MLB Predictions: Why Tim Lincecum Will Return to Cy Young Form in 2011

Dan MoriCorrespondent IJanuary 24, 2011

MLB Predictions: Why Tim Lincecum Will Return to Cy Young Form in 2011

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    Tim Lincecum Leads The Giants' Prolific Pitching Staff

    Tim Lincecum is entering his fourth full season in San Francisco.  In his first three seasons, Lincecum won 40 games and only lost 17.  He won Cy Young awards in his first two full major league seasons, the only player ever to do so.

    It's amazing that Tim Lincecum's 2010 season, when he went 16-10 with an ERA of 3.43 and 231 strikeouts in 212 innings pitched, can be considered a down year.  That's how good this guy is. 

    Last season had its ups and downs for Tim Lincecum, as he struggled in August and lost all five of his starts during that month.  Lincecum also did not get through the seventh inning in any of those five starts. 

    Tim Lincecum turned it around in September, as he went 5-1 down the stretch.  Lincecum also pitched well in the postseason, but the poor August was a bit of a wake-up call for him. 

    I fully believe Tim Lincecum will regain his outstanding form in the 2011 season.  Let's take a look at 10 factors that will help Tim Lincecum return to top form.

10. Increased Maturity

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    Tim Lincecum Will Be 27 Years Old In JuneJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

    On June 15, Tim Lincecum will turn 27 years old.  He is also one year removed from signing his first big contract and is now much better equipped to handle the media and scrutiny of making big money.

    Nobody puts more pressure on Tim Lincecum to do well than Tim Lincecum himself.  There were times during the 2010 season when he seemed distracted and his laser-like focus was not as keen.  A big reason for that may well have been the heightened expectations and when he did struggle, he had trouble dealing with that.

    Tim Lincecum is a bright, introspective guy and I believe that he will be all the better for overcoming his month-long struggles of 2010.  Lincecum also had to deal with unwanted media attention during the previous offseason, when he was caught with marijuana in his possession on a routine traffic stop. 

    His maturity level has noticeably increased, as he dealt with both situations head on and will be all the better for it in the coming season.  With the increased maturity comes added self-confidence, and gone will be the self doubt as he finished the season strong and had a stellar postseason.

9. Better Overall Starting Pitching

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    Matt Cain Emerged As A Second Ace For The GiantsHarry How/Getty Images

    As good as the Giants' starting pitching was in 2010, it stands to be even better in 2011.  Remember that Todd Wellemeyer began the season in the Giants' rotation and now they have Madison Bumgarner in that spot.  Bumgarner, at age 21, showed incredible competitiveness and maturity in the season's final months and was outstanding in the playoffs and World Series.

    Matt Cain emerged as a second ace pitcher for the Giants and was actually their most reliable pitcher down the stretch run.  Last season was a breakout year for Matt Cain, and although he is entering his seventh season in San Francisco, he is actually a few months younger than Tim Lincecum.

    Jonathan Sanchez improved his consistency during the regular season, and although he faltered somewhat in the postseason, he was much improved.  Sanchez has electric stuff and when he is commanding his pitches, he can be extremely difficult to hit.  In addition, he was largely able to avoid the early-inning meltdowns that plagued him in the past.

    Barry Zito, the fifth member of the starting rotation, was very disappointed at being left off the postseason roster.  Zito pitched well early in the season, but faltered badly in the second half, slumping to a record of 9-14.  I fully expect him to come into spring training in excellent shape and have an improved year, probably around 12-12.

    Tim Lincecum will benefit from the entire starting rotation doing well, as success is contagious.  In addition, this group is very competitive and nobody will want to be the one to let his teammates down.  They will continue to push each other and that competition will be good for the entire staff. 

8. Improved Offensive Attack

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    Aubrey Huff Shows Off His Red Thong At The Giants Victory ParadeJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants offense was best described as inconsistent in 2010.  The team was led by their outstanding pitching staff, and if the offense could score even three or four runs a game, the Giants would usually win.  The problem was the team often had trouble scoring those three or four runs.

    The 2011 offense should be improved and that should help Tim Lincecum win more games.  If the offense can get Lincecum more runs, he will not need to be as perfect as he sometimes tries to be. 

    There are times when Tim Lincecum tires to strike everyone out, which rapidly increases his pitch count.  If the Giants' offense can give him more early leads, he will be able to pitch to contact more, which should help to keep his pitch count down.  This will enable him to stay in games longer and give him more chances to pile up the wins.

    The Giants will have a more set lineup in 2011, as manager Bruce Bochy was forced to juggle and play matchups quite a bit in 2010.  San Francisco will get a full year from Buster Posey and Cody Ross, both offensive upgrades over Bengie Molina and Nate Schierholtz.

    Andres Torres emerged as a solid leadoff hitter and Aubrey Huff was the offensive leader in 2010. Both are back for 2011.

    In addition, I expect Pablo Sandoval to hit a lot better in the coming season.  He may not duplicate his 2009 season when he hit .330 with 25 home runs and 90 RBI, but he should be a lot better than last year.  In 2010, Sandoval fell off to a batting average of .268 with only 13 home runs and 63 RBI.  I anticipate somewhere in the middle of the past two seasons, which will be a welcome upgrade over 2010.

    The improved offense will greatly benefit Tim Lincecum, as he is an excellent frontrunner when given a lead.  He is much more aggressive challenging hitters and is able to get outs on fewer pitches this way. In a tight game, Lincecum would often pitch carefully, going deeper into counts and running up his pitch totals.

    The improved offense will have many residual benefits for Tim Lincecum.

7. Tim Lincecum Is Coming Off a Strong Postseason

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    Tim Lincecum Had A Strong Post SeasonAl Bello/Getty Images

    Tim Lincecum can take great confidence into the 2011 season.  He built momentum during the September stretch run, where he went 5-1.  He then carried that over into the playoffs and World Series, where he went 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA.  Lincecum also struck out 43 hitters in only 37 innings pitched.

    This outstanding momentum will do wonders for Lincecum's confidence as he enters the 2011 season. Tim Lincecum can rest assured that he was able to subdue the best hitters in baseball on the grandest stage and come out a winner.

6. Better Defense Will Help Tim Lincecum

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    Freddy Sanchez Makes Another Big Defensive PlayRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants will be stronger defensively in 2011.  Taking a look at the projected starting players, there are several areas that will be upgrades from the beginning of the 2010 season.

    Buster Posey behind the plate is a huge upgrade over Bengie Molina.  Posey has learned to be a solid receiver of the ball and also has a cannon for an arm.  Once Posey was inserted into the starting catcher position, opposing teams quit stealing at will on the Giants.

    On the infield, I expect Freddy Sanchez to start the season healthy.  His shoulder, which he had surgery on in December, should be healed.  Sanchez is a solid defensive player at second base. 

    Pablo Sandoval at third base should also be better than in 2010.  It appears as though he has lost about 20 pounds, which should give him greater mobility to handle the hot corner.  Sandoval was a defensive nightmare for the Giants in 2010, as he lost confidence in the field and at bat.

    In the outfield, Cody Ross is an excellent fielder and Andres Torres is a big defensive upgrade in center field over the 2010 starter Aaron Rowand.  Rowand was decent, but Torres has much better speed and can run down a lot of balls that Rowand can't get to.

    The improved defense will help Tim Lincecum, as any pitcher throws with more confidence when he knows he has a solid defense behind him.  Lincecum won't feel the need to strike out every batter, which will help keep his pitch count down, enable him to stay fresh and last longer into games.

5. Tim Lincecum Has Become a Better Overall Pitcher

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    Tim Lincecum Learned How To Pitch In 2010Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Tim Lincecum actually learned a great deal about how to pitch in 2010.  His velocity was down from his earlier years, and he couldn't rely on his stuff to simply overpower opposing hitters.

    Tim Lincecum had to somehow get people out without totally dominant pitches.  He learned how to mix his pitches and spot his fastball instead of just trying to throw it by opposing batters.  He also improved his ability to pitch to contact and his improved defense will encourage him to do more of that. 

    In addition, I expect the Giants' offense to be better in 2011, so Lincecum should be ahead in more games, which will allow him to challenge hitters.

    In many games, Tim Lincecum had to rely on his secondary pitches in order to get outs.  In 2010, he became a true pitcher, not just a strong-armed thrower.  His competitive nature also kept him battling even when he did not have his best stuff. 

4. The Giants Have an Outstanding Bullpen

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    Brian Wilson Closes Out The World Series VictoryChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    The San Francisco Giants have arguably the best bullpen from top to bottom in baseball.  The outstanding bullpen will help Tim Lincecum win games if he leaves with a lead. 

    Closer Brian Wilson, with all his quirks such as the black beard and orange spikes, is perhaps the best closer in the National League and with all due respect to Mariano Rivera, arguably the top closer in baseball.

    Brian Wilson led the league with 48 saves in the regular season for the Giants.  He also had six postseason saves and closed out the World Series victory for San Francisco.  Wilson also had more saves of greater than three outs than any other pitcher last year.

    Setup men Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla are very good.  From the left side, Javier Lopez, who was acquired by GM Brian Sabean mid-year in 2010, proved to be outstanding.  He was frequently called upon to get the top left handed hitters out in crunch time and usually delivered.

    Veteran Jeremy Affeldt did not have a good year in 2010, but came up big in the playoffs getting out of a huge jam against the Phillies, helping the Giants to a big win.  I expect Jeremy Affeldt to rebound in 2011.  Ramon Ramirez, another midseason acquisition, was solid and provides quality depth to the bullpen.

    This deep and talented bullpen will help relieve the pressure off Tim Lincecum and the entire Giants starting staff.  Lincecum should be able to earn the victory when the Giants are ahead and he leaves the game. 

3. Increased Velocity

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    Tim Lincecum Struggled With His Mechanics At TimesDoug Pensinger/Getty Images

    At 5'11" and 170 pounds, Tim Lincecum has to have his mechanics in perfect rhythm in order to keep his velocity up.  When Lincecum first came up, he threw between 94-96 mph, but in 2010, his fastball sometimes did not reach 90 mph.  In most games, Lincecum's fastball topped out at 90-92 mph.

    I do not expect Lincecum to reach the speeds he threw at when he first came up, but he does need to throw consistently in the 91-92 mph range.  Failure to do that forces Lincecum to rely too much on his off-speed pitches and hitters will look for those if they do not worry about his fastball.

    Tim Lincecum has a devastating changeup, but there needs to be separation in speed from his fastball.  If he's only throwing the fastball at 88 mph, there isn't enough differentiation.

    Lincecum routinely tinkered with his mechanics and he got off track at times in 2010.  Armed with this knowledge, Lincecum will be back up to the 90-92 mph range consistently.  He has also learned how to spot his fastball much better than in the past. The improved and consistent velocity will give Lincecum a good chance at nearing his Cy Young performances of 2008 and 2009.

2. Buster Posey

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    Buster Posey Celebrates With The World Series TrophyRonald Martinez/Getty Images

    Tim Lincecum really liked throwing to Bengie Molina, who was really the only big league catcher that he ever threw to.  Lincecum often credited Molina for his success and helping him learn how to pitch.

    When Molina was traded to Texas, it took some time for Lincecum and rookie Buster Posey to get in sync.  Once the two jelled and Lincecum gained a greater trust of Posey behind the plate, his performances improved.

    Posey is a hard worker and has already become a solid major league catcher.  He does his homework, calls a good game for his pitchers and also has a tremendous throwing arm, which slows the running game of opposing teams. 

    As an offensive player, Posey is far superior than Bengie Molina and can also help Tim Lincecum win ballgames with his bat.  Posey hit .305 with 18 home runs and 67 RBI in only 406 at-bats.  A full season behind the plate for Buster Posey will definitely be a plus for Tim Lincecum.

    As Tim Lincecum and Buster Posey became more comfortable with each other, Lincecum began throwing with greater confidence.  As this happened, he started to win again and finished the season very well.  The two now have a trust and comfort zone with each other that will help Lincecum have a stellar year.

1. Improved Workouts

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    Tim Lincecum Gets Everything Possible Out Of His Small FrameChristian Petersen/Getty Images

    At only 5'11" and 170 pounds, Tim Lincecum gets every ounce of power out of his small frame.  He maximizes his torque and velocity to get everything he can out of each pitch.

    In order to pitch at his highest level, Tim Lincecum needs to be in great physical shape.  In 2010, he admittedly got away from his workout routine and that coincided with his slump.  Once he returned to the more strenuous workouts and regained his strength, he started to throw the ball better and got back on the winning track.

    Tim Lincecum also got away from playing long toss in between starts, which reduced his arm strength. When he incorporated that back into his throwing program between starts, his velocity improved and so did the results.

    Lincecum did not ease up on his workouts because he was being lazy.  He thought he would be saving his strength and his energy, but it actually worked in reverse.  He lost strength and energy, which returned once he got back on his more rigorous workout plan.

    Tim Lincecum is an intense competitor and learned a valuable lesson in 2010.  He should come into camp in excellent condition and continue working hard all season.  This will give him the stamina and velocity he needs in order to return to top, Cy Young form.

Will Tim Lincecum Win the Cy Young Award in 2011?

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    Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Brian Wilson At The Giants' CelebrationJustin Sullivan/Getty Images

    Will Tim Lincecum win the Cy Young award in 2011? 

    My honest answer is that it's very unlikely.  Tim Lincecum may very well return to Cy Young form in 2011,  but still not win the award.

    There are simply too many great pitchers in the National League who can have dominating seasons.  Roy Halladay, Ubaldo Jimenez, Chris Carpenter, Cliff Lee and Adam Wainwright all pose stiff competition. In addition, there are always a couple of pitchers who unexpectedly emerge into the mix.

    Nevertheless, I do expect Tim Lincecum to have an outstanding 2011 season.  The Giants will be trying to repeat as world champions and Tim Lincecum will be a central player in that effort.  A World Series victory trumps any individual awards and Tim Lincecum will once again lead the vaunted Giants pitching staff towards that goal.