Does Lincecum Have A Future In The Bullpen?

Tim Lincecum pitched out of the bullpen again for San Francisco in their Game One victory over the Tigers. It’s starting to feel natural. Perhaps it’s because the Lincecum we’ve seen out of the bullpen bears a much starker resemblance to the Lincecum of lore than the one we’ve seen out of the rotation this season.

After rolling through 2.1 perfect innings (including five strikeouts) in Game One, Lincecum now owns a 0.84 ERA and 0.75 FIP out of the pen thanks to this fantastic line:

10.2 IP, 3 H, 0 HR, 1 R, 1 ER, 14 K, 1 BB

With Lincecum’s lone start a dud — 4.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 3 K in the Game Four NLCS loss to St. Louis — it’s time to ask the question (again): Does Tim Lincecum belong in the bullpen?

The idea popped up back in June when Bruce Bochy said he was considering such a move in the midst of Lincecum’s early season struggles. The concept has been around since before he reached the majors; as Keith Law wrote in a 2007 column asking who the next Joel Zumaya would be:

My vote goes to Giants prospect Tim Lincecum, drafted with the 10th pick last year out of the University of Washington. Throwing with a very unorthodox, over-the-top delivery, Lincecum cooks with gas at 96-97 mph when he’s used as a relief pitcher, with a very sharp 12-to-6 curveball as a complement to the heat. If the Giants convert him to the pen, he could come to the majors right now and contribute, with the potential to work as a multi-inning set-up guy because of his durability and effectiveness against righties and lefties.

The notion would have seemed absurd just a year ago. Lincecum was wrapping up a fourth straight season with at least 200 innings pitched, an ERA under 3.50 and a FIP under 3.20. Those four seasons along with his rookie campaign left a combined 1,028 innings under his wing entering his age 28 season, bringing us to why Lincecum was questioned as a starter in the first place. Again, from Law:

However, Lincecum’s size, unorthodox delivery, heavy workload — he threw relief in midweek games four times this spring, and threw eight or more innings seven times — and mediocre control all point toward a bullpen role in the pros.

Lincecum’s control was worse than mediocre this season, as his walk rate ballooned to 4.35. Lincecum labored to get through innings — his strand rate was a career low 67.8 percent and was forced out prior to the fifth inning on seven occasions.

The end result was a 5.18 ERA (137 ERA-) and a 4.18 FIP — a mark that may have been acceptable a few years ago but now results in a 112 FIP- in today’s run-starved game. We saw the issues in his NLCS start: struggles with control, long innings and elevated pitch counts as Lincecum walked three and needed 91 pitches to finish his 4.2 innings.

Generally speaking, a pitcher should be expected to lower his ERA (or FIP) by about a full run in a move from the rotation to the bullpen. Only facing opposing hitters once and the ability to throw 100 percent throughout the appearance give relievers a resource similarly talented starters don’t have.

Lincecum has shown no ERA-inflating issues with the big inning in the bullpen. One run less than his 2011 FIP would be 3.18, putting him in the above-average tier of relief pitchers. And although 180 innings of a 4.18 ERA would probably be worth more than a typical reliever workload (say, 70 innings) at 3.18, Lincecum would offer San Francisco a multiple-inning option, still capable of soaking up triple-digit inning totals over a full season.

Although the conventional non-Mariano Rivera reliever is restricted in his ability to impact the game, the fireman role offers far more potential. Tigers fireman and 1984 MVP Willie Hernandez represents the ceiling of such a role. Hernandez threw 140.1 innings with an average leverage index of 1.42 (1.47 at the time he entered the inning) in that MVP season; although he managed just 3.1 WAR, his impact was massive, as he racked up an incredible league-leading 8.58 WPA, the second highest mark for a pitcher since 1974 (Dwight Gooden recorded a 9.46 WPA in 1985).

Hernandez’s WPA was so much higher than his WAR because his team — a fantastic Tigers team that went on to win the World Series — consistently gave him close games to work multiple innings in. The Giants won’t be as good as the 1984 Tigers next season — that squad hit for a 115 wRC+; San Francisco managed a 99 mark this season — but they will have just claim to the title of early 2013 NL West favorites regardless of how the rest of this World Series finishes.

If the scouts who saw durability issues from heavy workloads and Lincecum’s relatively small frame are right and Lincecum’s body and arsenal are struggling to catch up with starting, Lincecum’s ceiling in this role could approach Hernandez’s tremendous 1984 season. The stress taken off his arm — and entire body, given his frantic delivery — could allow Lincecum’s velocity to return and allow him to pitch, at least on a per-inning basis, like the Lincecum who won the Cy Young award in 2008 and 2009. Those seasons saw Lincecum post ERA- and FIP- numbers around 60; Hernandez posted an ERA- of 49 and a FIP- of 65 as MVP.

A presumably front-running Giants team should have little trouble finding 70 to 80 games — Hernandez appeared in 80 — for Lincecum to work the same role he’s filled so well in the 2012 playoffs. The free agent pitching market is flush with mid-tier options to fill the rotation behind Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito; in addition, prospect Erik Surkamp will likely return from Tommy John surgery at some point in the first half of the season.

In the end, the decision will come down to how the Giants staff, both managerial and training, decides he will be able to handle the starting role. Even with the leveraged benefits of Lincecum in the fireman role, Tim Lincecum is most valuable as a successful starting pitcher.

But if something mechanical or physical points toward Lincecum’s issues as a starter repeating themselves in 2012, the Giants have another enticing option: Tim Lincecum, bullpen dynamo, just as he’s shown throughout the postseason.




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51 Responses to “Does Lincecum Have A Future In The Bullpen?”

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  1. Glenn DuPaul says:

    Tim Lincecum was one of the nastiest closers in Cape Cod Baseball League history… here’s his stat line from his 2005 summer on the Cape: 39.1 innings 68 strikeouts and 11 walks.

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    • shier says:

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      • Travis says:

        Shier, just because this site is about the study of rich men doesn’t mean most of us want to date one. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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  2. Eminor3rd says:

    This is sad. Cy Young Lincecum was so fun to watch.

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  3. snapper says:

    Not unless Lincecum wants to take a 65% paycut.

    At $20M he can only possibly be valuable as an elite SP. No way he agrees to go to the pen without failing as an SP one or two more years.

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    • DominicanRepublican says:

      Thus $20 mil is a sunk cost. It has no relevance at this point. What is relevant is how they can get max value out of the player they’ve already signed.

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      • Tim A says:

        The 20mm is sunk either way, but given his track record if he doesn’t want to convert to relief they won’t be able to force him. I know the players union would back him if he refuses a full time move to the pen. He has 4 very good years which is where that 20mm came from (turns out you weren’t just getting Cy seasons for league minimum), but he will be able to say that he is a starter and doesn’t want to become a reliever. I would say the only way this happens is if he bottoms out again, can’t start, and his only offers are for the pen. He won’t switch unless performance makes him, and lots of teams would take a 10mm flier on him bouncing back as a starter, so I don’t see it happening.

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    • Doug B says:

      he’s not an elite SP anymore. so that is moot.

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  4. Hurtlockertwo says:

    He could be in the bullpen, but would he take a pay cut to do so? No reliever is going to get $20 mill per year. If he turns it around next year as a starter he may be in line for a $20 million per year contract. I understand the Giants can do whatever they want with him, but would they since thay are already paying him starter money?

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    • Tim A says:

      Hi, I’m Tim Lincecum. I was offered 4/100 last spring and turned it down. Excuse me, but I need to go set my agents house on fire, thanks for nothing douche.

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  5. nope says:

    [insert Kyle Boddy article deconstructing every bad move Lincecum made last offseason and why it caused this year’s struggles]

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  6. kazinski says:

    Doesn’t make a bit of sense for the Giants or Lincecum next season. His trade value will be higher if he turns it around as a starter, and his FA value in 2014 too.

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  7. Krog says:

    This is probably not a realistic usage, but if he pitches 2-3 innings in 60-70 games he would have the workload of a starting pitcher.

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  8. Matt says:

    It’ll get ugly if they don’t at least start the year with him in the rotation. And if he does well as a multiple high leverage innings guy, there will be serious pressure to get him back in the rotation.

    Best bet is probably to just stick him back in the rotation in the spring. If he rebounds, great. If he has an ERA of 5+ in April and May again, then think about moving him.

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  9. dustygator says:

    Some thoughts

    1. It’s been noted repeatedly on broadcasts this postseason that Lincecum only needs 10-12 pitches to warm up. If that doesn’t make him the perfect fireman…

    2. To everyone saying the only way he could earn his salary at $20 million as a starter: if you split the difference between Hernandez’s WAR and WPA, you get 5.84. At $5M per win, that’s $29.2 M worth of production. If Lincecum gets used in that kind of role, he could absolutely be worth it.

    3. Using him as a fireman might reduce his market value, making it easier for the Giants to re-sign him. I’m guessing that the other 29 teams would be hesitant to give a multi-year $20M AAV contract to a 30 year old who hasn’t been a starter in over a year and was terrible the last season he was.

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    • AJP says:

      Building off your first point, I think for next year the Giants should experiment with a shorter warm up as well as pitching out of the stretch full time. Small sample size aside, it’s worked so far. Lincecum is too talented to outright be demoted to the BP without another shot at the rotation next year with these adjustments IMO.

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      • Brian says:

        That brings up a question I have always been wondering about: why do pitchers throw from the wind up in the first place? I feel Lincecum has the right idea in throwing exclusively from the stretch since it simplifies everything and gives him only one motion to have to focus on.

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      • AJP says:

        That’s a very good question, of which I don’t have much of a good answer haha. But I believe part of it has to do with deception. There’s more moving parts in the wind up, hence more deception at least on paper. However if you want a more in-depth analysis give this article a read: http://www.hardball.net/files/fall2004_windup.v.stretch.pdf It may leave you with more questions than answers, but a good read nevertheless.

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      • snoop LION says:

        is there any research done on offensive production against windup vs stretch?

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      • Krog says:

        Snoop: Batters do better when facing pitchers out of the stretch, but not necessarily because of the stretch itself. A pitcher pitching with runners on base is likely to be a worse pitcher than one who pitches more often from the wind up. Also, the defense shifts for a double play with runners on, which can allow more base hits as well.

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  10. payroll says:

    If I were the Giants I would definitely explore this option. If Lincecum can rack up 120+ innings of top flight relief then he’ll only be slightly overpaid. I mean, how much would you pay on the FA market to essentially fill the roles of setup man, righty specialist, and lefty specialist, and closer? If nothing else, he would save a couple roster spots for some more bats maybe.

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  11. Paul says:

    You are looking at Lincecum as a RP, but keep in mind that the Giants have nobody as replacement for Lincecum in SP. Erik Surkamp just got elbow surgery. Next year rotation will be the same, and they don’t have any other option.

    In 2012, all but 2 starts (1 double header, and the game after clinching NL west) were done by these 5 guys. They have been very lucky to have 5 healthy starters all season long.

    So Lincecum in the rotation no matter what in 2013

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  12. snapper says:

    The issue with the $20M is not what Lincecum gets in 2013, it’s every year after that.

    If Lincecum becomes a lights out closer, he gets 4/50 in FA (Papelbon deal). Even as a league average innings eater he does better than that. If he rebounds to be close to what he was, he gets $100M+.

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  13. Marc says:

    He should be a reliever I think. Would you rather pay him $20MM to stink it up as a starter or pay him $20MM to be a dominant reliever? I just don’t think he’s going to turn it around.

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    • Paul says:

      “I just don’t think he’s going to turn it around.”

      We’ll find out in 2013 …

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    • snapper says:

      It’s not simply the Giants’ choice. If Lincecum doesn;t want to relieve, b/c he’ll damage his long-term earning potential, he won’t be any good. Or if it’s just professional pride that he wants to start.

      If they had him signed long-term, then it would be their call. With FA looming, Lincecum has a lot of say. He’s going to want to do everything possible to return to being a #1 starter, and get a huge deal.

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      • vivalajeter says:

        Ultimately it’s the team’s choice, the same way that Washington traded for Soriano and put him in LF. He complained about it and said he wouldn’t play there because he wanted to remain a 2B and didn’t want it to hurt his free agency, but there was nothing he could do about it. You don’t sign a contract for a certain position.

        Sure, he can mope and not give his best effort, but how would that help him get a nice contract?

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      • Doug B says:

        would he pitch badly on purpose? not a good way to get a big contract.

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  14. channelclemente says:

    Does Lincecum’s situation at all remind any of you to Eckersley’s when he went to the pen?

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  15. Theoretical says:

    If you gave him 2-3 inning outings every 2-3 days, fireman style, and let the rest of the bullpen take the night off, then he’d still get 120-140 innings of high leverage AND you’d rest your setup men and closer in a tight game

    Now if simply the solution is to pitch from the stretch for good, then sure, start him up. But if not, the fireman is not a bad role.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      It’s not that easy. Sometimes a team will play 5-6 close games in a row, and other times they’ll go a week straight without a close game. If you go forward with 2-3 inning outings every 2-3 days, you’ll wind up using him when he’s not needed, and sometimes he’ll be unavailable when he’s needed.

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      • Theoretical says:

        But that’s why you keep the now-traditional setup men and closer for other games. And shorter 1 inning jaunts are fine too. But I think it’d be a powerful tool to be able to simply give the bullpen the night off if the starter goes 6 and there’s a 2-3 run lead.

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  16. daniel says:

    What if, at the 2013 All-Star game, the American League picked its 9 best relievers to pitch one inning each? How do you think that would go over with Bud Selig and the fans. Even without money being a consideration, I strongly suspect that TL wants to start, and until HE is convinced that he is not an effective starter, he will not be content to be a reliever. Because he is a good soldier, he accepts his reliever role in the 2012 playoffs, but I don’t believe he will accept it going forward into 2013.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      “but I don’t believe he will accept it going forward into 2013.”

      What will he do if they tell him he’s a reliever next year? Will he sit out the year and and give up his $20MM?

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  17. Wil says:

    I don’t see how you can take one bad year and move him to the bullpen simply on the basis of that one year. You don’t change the way a hitter or other SP’s do things after a down year, why is Lincecum different?

    This bullpen talk is extremely premature. If he had struggled for a few years than I could see that being a reasonable option. But one bad year?

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  18. Ruki Motomiya says:

    I say wait for Lincecum to bulk up to his 2011 levels and see if he still does bad. Give him a month’s chance in 2013 or so and if he’s still not being great, put him in the fireman role.

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  19. PatrickLA says:

    He will have a longer career as a closer. he isn’t physically strong enough to endure 200+ innings a year as a starter. Just look what Dennis Eckersly did as well as John Schmotlz after a stellar starter career faded.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      TL55 isn;t really like either of those guys.

      Eckersley was a control freak (literally) and Smoltz had a handful of quality pitches and velocity and converted to RP due to age and injury.

      TL55 is still in his prime age, coming off of 2 4 WAR season (’10 and ’11).

      I think we can all agree it’s time for TL55 to look at the off-season as something more than just “down time”. He’s a candidate for the “best shape of his life” article come spring 2013.

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  20. Wrong Context says:

    Not sure how you made it through this article without a reference to John Smoltz

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  21. CircleChange11 says:

    Given his career high BB/9 and really abnormal HR/FB% and HR/9 figures, wouldn’t we be more accurate/reliable to suggest that those may regress toward career norms?

    2010 and 2011, he was a 4 WAR pitcher.

    The drop in velocity is a concern, but he also has some time to learn how to pitch at that velocity rather just long for the past. With heat, he’s CYA caliber. With reduced heat he has been shown to be a good SP, with high 80s mph, he had a below average 2012.

    If the suggestion is bonafide to covert Lincecum into a RP, then I find that to be incongruent with FG’s stance that RP’s are just failed starters and you can find them anywhere.

    I don’t view TL55 as a failed starter just yet. If he continues his 2012 performance into 2013 and if that appears to be his new true talent level, then you think about conversion.

    Even with decline, he could be a 3 WAR pitcher, and I’m pretty sure FG believes that you don’t waste a 3WAR SP in the bullpen.

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    • CJ says:

      Scouts have been calling for Lincecum’s arm to fall off /forever/. If you believe them, this colours your judgment of this season, and you should weight it more heavily going forward.

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  22. PETE says:

    Timmy belongs in rotation.

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  23. PETE says:

    LetTimmySmoke . com

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