After putting up a 5.18 ERA in 2012—the worst ERA in the National League among qualified starters—Tim Lincecum ended May of this year with a 5.12 ERA.
He allowed six runs over four innings on May 29 against the Oakland A's. Two poor months to open the season after a disastrous spring training performance (10.57 ERA) seemed to make it clear that Lincecum's days as a dominant starting pitcher were over.
Lincecum had won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008-09. He went 33-12 with a 2.55 ERA and 526 strikeouts over 452.1 innings during that stretch.
In August 2010, Lincecum's reign of dominance appeared to come to end. He went 0-5 with a 7.82 ERA that month.
However, he bounced back with a 1.94 ERA in September before delivering a 14-strikeout, two-hit masterpiece in Game 1 of the National League Division Series. He also threw eight innings of one-run ball in the clinching game of the World Series. Overall, he went 3-1 with a 2.79 ERA during the 2010 postseason to help the Giants win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco in 1958.
Lincecum would go on to post a 2.74 ERA in 2011. He wasn't quite as good in 2010-11 as he had been in 2008-09, but he was still a clear-cut No. 1 starter.
That was before it all came crashing down last season. Lincecum lost his spot in the postseason rotation, returned to the rotation in the National League Championship Series for one poor start, and then was banished back to the bullpen.
His postseason relief work was exceptional, however. He struck out 17 against only two walks over 13 innings. He gave up just three hits and one run as a reliever. He saved the season with a brilliant performance out of the bullpen in a Game 4 win during the NLDS when he threw 4.2 innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts to stave off elimination.
Thus, when Lincecum struggled as a starter to open 2013, it appeared that his career could only get back on track with a move to the bullpen. A team source told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area in early June that the Giants would move Lincecum back to the bullpen “in a heartbeat" if they had another starter available.
The Giants never did find another starter, and Lincecum stayed in the rotation. He put up a 3.60 ERA in June and then delivered a no-hitter with 13 strikeouts on July 13. He was roughed up in his next start after throwing 148 pitches in the no-hitter, but he's recovered to allow only three runs in 22 innings during his last three starts.
Lincecum has chopped his ERA all the way down to 4.18 over the last two-plus months. He has the 11th-best strikeout rate in the game among qualified starters this season. His 3.49 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching—an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home run rates) ranks 37th.
Lincecum has posted a 3.38 ERA since the beginning of June. If you remove his poor start after the no-hitter, his ERA drops to 2.57 during that stretch (h/t Alex Pavlovic, San Jose Mercury News).
Lincecum has spent his whole career proving the doubters wrong, and he's doing it again this season. When he first came up to the big leagues, he was an undersized, two-pitch guy. He then developed a wipeout changeup to complement his mid-90s fastball and curveball to become the best pitcher on the planet during his two Cy Young seasons.
After his disastrous August in 2010, he added a slider to his arsenal to get back on track. This season, he's started to throw his curveball more often. He's also improved his preparation and accepted that his once-blazing fastball isn't coming back.
Baggarly wrote of Lincecum on Monday:
Lincecum always threw hard and everything came easy. Now he’s throwing easier, and he’s not having as hard a time.
"He’s within himself and that’s what’s been giving us the hope," [pitching coach Dave] Righetti said. "Now you want the results and he’s gotten those, too. The results are catching up to what he’s doing out there. You see him righting himself."
You don’t see him joking around the hours before his starts any longer. He’s going over video, spending more time with catcher Buster Posey, plotting and planning for the hitters he’ll be facing. He’s still capable of improvisation on the mound. But now he can play a complex arrangement, too.
In a lost season for the Giants, Lincecum has been found. It's not surprising that he's figured out a way to resurrect his career given his outstanding track record. It's just a bit of a shock that he's done it in the rotation and not with a move to the bullpen—which looked inevitable in late May.
The Giants even considered moving Lincecum to the bullpen (full disclosure: I wrote that he should be moved to the bullpen earlier this year). After Lincecum's no-hitter and seven other quality starts in his last 12 games, it's clear that he belongs in the rotation.
The lesson in all this is to stop doubting Tim Lincecum. He's been defying the odds since his freshman year at the University of Washington almost a decade ago. No matter what happens, he always finds the next pitch to add to his arsenal—the next adjustment.
He probably won't win another Cy Young Award, but it now seems likely that he'll be an above-average starting pitcher going forward. The Giants now have to hope that the impending free agent will decide to continue his career in San Francisco.