Should reputation overrule recent performance?

It’s no secret that the saga of Tim Lincecum has been one of the most puzzling narratives of the 2012 season. Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, finds himself in the latter end of the worst season of his career. Granted, the worst season of Tim Lincecum’s career is an accolade many pitchers would strive for, but it has been a far cry from “The Freak” we’ve come to know and love.

The cause of his problems is wholly up in the air. The choice to abandon his slider early this season as well as a dip in velocity seemed to indicate an injury. As the season progressed, however, the velocity slowly crept back up and the slider made a return to his arsenal. There is still reason to be confused.

The Hardball Times’ Kyle Boddy investigated the matter and attributed much of Lincecum’s struggles to a drastic amount of weight loss which not only points to the decrease in velocity but also appears to have altered his unique mechanics. An increased side trunk tilt has given his delivery a much “looser” effect, and as a result may be causing the difficulty in locating his pitches.

Regardless of what has caused the decline, Lincecum’s handling has been an personnel question. The Giants have trotted Lincecum out all season, every fifth day, despite middling results. While a FIP of 4.18 and xFIP of 3.82 suggest that it hasn’t been nearly as terrible as some would have you believe, the fact is it has been difficult to watch. Lincecum has been visibly frustrated with his performance on the mound and many Giants fans, in turn, have been frustrated with the team’s refusal to diminish his role.

Consequently, it was no great surprise when Lincecum was held out of the Giants’ playoff rotation in favor of Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.

Interesting in this scenario is how much players—pitchers or fielders—are owed based on reputation.

Lincecum has been the top pitcher in the National League twice in his career, twirled a gem in Game Five of the 2010 World Series to clinch the Giants’ first championship since 1954 and has been the face of the franchise since his rookie season.

If you’re wondering who has meant the most to the post-Barry Bonds Giants, look no further than Tim Lincecum. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt with his franchise during a rough year, it has to be Lincecum.

The easy juxtaposition in this scenario is that of Lincecum and Barry Zito. In Zito, the Giants have had an albatross of a contract to match the burden he has placed on their rotation since joining San Francisco in 2007. His WAR of 2.0 in 2009 has been the best season Zito can lay claim to since signing a 13-year, $126 million deal after the 2006 season.

We’re all familiar with the horror stories.

The irony sets in, however, when we look at what Zito has done this year compared to what he did in the Giants’ 2010 championship season, when he was ultimately left off the postseason roster.

In 2012, Zito will start Game Four of the Giants’ NLDS series with the Reds on Wednesday afternoon even though he has been worse in 2012 than he was in 2010, when the Giants had a roster with less pitching depth than the current squad. In 2010 Zito posted an FIP of 4.25, an xFIP of 4.58 and a WAR of 1.6. In 2012, he has posted a FIP of 4.49, xFIP of 4.92 and WAR of 0.8.

To follow up my earlier question of what we owe those with impressive reputations, why give Barry Zito the benefit of the doubt through five terrible seasons?

Lincecum hasn’t been the Lincecum of old, which is an entirely obvious and fair point. However, it doesn’t make sense to punish Lincecum for not being able to reach the standard he set so high for pitchers all over baseball, let alone himself. Moreover, the Reds have hit left-handed pitchers (Zito) much more effectively than right-handers (Lincecum) n 2012.

Against left-handed pitchers the Reds are the sixth most prolific team in baseball and third among National League squads, boasting a team wRC+ of 104. Against right handers, only the Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners were less effective than the Reds’ wRC+ of 87. Essentially, the Giants have not only opted to move the better pitcher to the bullpen, but also the pitcher with the more favorable match-ups.

To the Giants’ credit, Lincecum appears to be adjusting to his role nicely. In Game Two he pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just a single hit and striking out a pair of batters. On a per-inning basis, he looked as solid as he has all season. However, one is left wondering if perhaps that is a sign he should have been toeing the rubber to start the game in the first place.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

With greatness in baseball comes expectation—expectation that has been earned through on-field exploits. While many players can claim to have had a more impressive season than Tim Lincecum has had this year, few pitchers, if any, who can claim that they have brought more to their organization over the past five seasons than Lincecum has to the Giants.

Forming a lineup is a process that not only consists of activating the names who give you the best chance at success at the times they are most likely to be successful, but also managing egos and reputations to ensure that those who have come to expect something are satisfied. It may not always be a particularly pleasing way of doing business, but it’s the way each workplace functions in some capacity.

Regardless of Tim Lincecum’s struggles in 2012, he ought to be a starter for the San Francisco Giants this postseason. Not only is he plenty qualified, but nobody has done it better for the past half decade. The season hasn’t matched the reputation, but not many modern seasons have or will.

References & Resources
All stats cited come courtesy of Fangraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
11 years ago

You mentioned that although he hasn’t been that terrible, it has been difficult to watch. I wonder if that factors in to the decision – the Giants want to avoid the “here we go again” effect on teammates, fans and coaches if and when he starts struggling early in a start.

11 years ago

This is why I feel that it is very hard for writers to write on teams that they don’t follow closely, they don’t know a lot of details intimately that fans of the team do.

Zito may have similar numbers between 2010 and 2012 – that is a meme I’ve seen all over – but that ignores the fact that he was totally lost as a pitcher in September 2010 while he was on a roll (for him) in September 2012. 

People are shocked because of all the bad press Zito gets, but he’s actually pretty good most of the time.  It is when he is bad that his overall numbers go kerplooey.  His ERA in 2010 was under 4 most of the season until the last week of August, but his slide actually began in August and continued to the end of the season, he had a 6.66 ERA in his last 11 games, 3.35 ERA before that.

Calling his five seasons terrible is easy to do but incorrect, in my opinion.  They are terrible – given his salary.  Truly terrible.

If you take the salary and those expectations out and just look at the numbers, he hasn’t been half bad (just haven’t been half good).  His first season he was OK, even good, mid 4 ERA.  Second season – horrible.  Third and fourth seasons, I think that he was good.  Looking at his ERA- for those seasons – 102, 120, 98, 108 – he was basically around average in years 1, 3, 4, and average is considered good in sabermetrics today.

His fifth season was terrible, but I would qualify it.  Most baseball fans don’t know this but Zito was in a horrific car accident (totalled) literally just before his first start in 2011.  It was a high speed collision where the other car ran a red light, and Zito reported that had he not stepped on it at the last second, it would have been a head-on collision.  Zito actually pitched well for a couple of starts before the bad start came, then his first DL of his career.  He later came back, had a couple of good starts before the bad starts, and then his second DL that basically shut him down for the season.

Not that I totally blame the Giants training staff, because you don’t run into many instances of baseball players in horrific car crashes then playing baseball, but as someone who has been sideswiped by a car running a red light, I was surprised the Giants didn’t DL him immediately after the accident instead of letting him start the first game of the season.  I was pretty banged up and not feeling good, though nothing was broken.  Of course, I’m no professional athlete either, but the human body is not that much different in a car crash, in my opinion.  Given that he was totally healthy before and healthy all this season, I believe that his injuries in 2011 were related to his car accident, that there were issues with his body that were not detectable and/or would be fine for regular folks doing regular work, but not for high performance athletes putting extra-ordinary strains on their bodies.  If I recall right, his DL injury was to his ankle.

And this season, he’s slightly below average again, per ERA-, but at 34YO, some decline is to be expected.  But I would not characterize his season as “terrible”.  For the Giants #5 starter, his performance was actually pretty good, much better than most teams’ #5 starter.

And, FYI, if you are going to quote any FIP numbers for Zito, you should caveat that FIP assumes regression to the mean for a pitcher’s BABIP and Zito’s BABIP has almost always been below the mean, meaning his FIPs are all wrong and does not represent his true performance (.288 this season vs. .300 in NL; .273 for his career, .298 for MLB)  Tangotiger has noted previously that once a starting pitcher has accumulated around 7 seasons worth of IP, he has pitched enough to conclude whether his BABIP is going to regress to mean or if it is significantly below mean.

Ooops, hit length limits…

11 years ago

Meanwhile, Lincecum was actually pretty much performing at his normal regular self (only much wilder) in the second half, in fact he was leading the rotation most of the second half in ERA, until he final starts of the season, where he struggled.

Bochy made the call that Lincecum could help the Giants more out of the pen than as a starter.

I too found that decision a bit baffling until I had an epiphany yesterday.  Most fans are not keenly aware of this, but Giants lost their closer – The Beard – in the first few games of the season and never really replaced him. The Giants are currently using a closer-by-committee setup, though Romo has mostly been getting the saves opportunities, unless there is a tough lefty to get out, then Lopez is usually called in.

Putting Lincecum in the bullpen gives the Giants great flexibility now, which is something Bochy loves.  If a starter loses it early or just needs replacing early, Lincecum can come in and pitch multiple innings.  That’s especially important when Zito is starting. 

But Zito more often than not is OK and don’t need an early reliever, which then allows Bochy the opportunity to throw all of his relievers via platoon matchups in order to close out the game in 9 innings.  Then, if the game should go into extra innings, he can throw out Lincecum to pitch (he warms up with very minimal warm up pitches) 4 or more innings while the other team is scrambling with their relievers or starters who are not used to relieving (Lincecum relieved extensively in college).

In addition, should Bochy needs his closer-by-committee to take care of business earlier than the 9th, Lincecum can come in as the closer.

So I see your point about the risk of not starting Lincecum, and especially of starting Zito in his place, but isn’t this type of move like what people have been writing about the new playoffs, or rather, the one game play-in, where the team could manage the roster differently regarding pitchers because it is only one game? 

A five game series is basically a series of must win games for one or both of the teams.  Both teams must win the first game because, if not, the losing team must win the second game because otherwise, they are already one game away from elimination.  Either way, game three is must win for either team, because either one team is down 0-2 and must win, or both are 1-1 and must win, or you will be down 1-2 and one game away from elimination.  And so on.

Using Lincecum as the reliever is a risky move, and not a move one would have done given his performance in previous seasons.  But as noted above, his FIP was not that bad, but not that good.  And with a rubber arm that can recover within a day (he long tosses every day, foul pole to foul pole), he can be used almost every day, potentially, since there is a travel rest day between the two cities.  And as the Freak, he came into the game the other day having thrown maybe a handful of pitches, where many pitchers need a dozen or two pitchers to do that. 

He could long relieve if necessary, but most times, he can be saved for later leveraged situations, including closer duties, where there would be almost no need to hurry to get him ready, he would pop up, throw a few and be ready.  And as a reliever, he won’t need to hold back anything, so he should be able to throw with greater velocity and be more like his old self. 

It is a head-scratcher, given his past, but using him in this manner yields a lot of competitive advantages.

And given his physical issues, as noted in the Boddy article linked, would it not be reasonable to believe that Lincecum might be more physically tired than usual, than other athletes whose bodies are in better fitness?  That’s something that only Bochy and the team staff would be aware of.  Maybe Bochy made this call partly because of that.  He’s not as young as he used to be (28 YO, and most commentators thought he didn’t have the body to last that long as a starter), didn’t throw as many innings as before but still had 3,299 pitches thrown this season.

Lastly, I would note that Bochy made the decision for Zito to start over Lincecum in this series.  We don’t know what he would do in future series, if any.  Lincecum had not pitched well in his one start in Cincy, and GAB favors LHB in terms of homeruns given up.  He also has not done well against the Nats but have dominated the Cards previously.  If the Giants can do what had never been done before, it would be interesting to know what Bochy would have done next, particularly against the Cards.

11 years ago

OGC looks like a genius in retrospect.  With people worrying about Vogelsong’s late season and well as a potential bad Zito start, having a good early replacement in do-or-die game 3 might be more leverage than the game 4 start that might not happen, and also allows the early pinch-hitter, esp. how the Giants had struggled with the bat the first 3 games.