Remember Tim Lincecum, that phenom who won the last two NL Cy Young Awards in his second and third seasons?
Lincecum, enjoying a merely excellent season, has become yesterday's news as a variety of new star pitchers emerge in the National League, including guys like Roy Halladay, Stephen Strasburg, and Ubaldo Jimenez, but also Jaime Garcia, Carlos Silva, and Mat Latos.
After two straight seasons of dominance by what was once the most exciting thing to hit the National League this generation, Lincecum has struggled in the 2010 season, which is his fourth season in the big leagues.
Well, "struggled" may be a strong word.
What Lincecum has done is pitch very well. He is 8-3 with a 3.13 ERA, a 137 ERA+, and 117 strikeouts in 103.2 innings. Like the last two seasons, he leads the league in strikeouts per nine innings, and his 88 hits allowed in 103.2 innings is also very good.
Unfortunately for Lincecum, though, not only are these numbers not Cy Young caliber, but in 2010 these numbers are not even in the top ten in the league.
As of now, Lincecum's ERA is 16th in the league, his eight wins are tied with nine pitchers for eighth in the league, his innings pitched are 20th in the league, and his K:BB ratio is 14th in the NL.
This ain't Cy Young stuff.
Fortunately for Lincecum, he is still in the Cy Young race for three reasons.
First of all, of the pitchers ahead of him in all the various categories, the vast majority are playing over their heads. Guys like Jaimie Garcia, Matt Cain, Carlos Silva, Livan Hernandez, Ted Lilly, and maybe even Mike Pelfrey won't be able to keep up their current paces over the course of the full season.
Second, Lincecum is currently pitching the worst ball of his career. Of all the major pitching categories, the only one in which he is performing better than last season is wins. So, in that sense it is entirely possible that Lincecum has no where to go but up.
Finally, and this is perhaps the most important point, Lincecum is still striking out lots of batters. He isn't leading the NL in strikeouts, but he is in second place and only trails Milwaukee's Yovani Gallardo by three strikeouts.
Here is why Lincecum's strikeouts keep him in the Cy Young race:
The three statistics that Cy Young Award voters look at before all others are wins, strikeouts, and ERA. They look at other things, too, but these three are the starting point, and they frame the ballot of relevant candidates.
Here's the thing: at the end of a season, a player can go on a streak in which they improve their ERA drastically over a short period of time. Just ask CC Sabathia, whose 4.81 ERA on June 5, 2008 dropped all the way down to 2.70 by the end of the season.
A player can also go on a streak in which they accumulate a lot of wins. Take, for example, Johan Santana. On July 27, 2004, he had a total of eight wins. From that point on, Santana went on an amazing winning streak in which he won 12 straight starts and ended the season with 20 wins.
And a Cy Young Award.
The thing is, a pitcher cannot close the gap in strikeouts. Strikeout pitchers are consistent—they don't have long spells of low-strikeout games. Once you fall behind in the strikeout standings, it is virtually impossible to make up ground.
So Lincecum is in a good position.
After the riff-raff falls by the wayside, the NL Cy Young Award race is going to come down to these pitchers:Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Johnson, Roy Halladay, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Carpenter, Mat Latos, Tim Lincecum, and Mike Pelfrey. Maybe.
Only Gallardo leads Lincecum in strikeouts, and only Wainwright and Halladay are within 10 strikeouts of him.
So, if Tim Lincecum is interested in his third straight NL Cy Young Award, the only thing he has to do is continue to pitch the way he has, but just get his ERA down about three quarters of a run lower than it is right now.
Frankly, it really doesn't seem that difficult at all.
Maybe Lincecum will be able to remind the baseball viewing public, currently agog over the phenom in Washington and the emerging superstar in Denver, that they once thought he was pretty hot stuff as well.