Time To Make Tim Lincecum A Reliever

The Giants have been rumored to be involved in talks with the Marlins about acquiring Ricky Nolasco to bolster their starting rotation. Given that they’re currently rolling with rookie starter Michael Kickham — who has allowed 10 runs in 7 2/3 innings in his first two big league starts — in the #5 spot in their rotation, going after a solid innings eater like Nolasco makes a lot of sense. However, I’d like to suggest that the Giants expand their shopping list even if they acquire Nolasco; their goal over the next month should be to trade for two starting pitchers, not just one. By picking up two starters, they can get Tim Lincecum’s career back on track by using him as a true relief ace.

The blueprint has already been laid. After struggling throughout the 2012 season, Lincecum was deployed in relief during the playoffs last October, and the results were electrifying. His total line out of the bullpen during the playoffs: 13 innings, 3 hits, 1 run, 1 walk, 17 strikeouts. There’s dominance, and then there was Tim Lincecum pitching in relief. He was absurdly good.

The primary difference was the effectiveness of his change-up. Now that Lincecum doesn’t throw in the high-90s anymore, he’s heavily relient on hitters chasing his change-up for strikeouts, and it’s a pitch he needs to be able to locate effectively in order to entice hitters to swing. According to the data from BrooksBaseball.net, During the regular season, hitters only chased his change-up 51% of the time during the regular season, but they went after it 61% of the time during the post-season.

And they weren’t swinging at hittable pitches either. His swing-and-miss rate on the change-up was 32 percent in October, up from just 21 percent during the regular season. In short stints, with hitters unable to make adjustments facing him multiple times in the same game, Lincecum’s change-up became a dominating weapon once again. And the Giants would be better off with Lincecum pitching well in that role, even during the regular season, than they are with him starting every fifth day.

I’m not advocating for Lincecum to be converted into a reliever who fits into a modern bullpen role. With Sergio Romo and an army of effective match-up relievers, the Giants already have a pretty good bullpen. However, utilizing Lincecum in that multi-inning relief ace role that worked so well in the playoffs could not only prepare him for that job in the postseason, but could pave the way for a bullpen renaissance of sorts.

Back before Tony LaRussa made the middle/setup/closer structure popular, it was completely normal for teams to have relievers throwing 120 to 150 innings in 60-80 appearances, getting six to nine outs before their day was considered over. 30 years ago, 18 relievers threw at least 100 innings, with Bob Stanley leading the way at 145. He wasn’t some kind of long reliever either, as he led Boston with 33 saves. It was just expected that each team would have a guy who could pitch multiple dominating innings whenever the team wanted to protect a lead.

As Bochy showed in October, that role is perfect for Lincecum. His change-up works really well against both left-handed and right-handed hitters, so he doesn’t need to be pigeonholes as some kind of match-up specialist. Since he’s already stretched out as a starter, transitioning Lincecum into a multi-inning reliever shouldn’t be terribly difficult, and will give the added perk of giving the rest of the Giants starters a chance to get out of the games a little bit earlier, increasing both their effectiveness and perhaps their ability to pitch well in October.

One of the main reasons relievers perform better than starting pitchers is that they only have to face a hitter once per game. As hitters get multiple looks at a starter throughout a game, their performance against them improves, and the pitchers tire as they throw more pitches. The combination of these effects can be seen in the Giants rotation this year:

First time facing a batter: .695 OPS
Second time facing a batter: .732 OPS
Third time facing a batter: .752 OPS

This is a league wide trend, so it’s not just a Giants thing we’re focused on. Starting pitchers really begin to fall off the third time through the order, and that’s where leads can evaporate in a hurry. Because the modern bullpen doesn’t allow for a team’s best relievers to be used until the 8th or 9th innings, a starter who runs into trouble in the fifth or sixth inning might give way to one of the worst bullpen arms on the team, who ends up throwing gas on the fire. To illustrate this point, here is the opponents OPS versus the Giants for each inning this season:

1st inning: .709
2nd inning: .678
3rd inning: .805
4th inning: .651
5th inning: .774
6th inning: .770
7th inning: .579
8th inning: .705
9th inning: .663

You see the big drop-off in hitter performance from those middle innings that are handled mostly by faltering starters or long relievers to when Bochy starts handing things over to his better setup guys. This is where Lincecum could have a huge impact.

By utilizing him as a bridge in those middle innings, Bochy could have an earlier hook with his starters, not allowing them to give up crucial runs in earlier game situations, and still have the confidence of knowing that he’s saved Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, and Sergio Romo for any late game leads that need to be protected. Linecum’s ability to get six to nine outs could serve to keep games close that might otherwise never turn into save situations, and if he responds as well to a bullpen role as he did in October, he’ll be far more valuable holding tight games than he would be as an inconsistent starter every fifth day.

Let Lincecum pitch in 2-3 inning outings every 2-3 days, and you’ll end up getting about the same number of innings from him as you would by keeping him in the rotation. In essence, by acquiring a second useful innings sponge — Scott Feldman would be a good fit for this role, for instance — to allow Lincecum to pitch in relief, they wouldn’t just be adding depth, but they’d be reducing the workload for their entire staff, and preparing Lincecum for the role he showed he could thrive in last October.

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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.
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I think that one reason teams don’t utilize this sort of strategy is that it essentially requires that teams keep 6 starters on their staff. Since they’re more expensive than relievers, and more difficult to come by, teams don’t employ this sort of strategy.


It seems like Joe Kelly would be pretty good in this role if Carpenter or Wacha can fill the 5th rotation spot.