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San Francisco Giants Make the Right Call in Re-Signing Tim Lincecum

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San Francisco Giants Make the Right Call in Re-Signing Tim Lincecum
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The Giants paid a lot of money for Lincecum but it was the right move.

The sabermetric writers are out in full force against San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean for bringing Tim Lincecum back via a two-year, $35 million deal.

That's a lot of money for a pitcher who posted a 5.18 ERA in 2012 and a 4.37 ERA in 2013. Then again, the same sabermetric writers using ERA to deride the signing of Lincecum are also the folks who argue ERA is a junk stat. So, which is it? Is ERA a misleading statistic, or is Lincecum's high ERA misleading?

Here's an example from Rob Neyer of SB Nation: "Oddly enough, this is a $35 million bet on sabermetrics by a franchise that routinely dismisses the value of sabermetrics. Usually I'm happy to bet on sabermetrics. This time? I'm really glad it's not my money."

Neyer argues the Giants routinely dismiss the value of sabermetrics without citing a single example of the Giants dismissing advanced stats. Neyer would do well to read this article about Giants stat guru Yeshayah Goldfarb or this one from Craig Calcaterra of HardballTalk arguing that if you believe the Giants are an anti-sabermetric team, you're delusional. 

The Giants clearly rely on sabermetrics to a certain extent, though as outsiders, we'll never really know the balance the organization strikes between stats and scouting. From all the reporting I've read over the years on the club's philosophies, it seems they rely on all available evidence to make their decisions, as any team should.

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Despite two World Series titles, Brian Sabean catches a lot of flack for his methods.

Perhaps the Giants rely more on old-school scouting than other teams, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, and that doesn't mean they're dismissive of sabermetrics

Here's another example from Dan Szymborski of ESPN.com (subscription required):

The San Francisco Giants announced a scientific breakthrough this afternoon, demonstrating the ability to travel forward in time and return to the present, thus fulfilling the dreams of H.G. Wells. Or at least, I think they did, given that this afternoon they re-signed former ace Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $35 million contract, a transaction that only makes sense if black-and-orange clad physicists crunched some equations and managed to bring back tales of a future in which The Freak returned to prime form. Lincecum has been a nearly unmitigated disaster for the past two years, going 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA in 383 2/3 innings.

Now the sabermetric writers are using pitcher wins and losses as well as ERA to show how stupid the Giants are?

Did the Giants ultimately overpay for Tim Lincecum? Based on his record and ERA in 2012 and 2013, they certainly did.

Yet his 3.68 xFIP, perhaps the most advanced of the advanced statistics when it comes to evaluating pitchers, puts him ahead of Edwin Jackson (3.82) since the beginning of 2012. Jackson signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the Cubs last winter. In that light, perhaps the Giants underpaid for Lincecum.

Only three qualified starting pitchers have gotten hitters to swing and miss at a higher rate than Lincecum over the past two seasons. Given Lincecum's elite ability to miss bats, the Giants don't appear to have overpaid at all.

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Lincecum still misses bats at an elite rate, but he's struggled to prevent runs.

Lincecum's combined FIP of 3.95 and xFIP of 3.68 over the past two seasons are much better than his 4.76 ERA. How much of that discrepancy is the fault of the Giants defense or the bullpen for allowing inherited runners to score? How much of that is Lincecum's inability to pitch effectively with runners in scoring position? What role have bad luck and poor timing played?

In re-signing Lincecum, the Giants made a determination that he can continue to trim his ERA down toward respectable levels. They wanted him back because they think he's much better than his ERA indicates.

Having made the determination that they wanted to keep Lincecum, it would have been tricky to tell the former franchise cornerstone that he could come back only at a significantly reduced salary. Thus, if they were going to keep him in the fold, they were going to have to do so without embarrassing a pitcher who won two Cy Young Awards and the clinching game of the 2010 World Series as the staff ace.

If the Giants had told Lincecum to take the one-year qualifying offer or leave it, Lincecum very well might have left it, as this is the same guy who turned down a five-year, $100 million deal before the 2012 season. If the Giants damaged his pride, perhaps he'd have taken less money elsewhere just for the sake of stubbornness. 

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Lincecum won't be walking away from the Giants.

Regardless, the Giants wanted Lincecum back, he wanted to come back and the fans wanted The Freak back. The Giants aren't some small-market team that has to pinch every penny. They had a $137 million payroll last season. Their chief investor is worth billions of dollars. They can afford to slightly overpay on the free-agent market, as they arguably did for Hunter Pence.

In a world without emotions and egos, the Giants could have extended Lincecum the one-year qualifying offer and told him to take it or leave it. Lincecum might have left it, and the Giants would have an extra draft pick in hand. Or, he'd back on a one-year, $14 million deal instead of a two-year, $35 million deal.

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Lincecum is a fan favorite in San Francisco.

The Giants aren't just paying Lincecum for what he once was and likely never will be again. They're paying him for what he might be in his age 30-31 seasons.

They're paying him $17.5 million per season because they believe he can at least be a solid mid-rotation starter with an ERA to match his shiny strikeout (17th best among qualified starters since the start of 2012) and swinging-strike rates (4th best).

If Lincecum can get his ERA in line with his advanced statistics in 2014 and 2015, this contract won't be an overpayment. The Giants are betting that Lincecum's runs allowed totals will get in line with what the advanced numbers suggest they ought to be.

That's a bet the sabermetric writers would probably get behind if Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane was the one signing Lincecum. However, when an old-school guy like Sabean bets on the sabermetrics, the Moneyball-type writers are suddenly resorting to the so-called junk stats to deride him.

In the end, Lincecum will have to pitch well over the next two years to prove Sabean right. If he does that, a lot of experts are going to be proven wrong.

The bet here is that Sabean will be proven right for re-signing Lincecum. Lincecum is going to get his ERA in line with his FIP and xFIP, and this contract will look like solid value in the end.

 

All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN and FanGraphs.

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