It seems like a loaded question from the outset, but is Tim Lincecum better than Juan Marichal?
For those unfamiliar with San Francisco Giants history (note: San Francisco Giants), Juan Marichal is considered by many people to be the best pitcher in franchise history.
Tim Lincecum’s astonishing success in his brief tenure with the Giants, however, suggests that Marichal’s position on the throne may have been supplanted by The Freak.
Let’s take a look at basic, raw statistics to get an overall image of the comparison:
5 Seasons: 69-41, 2.98 ERA, 1028 IP, 1127 K, 1.118 WHIP, 7.4 H/9
16 Seasons: 243-142, 2.89 ERA, 3507 IP, 2303 K, 1.101 WHIP, 8.1 H/9
You might note the curious omission of two facts: Tim Lincecum has already won two National League Cy Young Awards, while Juan Marichal never finished higher than eighth in the rankings, and Juan Marichal threw 244 complete games, 236 more than Tim Lincecum.
These statistics have been omitted due to era (time period, not earned run average) differences. When Marichal pitched, the Cy Young Award was still a relatively new award and pitchers were still frequently considered for the MVP. In 1968, Marichal finished fifth in MVP voting. He finished in the top 10 in 1965 and 1966 as well. Furthermore, the Cy Young Award was given to only one pitcher in each league until 1967. Marichal also had the misfortune of having his peak years at the same time that Sandy Koufax experienced his. Had Marichal pitched today, one could make an argument that, even with adjusted statistics, he would have won the Cy Young Award at least once.
The 244 complete games are an impressive statistic in and of themselves, but must be placed into proper context. Personally, I consider complete games and (to a lesser extent) shutouts to be essentially useless when one considers statistical comparison between eras. Closers, in the sense that the term is used today, did not exist during Marichal’s career. Perhaps a better metric would be innings pitched per start:
Lincecum: 156 Games, 1028 IP, 6.63 IP per game
Marichal: 471 Games, 3507 IP, 7.44 IP per game
Consider, also, that Lincecum has one relief appearance and Marichal had 14 career relief appearances, so the “real” values are slightly higher. What these statistics mean is that an average start for Lincecum is a 6.2 inning outing and the average start for Marichal took him through 7.1 innings.
The next step is to prorate Tim Lincecum’s statistics. In the interest of computational simplicity, I will project that Tim Lincecum will maintain his performance for another ten seasons. Juan Marichal’s 16th season was a forgettable two-start stint with the Los Angeles Dodgers, so for argument’s sake I will consider Marichal’s career to be 15 seasons long as well. In this case, the statistics come out as such:
Lincecum: 207-123, 2.98 ERA, 3084 IP, 3381 K, 1.118 WHIP, 7.4 H/9
Marichal: 243-142, 2.89 ERA, 3507 IP, 2303 K, 1.101 WHIP, 8.1 H/9
Pay attention to the comparable winning percentages, earned run averages and WHIP. Note that strikeouts, admittedly a “fashion” statistic (although not useless in certain game situations), land Lincecum among the all-time leaders in that category. The league ERA disparities do not factor in much either, with Lincecum actually having a slight career edge in ERA+.
Whether or not Tim Lincecum can continue his dominance will ultimately determine how he stacks up against the likes of Juan Marichal by the time his career is over. Other slight-of-build pitchers have had enduring success, however, Pedro Martinez and Orel Hershiser being good examples. It is also important, for comparison’s sake, that Tim Lincecum remain with the Giants.
What these statistics do suggest is that, at this point in his career, Tim Lincecum is at least as dominant as Juan Marichal was during his best years as a Giant.