Kazmir. Say hi, Mike Leake and Hisashi Iwakuma and Mat Latos, and also Justin Masterson and Kyle Lohse. There’s Bud Norris and Ian Kennedy and Wei-Yin Chen out there as well, to say nothing of the near-certainty that Zack Greinke exercises that opt-out.

It’s a simply stunning collection of names, and it’s going to make the July trading season fascinating, as well as provide Philadelphia even more incentive to move Cole Hamels while they can. Lefties, righties, young, old, flamethrowers, junkballers, whatever you want in a pitcher, you’ll be able to find it on the menu.

Oh, and there’s also Tim Lincecum. Hi, Tim Lincecum.

It’s still a weird feeling, I think. It’s not news that Lincecum is hardly the elite starter he once was, but it’s still a little jarring to realize that as things currently stand, he’s going to be absolutely buried in next year’s market. It seems like there’s going to be easily 15 better starting pitchers out there, and maybe more. How buried? Well, obviously we can’t know without knowing what he’s going to do this year, and despite all the stories about how he’s reconnected with his dad/pitching coach and that his fastball “had bite” in batting practice and that Casey McGehee thinks his deception is back, you know what sparkling spring training reviews are worth.

There’s only one bit of news that matters for Lincecum this spring, and Bruce Bochy delivered it when camp opened:

The Giants won’t have many bench or bullpen spots open this spring, and it turns out there won’t be a competition for a rotation spot, either.

Manager Bruce Bochy said Wednesday morning that Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit will be in the bullpen, setting the stage for Tim Lincecum to return to the rotation.

That’s how the Giants plan to resolve a seven-man rotation issue that arose when they brought back both Jake Peavy and Vogelsong to go with the returning Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Hudson, Petit, and Lincecum. While Eno Sarris asked pitching coach Dave Righetti about the possibility of piggybacking the starters, it doesn’t sound all that likely, and may make sense more in practice than in theory — it’s hard to leave the manager with an otherwise shorthanded bullpen all the time. While Lincecum probably profiles best as a reliever at this point, the Giants seem committed to giving him yet another chance to work it out.

Over the last three seasons (min. 500 innings), Lincecum has the fourth-worst FIP-, the fourth-worst BB%, and the worst ERA-. There’s something to be said for being enough of a pitcher to even survive long enough to be allowed to throw that many innings, but that probably says more about the Giants’ noted loyalty to their core players, in some cases seen as egregiously so. In this particular instance, retaining all seven members of their 2014 rotation not only leads to obvious questions about age, since six are in their 30s, but may also force the team to cut loose an otherwise useful reliever like George Kontos or Jean Machi in order to shift two extra starters to the bullpen.

Nonetheless, Lincecum gets that extra chance, earned or not, for as long as he can hold onto it, and you wonder if any other team would be willing to give him another chance in the rotation if he doesn’t show a considerable rebound this season. He’s a purported strikeout pitcher who’s missing fewer bats — a career-low 19.9% last year, even as baseball sets repeated strikeout records. He’s allowing fewer flyballs, down to a career-low 29.6% in 2014, but allowing more of them to leave the yard. Of the 48 Giants pitcher-seasons of at least 150 innings since they moved into AT&T Park in 2000, Lincecum’s last three seasons account for 75% of the four highest HR/FB marks. Given his Seattle heritage, it sounds entirely too easy to say that he’s got Mariner written all over him, but with a long-ball problem like that, it becomes difficult to find appropriate homes.

But what is he going to take with him into free agency? With the obvious caveat that projections are just that, his numbers are an interesting mix. Steamer likes him a little. ZiPS doesn’t really much at all. The Fans come in right in the middle, expecting a 4.07 / 3.93 ERA / FIP. That’s not great. It’s not necessarily terrible, either.

There’s only so much you can do with ERA & FIP, but let’s start with that. Let’s say that Lincecum does indeed have the season the Fans think, reinforced a little more by being the rough midpoint of Steamer and ZiPS. Does that seem unreasonable? It’s better than he’d done in 2014, but worse, FIP-wise, than he’d been in 2013, and it’s not like he wasn’t already well into his decline then. Maybe, but this is all for argument here as we wait for the spring to really get going. It’s not like we’re going to do serious analysis of him striking out Billy Butler and Nate Freiman after allowing Ben Zobrist to double in a non-televised game on Tuesday. That would mean that he’d take into free agency two seasons that looked like this in ERA / FIP:

2012: 5.18 / 4.18
2013: 4.37 / 3.74
 4.74 / 4.31
(2015:) 4.07 / 3.93

That dotted line represents what he took into free agency — or very close to it, since he technically wasn’t eligible to sign with a new team yet — when he agreed to a two-year, $35 million extension in October of 2013. After one awful year and what looked like it might have been bounce back in 2013, the Giants gave him a surprisingly good deal.

The Giants were killed in most circles for that contract, and halfway through it, there’s little to indicate that they didn’t make a mistake. But that’s only part of the story, because they also dodged a bullet. Back in early 2012, Lincecum reportedly turned down an offer of “five years and more than $100 million,” per Jon Heyman, instead signing for two years and $40.5 million. Put together, Lincecum looks like he’s spurned that 5/$100+ million deal for four years and $76.5 million, plus whatever he can make on the market next winter.

If you’re trying to find a comp, it’s not necessarily appealing. I tried to find pitchers aged 27-32 over the last five years who got strikeouts like Lincecum did in 2014 and/or could be expected to in 2015 (so between 18%-22%), had a HR/FB of at least 10%, and walked at least 9% of batters. Basically, finding pitchers who miss bats but have trouble with walks and homers. Five non-Lincecum seasons appear.

C.J. Wilson did it in 2012, had a better season in 2013 by cutting down the walks and homers, then began his own collapse in 2014. James McDonald‘s career essentially ended after a shoulder injury, so we never saw what he would have followed up with. Edinson Volquez has been DFA’d, gambled upon, and ultimately enriched, a comparable to no man. J.A. Happ’s 2012 was atrocious, and now he’s hoping that Seattle is the place that helps him look better. Ian Kennedy is perhaps Lincecum’s best hope, because after a stellar 2011 and a good 2012, he moved past a lousy 2013 to have a productive 2014 — but he did so by suddenly finding new velocity.

We’re now onto three solid seasons of Lincecum disappointment, interrupted only by a pair of no-hitters that seemed as inexplicable as they were exhilarating. A year from now, Lincecum will be entering his age-32 season, and he’ll most likely be a half-decade off his last elite season. He might not even still be a starter, since the Giants have obvious backup plans in Vogelsong and Petit. It’s hard to envision him not getting at least a major league contract somewhere, a statement that I’m well aware could look foolish if he pulls a rabbit out of his hat. But that it’s even a thing that can be said with a straight face is still stunning. This rotation chance for Lincecum could be his last. It’s certainly not going to be easy out there next winter.

Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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David H
9 years ago

That’s a ton of pitchers listed at the top. Surely some of those guys are better off signing an extension than venturing into free agency with so much competition, no?

9 years ago
Reply to  David H

It’s like the prisoner dilemma. If they all go to the market, the market is crowded and they all get hurt. If half sign extensions and the other half go to the market, the ones that go to the market get the best of all possible outcomes, while the guys that sign an extension do better than if everyone went to the market, but worse than the guys who go to the market in the second scenario.

So, everyone benefits most if a few of the pitchers make the unselfish choice and give up their chance of a huge payday and sign an extension, which helps to uncrowd the market and benefit the guys who selfishly waited to be become free agents.

9 years ago
Reply to  Bip

Only if none of them gets hurt (xfingers no one gets hurt) or under perform. The whole list of names can, with rng, be changing very unexpectedly. If nothing else this season will be an AMAZING season to follow even if it’s an odd year for the Giants.