Is Tim Lincecum's Recent Hot Stretch a Career Revival or Mirage?

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Is Tim Lincecum's Recent Hot Stretch a Career Revival or Mirage?
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Tim Lincecum did it again. The San Francisco Giants right-hander won his fourth straight start by holding the National League West rival Arizona Diamondbacks scoreless over seven innings at AT&T Park on Friday night.

The Giants won 5-0 to take the first of a three-game set. More importantly, the win kept San Francisco tied atop the division with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the San Diego Padres, 6-3.

With Friday's outing in the books, Lincecum now has hurled a quality start in six of his past seven turns. Over that time, he's compiled a 1.86 ERA and 0.81 WHIP with 37 strikeouts in 48.1 innings.

Aside from the strikeouts (a mere 6.9 K/9), those digits look an awful lot like the Lincecum of old, back when he was winning consecutive Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009 and was widely considered one of the very best arms in baseball for a handful of years.

And of course, this recent string has been built around that no-hitter Lincecum spun on June 25—his second in less than a year.

Despite all of the above, however, there are two reasons why this hot stretch is more mirage than late-career revival. Let's point 'em out here.

Lying and Underlying Numbers

It's no secret that Lincecum has lost more than a few ticks off his once high-90s heater and hasn't been all that good the past two seasons. So accepting that he's suddenly just regained his former glory simply isn't realistic.

In 65 starts across 2012-13, Lincecum posted a 4.76 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. His 3.95 FIP (fielding independent pitching) in that time looks a little better, but his ERA- (ERA adjusted for ballpark and league average) was 132—32 percent worse than average.

So how do those same underlying numbers, and a few others, look in 2014? Here's a rundown of Lincecum's stats this year compared to the previous two:

Tim Lincecum's Statistics From 2012, 2013 and 2014
SEASON W-L ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% FIP ERA-
2012 10-15 5.18 1.47 9.2 4.4 1.1 45.9 4.18 139
2013 10-14 4.37 1.32 8.8 3.5 1.0 45.3 3.74 124
2014 9-5 3.66 1.25 8.0 3.5 0.9 47.5 3.82 114

FanGraphs

The point? By some measures, like K/9, BB/9 and FIP, Lincecum actually is pitching similar to, if not slightly worse than, he did in 2013 and not that much better than he did in his disastrous 2012—but this is masked by his strong surface stats.

 

Offensive Opposition

One key factor in all of this, and which helps explain why Lincecum's traditional statistics look better this year: the competition. Or lack thereof.

Over this six-quality-starts-in-seven-outings period, here are his opponents, as well as a look at where they rank in a few offensive categories:

Tim Lincecum's Opponents Since June 8 (7 Starts)
DATE OPPONENT MLB RANK IN RUNS MLB RANK IN OPS MLB RANK IN wOBA
June 8 vs. Mets 20 25 26
June 13 vs. Rockies 3 1 2
June 20* @ Diamondbacks 19 18 19
June 25 vs. Padres 30 30 30
July 1 vs. Cardinals 28 20 21
July 6 @Padres 30 30 30
July 11 vs. Diamondbacks 19 18 19
AVERAGE 21.3 20.3 21.0
* = non-quality start

FanGraphs

Clearly, Lincecum has been taking advantage of a very pitcher-friendly slate of late.

In fact, the Colorado Rockies offense is the only one that can be considered better than even below average, and that outing was in cozy AT&T Park and came with both Carlos Gonzalez and Nolan Arenado—two of the better Rockies hitters—on the disabled list.

Otherwise, Lincecum has faced the sorry one-through-nines of the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, as well as the the so-so lineup of the Arizona Diamondbacks twice, which to be fair is tougher for him than most other pitchers because of this: 

And to round things out, he's drawn the San Diego Padres, possessors of the worst offense in baseball—and perhaps baseball history—two times, the first of which was the no-hitter.

Skeptical much?

Bottom Line

Despite all the ragging on him above, Lincecum still can be an effective starter, as he's shown of late. He has the ability—if no longer the same raw stuff as when he was one of the best pitchers in baseball—to get through a lineup two, sometimes three times, and even dominate the opposition on occasion when everything is just so.

And he's certainly proved to be durable, having made at least 32 starts each of his six full major league seasons. That's not to be overlooked or underestimated, because pitching innings—even if they're only slightly better than league-average innings these days—is something that provides plenty of value.

Fact is, though, Lincecum is now 30 years old and has lost a lot on his fastball—more than two miles per hour since 2011—which requires him to be that much better when it comes to control and especially command.

And Lincecum showed that Friday, as Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson told Steve Gilbert of MLB.com:

He's got great command and he threw multiple pitches where he wanted to throw them. He had good sequences, kept the ball down in the zone. There was a low strike zone tonight and he made good use of it and used our aggressiveness against us and shut us down.

As more of a finesse pitcher, trying to be so fine can work, but there's less room for error. When Lincecum's location is off just a little or he can't get a feel for one of his off-speed offerings in a given start, then he could be in for a long night. Or a short one, as it were. And let's face it: With a career walk rate of 3.5 per nine, control has never been one of Lincecum's fortes.

Lincecum himself realizes as much, recently telling Chris Haft of MLB.com:

The difference between being good and bad is very minute, especially at this level. That's why I always try to stay even-keeled. You can't get too excited about the good things because they're not that far away from being bad, and vice-versa. It just helps you keep things in perspective. 

The takeaway from Lincecum's recent performance, including Friday's scoreless victory, is that he's showing he can have success while pitching differently than he used to when he still could overpower hitters. He's making adjustments, and that's paying off. At least for now.

But this isn't the Tim Lincecum of old. If anything, it's simply an older Tim Lincecum.

 

Statistics come from MLB.comBaseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.com, except where otherwise noted.

To talk baseball or fantasy baseball, check in with me on Twitter: @JayCat11

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