San Francisco Giants: Why Tim Lincecum Deserves to Remain a Starter


May 18, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) reacts after committing a balk during the third inning against the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Lincecum will be a free agent after this season, and his career could take a turn in multiple directions.

Lincecum, the owner of a 4-5 record and 4.75 ERA this season, could bolt from the San Francisco Giants after the season, when his contract expires. He hasn’t pitched well over the last two years, as his ERA in 2012 was 5.18.

However, the quirky former ace delivered out of the bullpen in the 2012 postseason, as he posted a glistening 0.69 ERA in the bullpen. Overall, Lincecum’s postseason ERA was a stellar 2.55.

Lincecum’s bullpen dominance gave fans hope that he would revive his Cy Young form in 2013, and while he has put everything together for a few nice outings, he has been inconsistent. His average of six innings per start and his 1.39 WHIP could improve, but his 9.3 K/9 ratio and .249 opponent batting average are solid.

Can Lincecum, who is coming off of a seven-inning masterpiece against a potent Toronto Blue Jays lineup, resurrect his career as a starter? Let’s take a look.

Lincecum has what it takes to be an effective starter for years to come.

Over the course of the last two years, Lincecum is 14-20 with a miserable 5.06 ERA.

June 4, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) delivers a pitch against the Toronto Blue Jays during the second inning at AT

However, he has shown signs of improvement this year. Lincecum has pitched into the seventh inning and given up one run or fewer in three starts, and he has a 3-0 record and 0.44 ERA in those starts.

In addition, Lincecum has fought through seven innings five times, and he has pitched into the seventh inning six times. He has given up zero runs in three starts, and he’s recorded an out in the fifth inning in all of his starts.

While that may not seem like a huge deal, it’s worth noting that he had six starts in 2012 in which he failed to record an out in the fifth inning. So, there is noticeable improvement.

Lincecum has done a good job avoiding the big inning, and he has done a nice job giving the Giants a chance to win. San Francisco is 7-5 in Lincecum’s outings, and the Giants have a higher winning percentage in his starts (.583) than they do in other hurler’s starts (.511).

Some of Lincecum’s stats, like his WHIP, are horrendous, but he has shown flashes of Cy Young-esque dominance. Consistency is all he needs.

I expect Lincecum, who has shown noticeable improvements since 2012, to get himself straightened out as a starter. He has to command his pitches consistently and avoid location mistakes, but everything is in place for him.

Fastball velocity and command is the biggest key, and if Lincecum, whose average fastball velocity was 91.1 miles per hour (MPH) in April, can command his fastball, everything will come into place. Opponents are hitting .319 off of his fastball, but his changeup has been lethal. Opponents are hitting .159 and slugging .261 on Lincecum’s changeup.

If Lincecum can’t command his fastball, he may end up trying to regain his command in relief. However, he has everything it takes to be a solid starter for years to come.

But is the bullpen better for him?

In the playoffs, Lincecum absolutely ripped apart two potent offensive attacks in the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers.

Lincecum brought back memories of his Cy Young awards and 2010 World Series dominance with two outstanding relief performances against the Tigers in the 2012 World Series. He twirled 4.2 no-hit innings in two games, and his stats were amazing.

But if you go beyond the basic numbers, you’ll see something quite shocking.

Oct 24, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) delivers a pitch during the sixth inning of game one of the 2012 World Series against the Detroit Tigers at AT

Lincecum’s average fastball speed this year is 90.79 MPH, which is decent. However, in Game 3 of the World Series, Lincecum’s average fastball velocity was 92.86 MPH.

His average fastball velocity in the World Series was 92.47 MPH, and partly because of that, Lincecum didn’t give up a hit in the World Series.

In Game 3, opponents whiffed on eight pitches. Lincecum threw 32, meaning that opponents swung and missed on a baffling 25 percent of his pitches. On May 12, in Lincecum’s best start of 2013, he also forced eight whiffs.

And he threw 111 pitches.

Lincecum did manage to generate 14 whiffs on 95 pitches against the San Diego Padres on April 20, but he hasn’t been as effective in that regard out of the rotation.

It’s unrealistic to expect someone to generate 15 whiffs in 64 pitches consistently, which is what Lincecum did in the Fall Classic. However, there’s no doubt that Lincecum has the potential to be a tremendous inning-eater out of the bullpen. He doesn’t have to pace himself in relief, which is a major factor.

His sample size was small in the bullpen, but he did have a poor NLCS start sandwiched in between his five eye-popping relief appearances. If Lincecum is moved to the bullpen, he would be able to throw faster, which would help him make up for location mistakes.

In addition, his off-speed stuff would be even more effective. Opponents have hit .185 off of his slider and change-up (combined) this year, and if Lincecum could manage to combine that dominance with an effective heater, he could be one of the best relievers in baseball.

However, there’s no guarantee that Lincecum would become Bob Gibson if he pitched in relief. If he turned out to struggle in relief, it would be harder to switch him back to a starter.

Plus, even if Lincecum is converted and succeeds, his team could be missing out on quality starts.

What’s the better option?

Both options work for Lincecum, who proved that he is willing to do what his team needs when he stepped into a middle relief role for the playoffs. However, he should remain in the rotation for at least the remainder of this season.

Apr 20, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) pitches during the seventh inning against the San Diego Padres at AT

At times, Lincecum has struggled to limit his pitch count, but he’s been able to go fairly deep in games. Lincecum has thrown 72 innings in the young season, and he’s been able to pitch into the seventh inning frequently.

On April 20, Lincecum averaged a meager 4.75 pitches per out and made it through 6.2 innings with only 95 pitches. He threw 61.1 percent of those pitches for strikes, made good pitches with runners on base and didn’t allow a run, which is exactly what a starter needs to do.

With Lincecum’s devastating stuff, it’s puzzling that his ERA has been so high. The most logical explanation is that opponents are torturing Lincecum when he throws his fastball, as they are slugging .517 and hitting .319 off of Lincecum’s worst pitch.

However, that’s something that can be fixed.

Opponents have only hit 0.7 percent of Lincecum’s fastballs out of the park this year, and less than 6 percent of Lincecum’s heaters have resulted in line drives. In addition, he has thrown a respectable 61.7 percent of his fastballs for strikes.

Command isn’t just about finding the strike zone, but the fact that Lincecum is pounding the zone with his fastballs is encouraging. He can definitely command his fastballs and force weak contact, which he has occasionally been able to do.

If he can continue to avoid giving up home runs, everything else should fall into place.

Once Lincecum’s fastball, which touched 93.4 MPH on Tuesday, starts to benefit him, he’ll return to Cy Young form. His secondary pitches have all been dominant, and the result has been solid.

Lincecum’s expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP), which is a stat that basically puts a pitcher’s performance into an ERA-like number based on factors that he can control, is a solid 3.48. Luck hasn’t been on Lincecum’s side, but he’s not going to continue to be this unlucky.

The petite right-hander is durable, and there’s no doubt that he will be able to hold up as a starter. Increased velocity is a bonus that will come if he pitches in the bullpen, but Lincecum doesn’t need it to succeed.

Opponents have either slugged below .300 or hit less than .220 on three of Lincecum’s pitches this year, and he’s going to keep that up. Lincecum definitely deserves to start for at least the remainder of the 2013 season, and he deserves to start in 2014 and in the future as well.

And, with the way he’s been pitching, he deserves to see good results for his stellar work.

All stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball.