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.