At one point this season, there was hope. A lot of it.
Tim Lincecum was on a roll, and his two-year, $35 million contract, which was completely panned when it was announced, looked like it might have some value after all. The San Francisco Giants had shot to the best record in the league and were being talked about as the best team in baseball.
Lincecum’s 10-start run, with one extra-inning relief appearance tacked on at the end, was a factor. His 2.89 ERA, .187 BABIP and second career no-hitter between May 28 and July 22 had the Giants wondering if this was a return to Lincecum’s previous form at a time when Matt Cain was injured and Madison Bumgarner was starting to struggle.
Turns out it was all way too good to be a true revival for The Freak.
Lincecum’s ERA in his last six starts is 9.49, and opposing hitters are hitting .341/.422/.622 against him since the All-Star break. All the reasons the contract was questioned came storming back, and the Giants announced Monday they were pulling the two-time Cy Young Award winner from the rotation and dropping him off in the bullpen.
It’s a move that could very well strengthen their clutch on a playoff berth and give them a rare and incredibly valuable weapon: a dominant reliever capable of pitching more than one inning an outing.
There is a precedent for this. The Giants moved Lincecum to the bullpen for the 2012 postseason, and he was flat-out dominant. He made a single start in those playoffs—Game 4 of the National League Championship Series against St. Louis—and was shelled for four earned runs in 4.2 innings. All of his value came out of the bullpen, from where he allowed one run in 13 innings (0.69 ERA), struck out 17 and walked two with a 0.38 WHIP
Lincecum’s velocity was up in that postseason, and the bite on his other pitches reverted to devastating. Basically, he was the old Freak in a compacted form. In short bursts, he was brilliant and played a key role in the Giants winning their second World Series in three years.
If Lincecum can be that kind of weapon in 2014, he becomes the kind of luxury not afforded to most teams. If he comes anywhere close to duplicating what he did as a reliever in the 2012 postseason, he immediately becomes the most valuable non-starting pitcher in the majors.
For now, it seems like Lincecum is on board with the change.
Lincecum: "In my mind I'm going to battle any chance I get whether that's start day or in relief. (cont.)" #SFGiants— Matt Kawahara (@matthewkawahara) August 26, 2014
But Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs.com tells us to be leery of the move back to the bullpen working the way it did two Octobers ago. His findings say Lincecum’s value is diminished because so many of his problems arise when he has runners on base, and it is a valid point. Lincecum is tolerable when the bases are empty, but he is a tire fire when guys get on, and considering his lack of command at times, he puts himself in jams he can no longer escape.
There is a “however” here. Lincecum’s numbers with the bases empty and with runners on in 2012 aren’t that entirely different than they are this season. Also, three of his five relief appearances in 2012 started mid-inning with runners on base.
If the Giants truly are concerned about those splits, they can put Lincecum in favorable situations. If effective, he can become a two-inning specialist starting in the sixth or seventh inning. Or, if matchups are favorable, he can pitch the eighth and ninth. He can even piggyback a start here and there. As long as he is a reliable out-getter, Lincecum gives manager Bruce Bochy options and flexibility.
It’s the kind of asset that can shorten the game for a so-so rotation—its numbers should get better minus Lincecum—and give the Giants a bullpen advantage in any series they play.
Now, it’s quite possible, and even likely, that the big-stage moments of 2012 helped Lincecum’s success. He’s never been one to shrink in the spotlight, so when the lights were brightest in 2012 and the adrenaline was peaking, he was able to channel something not present during the regular season. That might explain the velocity spike and improved filthiness.
Then again, aiming to throw 30 pitches is much different than pacing for 100. We shouldn’t forget that atrocious start I mentioned earlier against the Cardinals with all eyes on him in those playoffs.
This 2014 experiment will likely start by giving Lincecum low-leverage situations to succeed, like placing raw meat at the foot of a wounded animal. If Lincecum gobbles it up, the Giants can eventually send him on the hunt for bigger prey.
That is when Lincecum will have the opportunity to make that bloated contract look sensible and become the kind of X-factor no other National League club can boast down the stretch and into October.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous three seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter and talk baseball here.