Should reputation overrule recent performance?

It’s no secret that the saga of Tim Lincecum has been one of the most puzzling narratives of the 2012 season. Lincecum, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, finds himself in the latter end of the worst season of his career. Granted, the worst season of Tim Lincecum’s career is an accolade many pitchers would strive for, but it has been a far cry from “The Freak” we’ve come to know and love.

The cause of his problems is wholly up in the air. The choice to abandon his slider early this season as well as a dip in velocity seemed to indicate an injury. As the season progressed, however, the velocity slowly crept back up and the slider made a return to his arsenal. There is still reason to be confused.

The Hardball Times’ Kyle Boddy investigated the matter and attributed much of Lincecum’s struggles to a drastic amount of weight loss which not only points to the decrease in velocity but also appears to have altered his unique mechanics. An increased side trunk tilt has given his delivery a much “looser” effect, and as a result may be causing the difficulty in locating his pitches.

Regardless of what has caused the decline, Lincecum’s handling has been an personnel question. The Giants have trotted Lincecum out all season, every fifth day, despite middling results. While a FIP of 4.18 and xFIP of 3.82 suggest that it hasn’t been nearly as terrible as some would have you believe, the fact is it has been difficult to watch. Lincecum has been visibly frustrated with his performance on the mound and many Giants fans, in turn, have been frustrated with the team’s refusal to diminish his role.

Consequently, it was no great surprise when Lincecum was held out of the Giants’ playoff rotation in favor of Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner.

Interesting in this scenario is how much players—pitchers or fielders—are owed based on reputation.

Lincecum has been the top pitcher in the National League twice in his career, twirled a gem in Game Five of the 2010 World Series to clinch the Giants’ first championship since 1954 and has been the face of the franchise since his rookie season.

If you’re wondering who has meant the most to the post-Barry Bonds Giants, look no further than Tim Lincecum. If anyone has earned the benefit of the doubt with his franchise during a rough year, it has to be Lincecum.

The easy juxtaposition in this scenario is that of Lincecum and Barry Zito. In Zito, the Giants have had an albatross of a contract to match the burden he has placed on their rotation since joining San Francisco in 2007. His WAR of 2.0 in 2009 has been the best season Zito can lay claim to since signing a 13-year, $126 million deal after the 2006 season.

We’re all familiar with the horror stories.

The irony sets in, however, when we look at what Zito has done this year compared to what he did in the Giants’ 2010 championship season, when he was ultimately left off the postseason roster.

In 2012, Zito will start Game Four of the Giants’ NLDS series with the Reds on Wednesday afternoon even though he has been worse in 2012 than he was in 2010, when the Giants had a roster with less pitching depth than the current squad. In 2010 Zito posted an FIP of 4.25, an xFIP of 4.58 and a WAR of 1.6. In 2012, he has posted a FIP of 4.49, xFIP of 4.92 and WAR of 0.8.

To follow up my earlier question of what we owe those with impressive reputations, why give Barry Zito the benefit of the doubt through five terrible seasons?

Lincecum hasn’t been the Lincecum of old, which is an entirely obvious and fair point. However, it doesn’t make sense to punish Lincecum for not being able to reach the standard he set so high for pitchers all over baseball, let alone himself. Moreover, the Reds have hit left-handed pitchers (Zito) much more effectively than right-handers (Lincecum) n 2012.

Against left-handed pitchers the Reds are the sixth most prolific team in baseball and third among National League squads, boasting a team wRC+ of 104. Against right handers, only the Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners were less effective than the Reds’ wRC+ of 87. Essentially, the Giants have not only opted to move the better pitcher to the bullpen, but also the pitcher with the more favorable match-ups.

To the Giants’ credit, Lincecum appears to be adjusting to his role nicely. In Game Two he pitched two scoreless innings, allowing just a single hit and striking out a pair of batters. On a per-inning basis, he looked as solid as he has all season. However, one is left wondering if perhaps that is a sign he should have been toeing the rubber to start the game in the first place.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

With greatness in baseball comes expectation—expectation that has been earned through on-field exploits. While many players can claim to have had a more impressive season than Tim Lincecum has had this year, few pitchers, if any, who can claim that they have brought more to their organization over the past five seasons than Lincecum has to the Giants.

Forming a lineup is a process that not only consists of activating the names who give you the best chance at success at the times they are most likely to be successful, but also managing egos and reputations to ensure that those who have come to expect something are satisfied. It may not always be a particularly pleasing way of doing business, but it’s the way each workplace functions in some capacity.

Regardless of Tim Lincecum’s struggles in 2012, he ought to be a starter for the San Francisco Giants this postseason. Not only is he plenty qualified, but nobody has done it better for the past half decade. The season hasn’t matched the reputation, but not many modern seasons have or will.

References & Resources
All stats cited come courtesy of Fangraphs.

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You mentioned that although he hasn’t been that terrible, it has been difficult to watch. I wonder if that factors in to the decision – the Giants want to avoid the “here we go again” effect on teammates, fans and coaches if and when he starts struggling early in a start.

This is why I feel that it is very hard for writers to write on teams that they don’t follow closely, they don’t know a lot of details intimately that fans of the team do. Zito may have similar numbers between 2010 and 2012 – that is a meme I’ve seen all over – but that ignores the fact that he was totally lost as a pitcher in September 2010 while he was on a roll (for him) in September 2012.  People are shocked because of all the bad press Zito gets, but he’s actually pretty good most of the… Read more »
Meanwhile, Lincecum was actually pretty much performing at his normal regular self (only much wilder) in the second half, in fact he was leading the rotation most of the second half in ERA, until he final starts of the season, where he struggled. Bochy made the call that Lincecum could help the Giants more out of the pen than as a starter. I too found that decision a bit baffling until I had an epiphany yesterday.  Most fans are not keenly aware of this, but Giants lost their closer – The Beard – in the first few games of the… Read more »

OGC looks like a genius in retrospect.  With people worrying about Vogelsong’s late season and well as a potential bad Zito start, having a good early replacement in do-or-die game 3 might be more leverage than the game 4 start that might not happen, and also allows the early pinch-hitter, esp. how the Giants had struggled with the bat the first 3 games.