If I gave you a pitchers career resume and told you that included two Cy Young Awards, two World Series Championships, two no-hitters, and being named a three time strikeout champion with over 1,500 k’s all at the age of 30, most would be quick to categorize his career as Hall of Fame worthy. At the very least, baseball fans would say this pitcher is in the middle of his prime with a number of great years still ahead. That is how we as baseball fans, or sports fans in general, separate great players from the rest of the athletes they play against. We have this desire in sports to separate the greats from the rest in an effort to preserve their legendary careers. We almost feel as if we owe it to the sport to do such.
If I were to then tell you these are the accomplishments of San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum, the Hall of Fame talk seems to fade into black.
It’s not to say that only great players make the Hall of Fame. Excluding those players linked to performance enhancing drugs, who are purposely not being voted in to send a message that cheating will not be celebrated, there are plenty of great baseball players that will never make Cooperstown. It’s just the fact of the matter. The Hall of Fame, and the baseball writers that induct the players, have the job of keeping the list of players more exclusive to preserve the prestigious honor of being elected. Lincecum may never be a Hall of Famer, but his numbers stack up with some of the best.
Consider that Lincecum is one of four players to win multiple Cy Young Awards and have multiple no-hitters. The other three names on that list are hall of fame Dodger Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, who will be eligible in 2015, and Roy Halladay, whose first no-hitter was actually a perfect game and he followed that performance up with a no-hitter in the playeoffs. Lincecum also joins Koufax as the only Cy Young Winner to have multiple no hitters and multiple World Series Championships.
If recent years have shown us anything about Tim Lincecum it is that he lost some of dominance we saw in his first three years with the Giants.
When he was drafted by the San Francisco in 2003, he was seen as a lengthy kid with an unusual delivery, but with a high velocity arm that clocked his fastball in the mid to upper 90’s. Current Giants pitching coach, and the man who first scouted Lincecum in high school, was high on the former University of Washington pitcher before he first suited up in the majors:
“He has power equipment with a curveball as good as it gets. He has now stuff—it’s technique and athletic ability. He’s also blessed with a really loose arm. He can stick it behind his back and still get to the top of the ball and still have explosive arm action. A lot of guys can’t do that.”
By 2008 he was a full-time starter in the majors and was the Giants number one starting pitcher. By the end of the 2009 season, Lincecum was a two time Cy Young winner with a career 2.55 ERA in his first two major league seasons. He averaged 226 innings a season and 263 strikeouts while only allowing 76 walks a year. Lincecum had already made himself a household name and by this time he was only 25 years old.
He was not only getting the attention of baseball writers across America, but was getting the full support of his teammates and coaching staff, who got to watch “The Freak” work up close and personal on a daily basis:
“The way Timmy competes, it picks up the whole ballclub,” said manager Bruce Bochy. “He’s used to powering his way through lineups, but now you see him pitching more. He picks up things so fast and makes the adjustments. That’s what you need at this level, and he’s shown he can do it at an early age.”
Based on his first three years in the league, it was easy to consider Lincecum among the best pitchers in baseball. But then something happened that often does with young pitchers who find early successes at the major league level; batters started figuring him out and his numbers significantly dropped off.
Over the next four seasons, from 2010-2013, Lincecum’s ERA rose to 3.93, which is still impressive if you compare that to the majority of starters in that same time period. But where Lincecum was truly struggling was getting the win on a quality outing. Over those four years the right hander put together a record of 49-53, compared to his record of 40-17 through his first three seasons with the Giants. By the end of the 2013 season, Lincecum was going back and forth between the bullpen and the starting rotation, and at one point his ERA rose over 10. He was now the Giants third pitcher in the rotation behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner and worst of all, Lincecum was no longer the feared presence he once was.
In 16 starts this season, Lincecum is 6-5 with a 4.42 ERA, but his most recent no-hitter against the Padres earlier this week has his biggest critics re-evaluating his seven year career.
If we are looking strictly at Hall of Fame careers, this is how Lincecum would match up to current Cooperstown inductees. We already know about his individual career accomplishments of numerous no hitters, World Series championships, and Cy Young Awards, but just as important to a Hall of Fame career is how an individual player contributes to his team.
In his seven years, Lincecum has WAR (or wins above replacement) of 22.4, according to Baseball-Reference.com. An average career WAR for Hall of Famer is 73.4 and over a seven year period those pitchers peaked at 50.2, which puts Lincecum at about half of what some of the game’s best had accomplished.
Now it would appear that I’m putting too much stake in what it means to have a Hall of Fame career, but this is precisely the point I’m trying to illustrate. Even if Lincecum’s numbers have slipped since his first two full seasons, he has put together a rather impressive resume since his last Cy Young Award. He is 95-75 in his eight major league seasons and in his 236 starts he has averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings, ranking him first among active players.
So the question at hand is why does he get so much backlash when he does have a bad outing? The simple answer is that as baseball fans we are stuck in the past. We want to see that lights out stuff he once had and it’s hard for us to move past that. The real signs of a great pitcher, or athlete in general, is how they continue to evolve as a player as they get older. No one can stop getting older, so the way a pitcher adjusts to a drop off in his velocity is a real testament to the man on the mound. He might not be able to beat you with a 97 mph fastball any more, but if he can adjust his arsenal to a couple off speed pitches, and still be effective, wouldn’t we say he’s become a smarter pitcher?
Whether it was his long hair, the Tom Selleck mustache he’s dawned in recent years, or his long and wiry delivery, there has always been something unconventional about Tim Lincecum. ESPN’s Tim Keown might have the most accurate assessment of number 55 when he says:
“Deep down inside, Lincecum is an old-school baseball guy, Bob Gibson in skater-dude motif.”
It wouldn’t appear as if Lincecum is going anywhere anytime soon. Even after his contract is up with the Giants in 2015, he will still only be 31 years old and there will be plenty of teams that would love to utilize his services if the Giants don’t bring him back. He has averaged 32 starts per season and is on pace for well-over 2,000 strikeouts by the time his career is over. He won’t be a 300 game winner and he will unlikely finish his career with a sub three ERA, but that doesn’t mean that his career hasn’t been electric. Lincecum might get a bad rep for being a shell of his former self, but if his latest no-hitter has proven anything it’s that he has the ability to step on the mound any afternoon and take full command of the game.