Tim Lincecum: modern fireman?

The fireman position in baseball has been long gone thanks to the five man rotation and the realm of the speciality bullpen arms. Bullpens are intricately built for numerous late game situations, with LOOGYs and ROOGYs and the like evolving from the multiple-inning relievers of old who took on all comers. But one man has a chance to bring back that very position if his performance continues like it has.

The biggest question the San Francisco Giants will face in 2013 is what to do with their former ace, Tim Lincecum. His decline since his back-to-back Cy Young award winning seasons has been well documented and publicized, but Lincecum’s laid-back personality combined with a tenacious will to win has not let it get too out of control.

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There have been silver linings, though. Linecum hasn’t completely lost his stuff, and his secondary stuff is so good that even with his fastball sitting at 90-91, it still allows him to strikeout a batter an inning. But he got pulled out of the 2012 postseason rotation due to career highs in walks, home runs and ERA, to name a few stats.

So Lincecum became a long reliever for the eventual World Champions in their bullpen, and simply put, he was magnificent. In five relief appearances, he struck out 17 in 13 innings while allowing only five baserunners. He was unhittable in the World Series. And even though the dreaded small sample size reared its ugly head for the statistically inclined, people noticed his fastball jumping up into the 92-93 range and this offspeed stuff had more bite to it. He looked like the Lincecum of old.

But a question did remain: Would Lincecum be able to find his stuff as a starter in his final non-free agent season with the Giants in 2013?

He will make $22.5 million, the most on the team. As early as a season ago, Lincecum was looking for a contract in the 8 year, $200 million range, looking to break C.C. Sabbathia’s record for largest pitching contract ever. Obviously, he is no longer capable of commanding a contract like that, but that doesn’t mean he’s not looking to cash in for 2014.

With a rotation basically set in stone, the Giants brass will be counting on Lincecum to pitch well in order to keep the rest of the rotation in check. Also, it’s tough to tell anyone that is making the most money on the team that they won’t be a starter at all. But is it the smart move?

Take Lincecum’s five relief outings in the playoffs. They came over 16 games. Now, for a variable, I’m going to leave Lincecum’s lone, less-than-stellar starting appearance from the NLCS in there due to the fact that Lincecum can’t be expected to have a 0.69 ERA all season long. If it all gets extrapolated over a 162 game season, the non-rate stuff would look like this: 61 appearances, 179 IP, 91 H, 51 ER, 203 K, 51 BB. 

So a sub-1 WHIP, 10.17 strikeouts per nine innings and a 4/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Not bad for a reliever, right? In this hypothetical situation, Lincecum’s inning total would be tied for the sixth most in Major League history for pitchers who had at least 80% of their appearances in relief (Per Baseball-Reference):

  1. Mike Marshall – 1974 Dodgers (106 appearances (!), 208 1/3 IP)
  2. Fergie Jenkins – 1966 Phillies/Cubs (61 appearances, 12 GS,  184 1/3 IP)
  3. Allen Russell – 1923 Senators (52 appearances, 181 1/3 IP)
  4. Andy Karl – 1945 Phillies (67 appearances, 180 2/3 IP)
  5. Bump Hadley – 1931 Senators (55 appearances, 11 GS, 179 2/3 IP)
  6. Mike Marshall – 1970 Expos (92 appearances, 179 innings)

Every player on the list above had an ERA+ of at least 111, with Marshall throwing in a 141 and a 142 season on the list. They ranged from 2 to 4 WAR pitchers depending on the year and weight you favor. Only Jenkins and Hadley had more than five starts. Interestingly enough, current Houston Astros head of pro scouting Kevin Goldstein once compared Lincecum to Marshall if he couldn’t make it as a starter or if he was on a team with different needs, with Marshall being heralded as one of the best long relievers ever.

Baseball hasn’t seen a reliever like this in quite a long time. In fact, Kelvim Escobar was the most recent player to be on the list with 126 innings in 2001 for the Blue Jays, but he also had 12 starts, including a complete game. The last guy to do it completely from the bullpen was also with the Blue Jays: Duane Ward in 1990 with 126 2/3 innings. 

Lincecum would fit perfectly into this scenario if he continued to struggle as a starter. Perhaps more important is the Giants’ readiness to adapt should it occur. Lincecum performed like a fifth starter last year, and getting someone who could be ready to take over for him if his struggles continued would be a key for the Giants to keep their top-flight rotation intact. That being said, giving Lincecum until midseason, when trades become a more viable option, is something the Giants will probably be more prepared to do.

On this very site, Lincecum was deemed the biggest disappointment in baseball in 2012. 2013 will see Lincecum be arguably the most interesting player to watch, as the combination of his impending free agency, performance expectations and his newly found dominance from the bullpen could all mix together to have a wide range of results. Only time will tell if Tim Lincecum: Modern Fireman will be present in more than just the postseason.

Tim Livingston

About Tim Livingston

Tim is a former communications coordinator, play-by-play announcer and beat writer for the Dunedin Blue Jays, Toronto's High-A minor league team in the Florida State League. He currently does broadcasting for KSVY 91.3 FM and SVTV 27 in Sonoma, CA where he covers Sonoma Valley High School sports and has a weekly variety show, "Los Livingston Brothers."

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