Are the S.F. Giants Wasting Their Time Hoping Tim Lincecum Will Regain Stardom?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2013

DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 27:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants walks to the dugout after striking out swining Andy Dirks #12 of the Detroit Tigers to end the eighth inning during Game Three of the Major League Baseball World Series at Comerica Park on October 27, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Tim Lincecum may be back in a San Francisco Giants uniform after the 2013 season, but first he has to find his old velocity and make some significant changes to the way he pitches.

In other words, there needs to be a cross between a new Lincecum and the old Lincecum. If he arrives, we shall call him Mega-Big-Time Timmy Jim. Or Big-Time Timmy Jim 2.0. Something.

But first things first. We know that there may still be a future for Lincecum in San Francisco because the Giants haven't closed the door on the idea. Here's Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle:

Random piece of info: #sfgiants have not given up on Lincecum long-term. I'm told prospect of re-signing Lince as a FA next year ...

— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) January 15, 2013

And here he is again:

... played into some budgetary decisions this year on long-term deals for other players. #sfgiants.

— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) January 15, 2013

So not only is the door not closed on Lincecum possibly continuing his career with the Giants, it's deliberately been left open. 

Why not, right? Lincecum may have had a brutal season in 2012, but one bad season doesn't necessarily equal a trend. If Lincecum returns to form in 2013, he'll be in play for a new contract from the Giants.

It's going to take a lot for this to happen, though.

After going 69-41 in his first 156 appearances with a 2.98 ERA and a 137 ERA+, Lincecum went 10-15 with a 5.18 ERA and a 67 ERA+ in 2012. A shockingly far fall from grace, to be sure, but not an accidental one.

Lincecum was plagued by a wide assortment of maladies in 2012, and FanGraphs' Jeff Zimmerman did a fine job of bringing the key ailments to light in a recent piece. In a nutshell, the 2012 season was the year in which Lincecum needed to become a pitcher rather than a thrower, and he failed miserably.

The velocity decline he experienced is obviously the concern among the conerns. Lincecum's average fastball went from being about 92 miles per hour to being a little over 90 miles per hour. He still insisted on throwing it over 50 percent of the time, and hitters tee'd off on it.

After hitting Lincecum's fastball at a .226 clip in 2011, hitters hit it at a .267 clip in 2012 (see PITCHf/x splits on FanGraphs). They slugged .337 off it in 2011, and .388 off it in 2012.

Lincecum's fastball still rated as an above-average pitch in terms of PITCHf/x value, but the diminished velocity of it killed the effectiveness of his changeup. It was still coming in at roughly the same average velocity as before, meaning there was a smaller velocity divide between it and Lincecum's fastball. 

This made it easier for hitters to adjust to it. They hit only .140 against Lincecum's changeup in 2011. In 2012, they hit .265 against it. 

This is the hidden danger of Lincecum's velocity drop. Everyone is worried about him not being able to blow away hitters anymore, but the real damage done by his velocity drop is to his changeup. 

However, there is a reason for hope.

Lincecum's velocity has dropped before, and he managed to bring it back up again. His average fastball was barely over 91 miles per hour in 2010, yet he managed to push it back above 92 miles per hour in 2011. He may rescue his velocity again in 2013.

This will likely depend on his weight. Lincecum lost 30 pounds before the 2012 season, and it affected his arm strength. More weight should mean more fastball velocity, and that would mean a reestablished velocity divide between his fastball and changeup. 

More arm strength should also give Lincecum's offspeed stuff in general more crispness than it had in 2012, which is always good.

But the Giants are going to need to see more from Lincecum to be comfortable with re-signing him. There will come a time when Lincecum's velocity loss will be permanent, and the Giants will need to be convinced that he'll be able to survive as an elite pitcher when it happens.

For that, Lincecum will need drastically better command than what he has now. He can throw strikes well enough, but Zimmerman's article shows that Lincecum isn't nearly good enough in terms of where he throws strikes.

Lincecum doesn't know how to command both sides of the plate, as he threw fewer pitches on the inside and outside part of the strike zone than any other pitcher in baseball (minimum 1,400 pitches thrown). Zimmerman also pointed out that Lincecum is actually getting worse at throwing the ball to either side of the plate as his career has moved along.

If you watched Lincecum pitch in 2012, you're probably nodding your head right now. 

Lincecum was still trying to get by in 2012 largely like he had in the past: by pounding hitters with fastballs in the zone and then attempting to get them to swing over offspeed stuff. 

Power pitchers can get away with a high-low approach. Pitchers with less velocity need to work both high and low, and inside and outside. That's the change Lincecum needs to make, and he needs to further develop his repertoire in order to do so.

Lincecum should look to refine his two-seam fastball, and consider adding a cut fastball that he can use inside to lefties and outside to righties. He should also consider refining either his curveball or his slider to be a get-me-over offspeed pitch FOR when he needs one.

The expansion of Lincecum's repertoire may come at a later date, but being more consistent on the inside and outside part of the plate are realistic goals for 2013. Lincecum will have to make that a point of emphasis during spring training, even if it means making tweaks to his mechanics.

If Lincecum regains his velocity and takes to playing on the edges more, he'll be in line for a huge season in 2013. What's more, he'll have showed both the Giants and other prospective employers that he's very much worth a long-term investment.

As simple as this sounds in theory, however, these changes are more of a process than they are a flip of a switch. Lincecum won't need to do much in order to gain the weight he needs to rediscover his velocity, but asking him to totally refine his approach as a pitcher is no small favor.

Lincecum has been a strikeout pitcher who has gotten by on electric stuff his entire life. Asking him to become less Nolan Ryan and more Greg Maddux goes against everything he's ever done as a pitcher. 

The Giants aren't wrong to leave room for Lincecum in their future plans. Sure, they have Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval to worry about, but the organization is in an excellent place after having won two championships in the last three years. Also, it will soon be rid of Barry Zito's contract. 

But though they've left some wiggle room to potentially re-sign Lincecum, this budget room presumably isn't for only Lincecum. The Giants could determine that they're better off using it on Posey or Sandoval, or on another pitcher who could take Lincecum's place after 2013.

To that end, the Giants will have options. Among the pitchers poised to hit free agency next winter are Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes, Jason Vargas, Matt Garza and Adam Wainwright. Any of them would make a fine replacement for Lincecum if he fails to recapture his superstar status in 2013.

For him to do that isn't a matter of him turning back the clock. It's a matter of him changing.


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