Tim Lincecum: Now a Reliever, Maybe Needs to Close

Tim Lincecum is headed to the bullpen. After a miserable start to the second half — opposing batters are hitting .331/.422/.622 against him since the All-Star break — the Giants have finally removed him from the rotation and will experiment with Lincecum as a relief pitcher. Of course, Lincecum famously dominated out of the pen in the 2012 playoffs, and ever since, speculation has mounted that this was going to be the path to Linecum’s career revival. Bullpens are full of failed starters, some of whom have gained significant velocity while pitching in shorter stints and have turned into lights-out bullpen arms.

The Giants would be thrilled if Lincecum turned into their version of Wade Davis, for instance; as a starter, he allowed a .341 wOBA over his career, but hitters have posted just a .222 wOBA off him in his relief work. Some guys just need the boost that comes from throwing 20 pitches instead of 100, and it’s not hard to draw a correlation between Lincecum’s decline in velocity and performance. If moving Lincecum to the bullpen gets his fastball back to the mid-90s, he might be able to reinvent himself in the new role.

However, Lincecum’s struggles present a perhaps unique challenge in turning him into an ace reliever. As I wrote for Fox a few months ago, almost the entire portion of Lincecum’s struggles can be chalked up to struggles with men on base. I think the tables that were shown in that article are worth showing again, though I’ve updated the 2014 and total lines to take into account the more recent data.

Lincecum, career, bases empty.

Season BB% K% FIP xFIP
2007 9% 25% 3.04 3.44
2008 11% 27% 3.05 3.50
2009 7% 29% 2.20 2.77
2010 9% 26% 2.93 3.01
2011 10% 25% 3.22 3.31
2012 9% 26% 3.80 3.31
2013 9% 25% 3.93 3.34
2014 9% 23% 3.30 3.43
Total 9% 26% 3.15 3.24

Tim Lincecum, career, men on base.

Season BB% K% FIP xFIP
2007 12% 23% 4.43 4.32
2008 7% 31% 2.17 2.73
2009 8% 29% 2.55 2.90
2010 8% 26% 3.41 3.18
2011 9% 24% 3.11 3.41
2012 14% 20% 4.67 4.47
2013 10% 20% 3.49 3.84
2014 11% 17% 5.47 4.23
Total 10% 24% 3.48 3.53

Lincecum’s career wOBA allowed with the bases empty is .299; this year, it’s .313. That’s worse, but the magnitude of the difference is hardly anything to care about. However, his career wOBA allowed with men on base is .296, and this year, it’s .381. Out of the wind-up, Linecum has mostly been the Lincecum he’s always been, but out of the stretch, he’s been throwing batting practice.

The easy answer seems to be that pitching out of the stretch is causing his stuff to flatten out, but as I noted in the Fox piece, the data doesn’t really support that conclusion; his velocity is steady regardless of the number of baserunners. The primary culprit seems to be worse location with men on base, which could be a mechanical thing or a mental thing, or even just randomness. Diagnosing a cause is difficult.

However, we can note that Lincecum’s struggles have only really manifest themselves in this specific scenario, and generally, the goal of moving a guy to the bullpen is to maximize his usage in situations that he’s set up to succeed in. You take a pitcher with big platoon splits out of the rotation and use him as a match-up specialist to take advantage of his skills against same-handed hitters, for instance. But if Lincecum’s kryptonite is pitching from the stretch, then a middle relief role might not serve to limit those opportunities, since the guys pitching in front of the closer often need to come in with men on base and try and kill a rally.

Lincecum’s splits suggest that perhaps the best way to “fix” him is to let him pitch with the bases empty as often as possible, which means starting the inning and not cleaning up after others. And there’s only one role in the bullpen that is generally afforded that luxury; the closer. Sure, Bruce Bochy could just use Lincecum as a middle reliever who wasn’t used as a fire extinguisher, and could slot him into a rigid start-the-7th-inning-only role or something, but over the long term, no manager wants to be handcuffed to having a setup men unavailable in the highest leverage situation. Limiting Lincecum to middle innings work with no one on base necessarily means that he’s going to be pitching in lower leverage outings, and thus, won’t be of that much value even if he does pitch well.

But while save situations are often overrated, they are normally high leverage outings. Closers, as a group, post higher leverage numbers than setup guys, even though they are occasionally called on to protect three run leads. There are more one or two run leads to protect, however, and overall, closers do pitch in more meaningful innings than setup guys, even though they don’t come into situations with men on base and try to kill rallies. If you want Lincecum to have significant value in a bullpen role, it seems that giving him the ninth inning might be the best way to accomplish that goal.

But I’m guessing it’s probably not that easy to take a guy who has turned every hitter into Miguel Cabrera for the last month and hand him the ball in a critical situation. Usually, when you kick a starter to the bullpen, the goal is to get him some low leverage stints to rebuild some confidence, and I’m guessing that’s how the Giants will use Lincecum initially.

But if it works, they’ll be faced with a bit of a dilemma; put him back in the rotation where he’ll have to try and pitch out of jams again, or consider whether a quick ascension to the closer role is a bridge they want to cross. And part of that decision will have to come down to their interest in seeing Lincecum as a starter again. If they do give Lincecum some high leverage relief innings, and he pitches well in those outings, it’s going to be difficult to argue that he should ever start again, much in the same way that Wade Davis’ performance out of the bullpen has made it unlikely that he’ll ever be asked to do anything else. Once they move him into the closer’s role, he’s probably there for good, or at least until he’s no longer good enough to close either.

Given the history of the starter-reliever conversion, this seems to have a pretty good chance of working out pretty well for Lincecum. Especially if he’s allowed to primarily pitch with the bases empty, and perhaps in shorter stints, he’d even figure out how to work his way out of his own jams. But Lincecum’s struggles to strand runners make a middle relief role a bit awkward, and that might force the Giants hand a bit. If they think he’s a reliever for good, make him the closer and don’t look back.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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