Does Tim Lincecum Have What It Takes to Become a Dominant Closer?

Jason MartinezContributor IJune 4, 2013

Since the start of the 2012 season—a span of 44 starts—Tim Lincecum has a 5.16 ERA, 1.470 WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched), 1.1 HR/9, 4.3 BB/9 and 9.3 K/9.

His previous four seasons from 2008 to 2011, when he was considered one of the best in the game, he had a 2.81 ERA, 1.173 WHIP, 0.6 HR/9, 3.2 BB/9 and 10 K/9. He also won two Cy Young Awards and made the All-Star team in all four of those seasons.

Now, even manager Bruce Bochy realizes the old Lincecum probably isn't returning anytime soon, if ever.

Bochy described Lincecum as "all right" and "OK" and "decent." He meant them as platitudes. These ain't the good old days anymore.— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) May 25, 2013

While Lincecum's fastball velocity is down slightly, according to FanGraphs (90.4 MPH in 2012, 90.1 MPH in 2013), from where it was previously (92.2 MPH in 2011, 91.2 MPH in 2010, 92.4 MPH in 2009, 94.0 in 2008), his strikeout rate is still strong, and he'll still resemble the old version of himself on occasion—he threw two-hit ball over seven shutout innings with three walks and seven strikeouts against the Braves on May 12. 

The three consecutive poor starts (16.1 IP, 15 ER) since have been the reason why everyone is talking about the possibility that the Giants could move the former ace to the bullpen. And the 28-year-old says he's open to the possibility, at least in the future. For now, he says he's focused on his current role as a starter.

A bullpen role wouldn't be entirely unfamiliar to Lincecum. His previous stint as a reliever came in the spotlight of the 2012 playoff run that resulted in a World Series championship. In five relief appearances, Lincecum allowed just one earned run and three hits in 13 innings pitched while walking only two batters and striking out 17.

In this FanGraphs article from last October, Jack Moore discusses the possibility of Lincecum as a multi-inning setup man. This concept would be rare for this era, but it would enable a team to get more value out of him. Keep in mind that some team will likely give him a sizable contract this offseason and an opportunity to start. If it doesn't work out, the signing would be considered a bust unless he becomes a valuable member of the bullpen.

Approximately 3,000 Bleacher Report readers have taken a poll with a question asking, "Will Tim Lincecum ever return to Cy Young form?" Nearly 60 percent don't think he will. I also posed a question on Twitter asking if Lincecum could be a dominant closer. Results were mixed. Many raised concerns because of the drop in velocity and too many walks.

Here are some of the responses.

@mlbdepthcharts @br_mlb Never been one that's a physical comp. And how many "dominant closers" are there?

— Will Carroll (@injuryexpert) June 3, 2013

I think that most hard-throwing starters could be converted into good closers, assuming they can stomach it @mlbdepthcharts @br_mlb

— High Heat Stats (@HighHeatStats) June 3, 2013

@mlbdepthcharts @br_mlb could be K-Rod esque. Would get saves but innings could be long and extremely uncomfortable for Giants fans

— Bill Muthig (@heseus1215) June 3, 2013

@mlbdepthcharts @br_mlb absolutely not. no velocity and spotty control? not the ingredients for a closer, let alone a dominant one.

— Mike Saenz (@mikesaenzsays) June 3, 2013

@highheatstats @mlbdepthcharts @br_mlb Heck, Dustin Hermanson made a decent closer. Guys with elite stuff can certainly get 3 outs.

— Baseball and More (@Baseball_More) June 3, 2013

There have been "dominant" closers with much less velocity than Lincecum (see Trevor Hoffman) and less impressive secondary pitches. But the command is almost always great, and we certainly can't say that about Lincecum right now.

The truth is that no one can really pinpoint the reason why he was so good for those five relief appearances in the postseason, and no one will really know if he can be a dominant closer until he gets that opportunity.

Before Lincecum can be moved to the 'pen, the Giants rotation will need to get healthy. Ryan Vogelsong is out for the remainder of the first half with a broken hand. Then the Giants would have to feel comfortable enough with their current No. 5 starter, journeyman Chad Gaudin, or a minor leaguer such as Michael Kickham, who struggled in a spot start last week (2.1 IP, 4 ER, 4 H, 4 BB).

I don't know if there is a team in baseball who'd rather start Gaudin or Kickham over Lincecum.

Don't look for him to begin 2014 as a reliever either. The free agent-to-be will likely be with another team that will at least want to see if the old Lincecum shows up during the first month or two of the season. Lincecum and his agent could also choose to sign with a team that'll assure him a chance to continue being a starter.

So can Lincecum be a dominant closer? The question probably won't be answered any earlier than mid-2014, if that.