The final chapter to Tim Lincecum’s career as a San Francisco Giant could be coming to a close.
I warn you to put plenty of emphasis on the “could.” No one truly knows where Lincecum wants to land. He told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area in February that he’d like to stay in San Francisco for the duration of his career.
But do the math: It’s been eight months since Baggarly published that report. Yes, that’s a long time, and I’m no mind-reader, but I can speculate that past preferences erode over time. While Lincecum has dropped hints that he wants to return to San Francisco throughout the season, anything is pure speculation at this point.
Meanwhile, welcome back to the Tim Lincecum conundrum: A homegrown star, a San Francisco hero, a winner of two Cy Young awards and informally, somewhat of a “Rockstar.” Without much research, you could see why.
Then there’s the dark cloud: The well-documented velocity decline, rumors of a move to the bullpen and questions about his command.
Let’s first assess Lincecum’s season, and we’ll go from there.
The Velocity Decline
Going into detail here probably falls in the “useless” category. Lincecum’s dwindling fastball velocity has been a worn out topic. And I mean that. Google the topic, dig up past podcasts and radio shows. There’s an enormous pile of debate about it, so I’ll just give you the basics as a bit of a “refresher course.”
(Velocity readings courtesy of the indispensable FanGraphs)
2012: 90.4 (The red flag is unleashed)
2013: 90.2 (More of the same)
So there’s the decline that’s had baseball pundits across the world in a frenzy for a good part of the past two-or-so years.
Here we are, halfway through September, and the narrative that is Lincecum’s plummeting velocity has finally settled down. Of course this door will re-open in just a couple of months, when baseball’s crop of general managers gather for the Winter Meetings. It’s only natural when millions and millions of dollars are being tossed around.
As for Lincecum arsenal of off-speed pitches, well, he’s learning to cope with the fact that his electric fastball is probably not coming back…
Off-Speed Pitches: Still Very Effective
Let me assure you that Lincecum’s off-speed arsenal hasn’t left the building. The pitches that make up the platter have maybe lost a few ticks on the radar gun, but, unlike his heater, the effectiveness of his off-speed pitches hasn’t waned much at all.
We’ll start with his splitter/changeup/slider. Brooks Baseball specifically defines it as a splitter. FanGraphs fuses it with his changeup. Let’s just call it nasty (.164 opponents’ batting average), or adjectives of that sort.
Brooks Baseball (by the way of Baseball Prospectus) claims that Lincecum has thrown his splitter 663 times in 2013. Only Jorge De La Rosa and Hiroki Kuroda have spun off more.
Lincecum’s split doesn’t get much horizontal movement, but it gets plenty of downwards bite, which garners him the third-most whiffs in baseball, behind Jeff Samardzija and Ryan Dempster. Pretty good, I’d say.
Lincecum’s curveball isn’t quite as good as his split, nor is his slider. Heck, there aren’t many pitches that are better than his split. But both his Uncle Charlie and slider have yielded averages under .250–a soft .250, to boot.
Putting it all together, you get the eighth-most nastiness starting pitcher in baseball, at least by SwSr%‘s reckoning–a good measure of a pitcher’s overall nastiness, to put it in simple terms.
The Rest of the Market
There’s no other way to put it: The pickings for starting pitching-needy teams are slim.
Among the 16 qualified free-agent starters, the list of notables goes something like this (not including pitchers with a team or player option): A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana, Bartolo Colon, Jorge de La Rosa and Bronson Arroyo.
See an ace in that collection? I don’t. I see a few solid options with middle-of-the-rotation written all over them, sure–no one that I can circle as an ace, however.
One who likes to stretch the imagination could make a case for Garza. It’d be a pretty far-fetched argument, though.
Garza has struggled since the Cubs shipped him to Texas in July, and with him, you’re getting more “has the potential to be an ace” rather than, well, an actual ace. Slap the “injury prone” label on his back, and it becomes increasingly tougher to give him the nod.
Here’s a kicker of a question: Where does Lincecum rank in this low-upside market of starters? A very good question.
Well, a select group of advanced metrics tend to favor Lincecum. Those select metrics would be xFIP (Lincecum’s second in baseball among qualifiers) and SIERA (fourth). By those measures, Lincecum’s been very good; massive contract good. But his 4.40 ERA isn’t very good, and his 3.75 FIP is decent, so it all balances out to “meh.” Or, middle-the-pack.
Factors Lincecum has working in his favor: A strong pedigree, a somewhat decent finish to the season (3.80 ERA over last 10 starts), a couple of advanced stats that favor him and a slim market to choose from. We’ll see where that gets him.
To state the obvious: the Giants’ front office faces a tough decision.
General manager Brian Sabean would have it a heck of a lot easier if the Giants’ farm could produce a capable starter or two. It’d save him some coin and stress of searching the market for external options. Such a wish doesn’t seem to be in the cards, though.
Southpaw Edwin Escobar is a candidate to steal a rotation spot. Ty Blach, another lefty, is a long-shot candidate. But that’s about it. Top pitching prospects Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn still have at least another year, with Chris Stratton also in the mix.
So, with a not-so-flush market of starting pitchers, uncertainty if a youngster can step up during Spring Training and only two pitchers officially under contract for 2014, than, yeah, it’d be wise for the Giants to retain Lincecum.