The 2013 season was a mixed bag for Tim Lincecum. Nothing epitomized his season more than his starts on July 13th and 22nd. The first was a no hitter against the Padres while the second was a 3.2 inning, eight run shelling against the Reds. All season long, he mixed great and poor outings with no rhyme or reason. The Giants were nice enough to reward him handsomely with a two-year, $35 million contract before he could reach free agency, but should fantasy owners be similarly generous?
According to Zach Sanders’ valuation, Lincecum was a replacement level fantasy hurler in 2013, at least for owners in traditional 5×5 leagues. He was worth negative 60 cents which ranked him as the 83rd best pitcher, smack dab between Rick Porcello and Alexi Ogando.
Lincecum’s 4.37 ERA was one of several drawbacks to his season, but for those fantasy owners who play in FIP-based points leagues, he was much better. He posted over 4.3 points per inning in Ottoneu’s FanGraphs Points format, which is above average for a starting pitcher. In that format, he was the 44th best pitcher by raw points total with a comparable season to Jose Quintana or Ubaldo Jimenez. It seems to me that format matters more when evaluating Lincecum than it does for most other pitchers.
Despite seeing his average fastball velocity decline over the years – from 94 mph in 2008 to 90 mph the past two seasons – Lincecum still generates the same frequency of whiffs as he did in his heyday. He’s been able to maintain that overall whiff rate by scaling up the usage of his slider. It’s also worth noting that his fastball whiff rate has only declined about half a percent.
Lincecum has been remarkably durable throughout his career despite every scout in the world predicting his inevitable doom. He’s started at least 32 games in every full season of his career. His innings pitched totals have declined below 200 in the past two seasons, but that’s due to performance rather than durability. He’s thrown roughly 16 pitches per inning in most seasons, a rate that held up in 2013. So he’s not working harder to get his outs, he’s just being pulled earlier. That corroborates the theory that his reduced workload is purely performance based.
Throwing more sliders increases his injury risk. He uses the pitch a little over one-fifth of the time, a trend that began just three seasons ago. Jeff Zimmerman, who handles our disabled list projections and recently published his 2014 list, has found that heavy slider usage correlates with injuries. However, Jeff sets the threshold for ‘slider risk’ at 30 percent, a rate which Lincecum has never reached. When asked, Jeff explained that “the 30% slider value pushed the DL% chance significantly above the 40% league average DL chance.” For what it’s worth, Lincecum has a fairly low chance to hit the disabled list in 2014 at 32 percent (yes, 32 percent is a relatively low risk for a starting pitcher).
His change-up is also a go to pitch for him. As you can see from his pitch usage chart (below), he loves to use the pitch when ahead of left-handed batters. He also uses it frequently against right-handed batters. Brooks Baseball classifies the pitch as a split, although Lincecum considers it a change-up.
Most of his trouble these past two seasons can be attributed to allowing more home runs. Hitters pounded his change-up in 2012, but last season they feasted on his fastball. 10 of the 21 home runs he allowed were on fastballs, yet he’s only allowed 33 home runs on fastballs throughout his entire career. It’s not fair to compare his fastball in 2008 to 2013, but we can probably expect fewer home runs next season. His xFIP was 3.56 last season. If Lincecum can perform to that predictor, then he’ll be useful in nearly all leagues.
When and where to target Lincecum next season is a bit nuanced. Clearly, owners in FIP-based leagues can be more aggressive. His high ERA’s may even artificially reduce his cost, although I would expect owners in FIP-based leagues to be particularly savvy about misleading statistics. Owners in traditional leagues may want to be more restrained. As a best case scenario, Lincecum could pitch to his xFIP and post a 3.60 ERA, win about 12 games, and post a league average WHIP. That’s pretty similar to what Gio Gonzalez did this past season and he was worth $9.
If Lincecum has another season with home run problems, then he’s much more likely to post a $0 to $5 season. Lincecum’s average auction cost was $7 last season according to Fantasy Pros and I expect a similar cost of acquisition next spring. Lincecum’s best skill seems to be his durability. You can’t count on Lincecum to help you in any category besides strikeouts, but he could give you 200 innings of decent baseball. Winning pitching rate stats always requires luck. Lincecum might be a decent investment if you’re looking to catch lightning in a bottle.