Tim Lincecum's frustrating struggles continued on Sunday.
The San Francisco Giants are almost certainly not going to move their highest paid player to the bullpen after only three poor starts.
The problem with that logic is Lincecum hasn't just been bad for three starts this year. He was bad during spring training when he posted a 10.57 ERA over five starts. He wasn't very good for most of his 33 starts last season when he finished dead last in the National League with a 5.18 ERA and was also hit hard in his lone postseason start.
This, it's time for Lincecum to go to the bullpen where he was successful in the playoffs and where he can be an asset for the Giants this year. As a reliever in the postseason, Lincecum allowed only three hits, two walks and one run while striking out 17 in 13 innings of work. He posted a 0.38 WHIP and a 0.69 ERA.
Lincecum was dominant out of the pen in the same way that he was dominant as a starter from 2008 through 2011. Over that time period, he won two Cy Young awards, put up a combined 2.81 ERA, accumulated 22.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) and won the clinching game of the 2010 World Series.
Unfortunately for the Giants, that dominant ace starter is gone, and he's not coming back.
Lincecum still has the stuff to succeed as a starter, even though he's lost a few ticks of the fastball. His swinging strike and strikeout rates were still in the top 10 in the game last season—proving that he still has good stuff. However, he doesn't have the control or the command needed to pitch effectively in the rotation anymore.
Lincecum's bigger problems are command, and control. In baseball terms, command is usually used to describe a pitcher's ability to spot pitches where he wants, including where in the strike zone he'd want a pitch to land. Control usually refers to a pitcher's ability to simply throw strikes. Lincecum has failed at both over the past year-plus. From a command standpoint, Lincecum has suffered from a case of meatballitis.
Lincecum was never a control artist, but he did steadily improve his walk rate at the beginning of his career. His walks per nine innings pitched rate (W/9) went from 4.00 in his rookie year to 3.33 in his first Cy Young season to 2.72 when he won his second Cy Young award the following year.
Last season, he set a career high in walk rate at 4.35. Through three starts this season, it's even worse at 6.75.
Lincecum could still succeed with a high walk rate if he had better command when he did come in to the zone. However, that command has alluded him over the last year-plus. He set a career-high by allowing 23 home runs last year despite throwing a full-season career-low of 186 innings.
Opponents also put up a .426 slugging percentage off of Lincecum last season, which set another negative career-high for him. The home run total and slugging percentage allowed were strong indicators that Lincecum was making mistakes within the strike zone—leading to a lot of loud contact.
Sunday's start against the Cubs offered a prime example of Lincecum's command and control issues. He walked the leadoff hitter to open the flood gates. Then, he threw what looked to be a hanging slider that was blasted for a two-run homer by Starlin Castro. He hung another slider that Alfonso Soriano lined for a single before Nate Schierholtz jacked a flat changeup for another two-run homer.
Both those homers were crushed into and through the wind, especially Schierholtz's shot. There's no way to defend homers or walks.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) April 14, 2013
Lincecum got himself in trouble with a walk, showing his lack of control. Then, he showed his lack of command by making three obvious location mistakes that led to hard contact and two home runs.
Lincecum pitched better after the four-run first inning on Sunday—allowing no runs over his final four innings of work. He also pitched better after allowing five runs in the second inning of his last start. However, those big innings still count regardless of how well he pitches after the damage is done.
The question the Giants have to ask themselves right now is: Would they rather have 186 innings of the same low quality they got from Lincecum last year as a starter, or would they rather get 90 innings of the dominant bullpen work he gave them last postseason?
As a reliever, Lincecum's velocity would likely tick back up, which would help him get away with some of the location mistakes that he's gotten punished for as a starter. He's never had an arm injury of any kind, so he'd be durable enough to throw more innings than the typical reliever. He has a starter's repertoire that includes five pitches—which would make him more difficult to hit than a normal two-pitch reliever.
As a starter, Lincecum will look good at times, but the end result is usually frustrating. It's time for the Giants to call up Chris Heston—who is currently 2-0 with 16 strikeouts against just two walks at Triple-A Fresno—and move Lincecum to the bullpen.
Heston doesn't have the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter. However, he might be good enough to be a quality fifth starter in the big leagues right now. He would probably give the Giants a better ERA than the 5.18 ERA Lincecum gave them last year and the 5.63 ERA he's given them so far this year.
As unbelievable as it is, Lincecum is no longer even a quality fifth starter at this point. He's a reliever now, and he could be an elite one. As the Reds concluded with reliever Aroldis Chapman this spring, an elite reliever is more valuable than a struggling starter.
The sooner the Giants and Lincecum accept that reality, the better off they'll be.