Market Fresh: Tim Lincecum


A report by Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe suggested that two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum will be on the trading block this offseason.

The Royals need starting pitching. Is there a fit?

Oct 18, 2012; St. Louis, MO, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) throws to the St. Louis Cardinals during the first inning of game four of the 2012 NLCS at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into 2012, Lincecum had a career 2.98 ERA in 1028 innings, but he’s been unusually bad this year. In 186 innings during the regular season, he had a 5.18 ERA. Lincecum’s numbers don’t look very different from past seasons. He’s striking out batters at a similar rate, and while his walks have gone up, they haven’t jumped dramatically.

So how to explain the sudden change?

His fastball velocity is down. He’s usually had a fastball that hung around 92 mph but in 2012, his average fastball velocity fell to 90.4. He’s given up more hits per nine innings than in year’s past and he’s been more homer-prone as well. An increase in baserunners plus an increase in homers allowed – a bad recipe for any pitcher. It turns a Cy Young contender and true ace into a pitcher who’s worse than replacement level.

Lincecum’s changeup has always been his best he pitch but, according to FanGraphs, it was worse than ever. When facing the changeup this year, batters had .221 isolated power. One way to look at that is by saying that a batter facing his changeup hit like Josh Reddick who had 32 homers this year and a .463 slugging percentage. The Giants say it’s a mechanics issue (and perhaps something that could be fixed easily this offseason) according to Cafardo. That could cause the velocity drop and ineffectiveness of the changeup which have made his 2012 a lost year.

So let’s see this from the Royals perspective. They need pitching, and adding a frontline starter is the best case scenario. Lincecum fits that bill, especially if the Royals think they can sort out the problem and he returns to form. While he didn’t strike out as many batters per nine innings as he usually has, 9.2 K/9 is still really good. His ground ball rate is normal for his track record, and other signs suggest that other statistical corrections could be in store next year.

Lincecum stranded less runners than he had in any other season. Typically, Lincecum has stranded 75% of baserunners – right around league average – but in 2012, that dropped nearly 10%. He also gave up a homer on 14.6% of fly balls. Previously, his career high of that measurement was 9.9%, but usually has been around 6-8%. The league average is usually around 10% for that mark. Both of those numbers could easily return to their normal levels, making Linceum as good as new. His xFIP, which aims to pick out what a pitcher’s performance would have been with typical figures for HR/FB% and BABIP, was 3.82 in 2012. Not Cy Young caliber, but still very good.

All of that considered makes Lincecum a good candidate to return to form next year and a great buy-low possibility for Kansas City.

One catch – Lincecum’s 2013 salary will be $22 million. The Giants would probably give a potential suitor a discount on prospects if they were going to take on much or all of that salary, but if a team expected cash to come with Lincecum, they’d have to give up more and better prospects. David Glass has said he’s willing to spend, but $22 million for one pitcher is pretty steep for anyone.

Also, it’s the last year of Lincecum’s contract. If there’s an injury or another issue causing his problems in 2012, there’s no chance at an extension being offered, and the Royals should be looking more for pitchers they can control for a few years. If the Royals took on all of that salary and Lincecum didn’t get better, they’d have wasted resources for a one year bust. That’s a significant risk (though there is great reward as well). There’s also a question of how the Royals would fix him. For all of the praise they’ve received for building a farm system, only Dusty Hughes (1), Everett Teaford (8) and Danny Duffy (26) have been drafted by Moore and made starts in the big leagues.* There’s no assurance that they’ll identify Lincecum’s problem.

*I’ll follow the organization’s story that Moore wasn’t part of the Hochevar draft, though even including Hochevar on Moore’s draft-to-starter resume doesn’t help his case.

All things considered, it’s unlikely that the Royals will go after Lincecum. If he had two more years on his contract, it may be a different story, but they’d be banking on him returning to form in one year and everything else working out and the amount of salary they’d have to take on in the process could cost them any opportunity to sign other starters.

Note: Giants GM Brian Sabean has publicly stated that Lincecum won’t be going anywhere next season, so this article is more of an interesting hypothetical than anything – though I’m sure if the Royals offered enough, they could get the Giants to bite.