Tim Lincecum might serve the Giants best coming out of the bullpen.
The San Francisco Giants don’t project to have a very good bullpen in 2014. Sergio Romo is an excellent reliever, but he had something of a down year (for him) in 2013. Jeremy Affeldt also regressed last year. Javier Lopez is a very good left-handed specialist who can’t get righties out. Santiago Casilla had some ugly peripherals last season. Jean Machi, George Kontos, Yusmeiro Petit, and Heath Hembree are all relative unknowns at this point.
In the past, the idea of moving Tim Lincecum to the bullpen for the San Francisco Giants has been seen as a punitive measure. The logic goes like this: he’s not pitching well enough as a starter; thus, he should be demoted to the bullpen. However, Lincecum in the bullpen would be an entirely different animal. Instead of throwing 60-70 innings like the typical reliever, Lincecum would be more like 1984 Cy Young winner Willie Hernandez, who appeared in 80 games and threw 140.1 innings for the Detroit Tigers.
As a reliever, Lincecum could alter more games than as a starter. He could pitch in more high-leverage situations. He would throw fewer innings, but going through the lineup just one time would likely make those innings more effective ones. Throwing 100-140 innings in short bursts instead of 200 over 32 starts might allow Lincecum’s fastball velocity to tick back up.
One of the arguments against moving Lincecum to the bullpen is that you can’t pay a reliever $35 million over two years, which is what the Giants re-signed him for this winter. The Philadelphia Phillies paid Jonathan Papelbon $13 million for 61.2 innings last year. Paying Lincecum $17.5 million for 120 excellent innings would certainly be better than paying him that money for 200 mediocre ones, and it also would be a better investment than an expensive one-inning closer like Papelbon.
To show why Lincecum might excel as a reliever, let’s take a look at Lincecum’s ERA, Fielding Independent (FIP), Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), and fastball velocity starting with his two Cy Young seasons:
2008-09: 2.55 ERA/2.48 FIP/2.98 xFIP, FB velocity: 93.3, 2 Cy Young Awards
2010-11: 3.08 ERA/3.16 FIP/3.22 xFIP, FB Velocity: 91.8
2012-13: 4.76 ERA/3.95 FIP/3.68 xFIP, FB Velocity: 90.3
We can see that Lincecum peaked in 2009 but remained a top-of-the-rotation starter through the end of the 2011 season despite a drop in fastball velocity. Then, in 2012, the wheels came off when he posted a 5.18 ERA. He was better last year (4.37 ERA) but far from the ace he once was.
What those numbers don’t include are Lincecum’s postseason numbers. Lincecum was outstanding during the 2010 postseason, going 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA over six games including a complete-game shutout with 14 strikeouts in Game 1 of the NLDS and eight strong innings in the clinching game of the World Series.
In the 2012 postseason, Lincecum was exceptional as a reliever. In his lone start, he was knocked out after allowing six hits, three walks, and four runs in 4.2 innings. In 13 innings as a reliever over five appearances, he allowed just three hits, two walks, and one run while striking out 17. That postseason dominance out of the bullpen is what makes the concept of Lincecum as a reliever so compelling.
The Giants aren’t going to open next season with Lincecum in the bullpen. They re-signed him to accompany Tim Hudson in the middle of the rotation behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. There are reasons to believe Lincecum can be a more effective starter than he’s been over the past two regular seasons. He still misses plenty of bats, his control improved last year, and his ERA dropped by almost a full run.
Tim Lincecum is one of the most unique pitchers in baseball history. He was the best pitcher in the game over the 2008-09 seasons when he won back-to-back Cy Young Awards despite his lack of size and unique mechanics, which includes a massive stride to the plate. He remained a front-line pitcher for two more years and then helped the Giants win another championship as a reliever during an otherwise disappointing 2012 season.
Lincecum could have a dominant second act to his career as the only reliever in the game who can throw more than an inning or two at a time. They broke the mold when they created Tim Lincecum, and it would sure be interesting if the Giants broke the mold of the modern bullpen by creating an unorthodox role for the man known as The Freak.
Moving Lincecum to the bullpen is the wrong way to phrase this. Instead, Lincecum as a reliever would be creating a new role suited perfectly to Lincecum’s talents. He’s still good enough to start, but he could potentially win a third Cy Young in the same role Willie Hernandez won his in 1984.
Facing Lincecum’s dominant assortment of off-speed stuff just once proved to be too much for opposing hitters during the 2012 playoffs, and I can’t imagine anyone would have more success against Lincecum the reliever going forward.