Tim Lincecum's Latest Flop Is End of Once-Great Starting Career

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterAugust 6, 2016

Los Angeles Angels starting pitcher Tim Lincecum tosses the ball as he waits to be pulled in the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Friday, Aug. 5, 2016, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Associated Press

It's finally time to admit something that's been increasingly apparent for five seasons now: Tim Lincecum is done as a major league starting pitcher.

For now, it sure seems like he's started his last game for the Los Angeles Angels. Three months and nine starts after they took a flier on the two-time Cy Young winner with a pro-rated $2.5 million contract, the Angels aborted the Lincecum experiment Saturday afternoon:

The move takes the former San Francisco Giants ace off the Angels' 40-man roster. There's a possibility he'll be traded, but the signs point to Lincecum clearing waivers and getting a choice between his release and a trip to the minor leagues. The Angels are hopeful for the latter.

"In order to get Tim to be that finished product of where we feel he can come up here and be a winning pitcher in the major leagues, it's going to take some work," said manager Mike Scioscia, per Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com. "We hope he'll go to Triple-A and work on it and see how it progresses."

However, it'll take more than just some work to get Lincecum, 32, to where he needs to be. What he needs is more like a miracle.

Lincecum's tenure with the Angels got off to a promising start, as he debuted with six one-run innings back on June 18. But the good vibes fell apart in his next outing, and a stinker against the Seattle Mariners on Friday was the last straw. When Lincecum was done giving up six runs in 3.1 innings, his ERA had risen to 9.16.

There's no blaming bad luck for that ugly figure. In 38.1 innings, Lincecum balanced out 23 walks with only 32 strikeouts. He also surrendered 11 home runs. FanGraphs classified 41.3 percent of the balls hit off him as hard hit. He basically allowed the average batter to hit like Giancarlo Stanton.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/Associated Press

So it goes for the artist formerly known as The Freak.

Lincecum's career took a hard turn when he posted a 5.18 ERA in 2012, and what's happened this year is just the latest in a series of failed course corrections. He's put up a 4.94 ERA in his last 122 appearances and, per Baseball-Reference.com, accumulated minus-4.2 wins above replacement. By that measure, he's been baseball's least valuable pitcher.

Lincecum's "decline," if you can even call it that, was preceded by a sparkling 2.74 ERA in 2011. That was the latest in a four-year stretch of success that included National League Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009, earning him a solid spot among the top five pitchers in the sport.

But by now, it's no secret what's at the heart of Lincecum's downfall. He lost two miles per hour in average fastball velocity from 2011 to 2012, and the trend continued downward in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This eradicated Lincecum's margin for error and turned him into a nibbler.

The one silver lining of his 2016 season is he did gain back some velocity. He went from an average of 87.2 mph in 2015 to an average of 87.7 this year.

A fastball like that still isn't going to cut it without pinpoint control, however, and Lincecum's has remained anything but pinpoint. During his peak, he walked 3.2 batters per nine innings. He's averaged 4.0 walks per nine since then, peaking at 5.4 per nine this year.

If the Angels really are hoping Lincecum will go down to Triple-A and figure out how to be a competent starting pitcher again, they're kidding themselves. For that to happen, he either needs more velocity or better control. Five years' worth of data says not to count on it.

Rather, the best hope for Lincecum is one Mike Axisa of CBS Sports highlights: "I imagine a club will be willing to try Lincecum as a reliever at some point, hoping he could regain some effectiveness while pitching in short bursts and only having to go through the lineup one time."

This idea has been on the table ever since Lincecum dazzled in a few relief appearances in the 2012 postseason. It is still appealing to some degree. He probably doesn't have any more mid-90s fastballs in him, but a relief role might allow him to at least touch 90 consistently. 

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 05:  Starting pitcher Tim Lincecum #55 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gets a visit from catcher Jett Bandy #13 after giving up a two-run homer to Mike Zunino of the Seattle Mariners in the first inning at Safeco Field on August
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It's doubtful any team would hand Lincecum a relief role, though. Be it this year or next year, whatever chance he finds will likely come in the form of a minor league contract.

It's a good question whether Lincecum would even be interested in such a role. It's a route he could have pursued as he was working his way back from offseason hip surgery this year, but he was adamant about latching on to a team as a starter.

"I know I've been working my butt off with pitch counts, working off that five-day rotation to try to elongate myself as a pitcher and as a starter," he said after a May showcase (via Chris Cole of USA Today).

Plus, it's not like Lincecum needs the work. He's raked in nearly $100 million in his major league career. That's enough to get through life.

If this proves to be the end, there's more than just money to vouch for Lincecum's career. He's one of 17 pitchers who have won multiple Cy Youngs. He's also one of only 34 pitchers to toss multiple no-hitters, accomplishing that in 2013 and 2014. There's also no forgetting the fact he owns one of the best postseason pitching performances in history. Or his three World Series rings, for that matter.

That's a lot of good memories for a career that's spanned only 10 seasons. If this is the end for Lincecum, he has nothing to be ashamed of.

      

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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