Return of the Fireman: The Lincecum Option

By: J. Scott Smith

On October 23, 2013, the San Francisco Giants resigned two-time Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum to a two-year $35 million contract to avoid losing his services to free agency. The Lincecum signing was widely criticized by baseball writers because the Giants clearly paid for Lincecum’s past performance as a dominant starting pitcher, which was most colorfully depicted by ESPN baseball writer Dan Szymborski:

The San Francisco Giants announced a scientific breakthrough this afternoon, demonstrating the ability to travel forward in time and return to the present, thus fulfilling the dreams of H.G. Wells.

Szymborski’s criticism of the deal is hard to refute when examining Lincecum’s career numbers:

Year

Age

Tm

W

L

W-L%

ERA

G

GS

CG

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

SO

ERA+

WHIP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

2007

23

SFG

7

5

.583

4.00

24

24

0

146.1

122

70

65

12

65

150

112

1.278

7.5

0.7

4.0

9.2

2.31

2008

24

SFG

18

5

.783

2.62

34

33

2

227.0

182

72

66

11

84

265

168

1.172

7.2

0.4

3.3

10.5

3.15

2009

25

SFG

15

7

.682

2.48

32

32

4

225.1

168

69

62

10

68

261

171

1.047

6.7

0.4

2.7

10.4

3.84

2010

26

SFG

16

10

.615

3.43

33

33

1

212.1

194

84

81

18

76

231

114

1.272

8.2

0.8

3.2

9.8

3.04

2011

27

SFG

13

14

.481

2.74

33

33

1

217.0

176

74

66

15

86

220

127

1.207

7.3

0.6

3.6

9.1

2.56

2012

28

SFG

10

15

.400

5.18

33

33

0

186.0

183

111

107

23

90

190

68

1.468

8.9

1.1

4.4

9.2

2.11

2013

29

SFG

10

14

.417

4.37

32

32

1

197.2

184

102

96

21

76

193

76

1.315

8.4

1.0

3.5

8.8

2.54

His velocity down, Lincecum’s days as a dominant starter are clearly behind him as his 5’11 170 pound frame couldn’t hold up after 200+ innings per year (see Grantland’s Jonah Keri for a more in-depth analysis).  Yet, the Giants can still get their money’s worth in Lincecum if GM Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy have the creativity and wherewithal to understand that Lincecum is still a special competitor. The way to do this is by moving Lincecum to the bullpen and making him a “Fireman,” a designation that honestly hasn’t existed in baseball since manager Tony La Russa promoted and solidified the specialized bullpen as MLB doctrine.

The etymology of the reliever moniker “Fireman” is somewhat murky with no clear genesis point, but player interviews revealed that relievers had been called “Firemen” during the 1920s and 30s with some regularity. New York Yankees pitcher Johnny “Fireman” Murphy was the pitcher most associated with the moniker, leading the American League in saves four times from 1938-1942. During those years, the term “Fireman” really suited a team’s best reliever as they only entered games that really needed saving. In 1941, Yankee starting pitchers had 75 complete games with Murphy only finishing 31 games (15 saves; 77.1 innings) on their way to the AL pennant with 101 wins. During game 2 of the 1941 World Series, Yankee manager Joe McCarthy brought Murphy in the top of sixth inning with two on and no out with the score tied 2-2. After striking out the first batter, Murphy gave up an rbi single to Dolph Camini, but then finished the game without allowing an earned run. The Yankees lost 3-2, but McCarthy knew the top 6 situation would probably be the most important moment in the game and promptly used his best reliever.

To demonstrate how much the game has changed, in game 4 of last season’s NLDS, Atlanta Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez infamously did not bring in baseball’s best closer Craig Kimbrel in the 8th inning saying, “I think six outs isn’t something we were even talking about in the dugout.”  Braves reliever David Carpenter promptly gave up a two-run homerun to Juan Uribe; the Braves lose and Kimbrel pitched a total of one inning in the NLDS. Current MLB doctrine seemingly mandates that your best reliever pitches exclusively in the 9th inning, but the Giants have an opportunity to make Lincecum a Fireman and bring him in during high leverage situations. Like the 6th inning of game 2 in the 1941 World Series, the most important situations in baseball games are rarely in the 9th inning.

An important component of this plan is that the Giants already have the 2012 postseason to sample how they might use Lincecum as a Fireman.

Series

Opp

Rslt

Inngs

Dec

DR

IP

H

ER

BB

SO

ERA

BF

Pit

Entered

Exited

NLDS g2

CIN

L,0-9

6-7

99

2.0

1

0

0

2

0.00

7

25

6t — 0 out d4

7t 3 out d4

NLDS g4

CIN

W,8-3

4-8

W(1-0)

2

4.1

2

1

0

6

1.42

15

55

4b 12- 2 out a1

8b 3 out a5

NLCS g1

STL

L,4-6

5-6

3

2.0

0

0

1

1

1.08

6

24

5t — 0 out d2

6t 3 out d2

NLCS g4

STL

L,3-8

GS-5

L(1-1)

3

4.2

6

4

3

3

3.46

23

91

1b start tie

5b 1– 2 out d3

WS g1

DET

W,8-3

6-8

5

2.1

0

0

0

5

2.93

7

32

6t 12- 2 out a5

8t 3 out a7

WS g3

DET

W,2-0

6-8

H(1)

2

2.1

0

0

1

3

2.55

9

32

6b 1– 2 out a2

8b 3 out a2

During their 2012 World Series run, Lincecum thrived in his postseason relief appearances pitching 13 innings, striking out 17, walking 2, and only allowing 1 earned run (0.69 ERA; 0.38 WHIP). Various insights can be drawn from his 2012 postseason experience. First, Lincecum enjoyed the pressure of these situations and his ultra-competitive personality is perfect for this role. Second, Lincecum can pitch more than one inning in his appearances. Among the changes solidified by La Russa’s specialized bullpen approach is that relievers are relegated to single-inning (and many times a single batter) appearances. To illustrate the differences let’s examine Hall of Fame relievers Rollie Fingers and Dennis Eckersley’s MVP seasons.

Rollie Fingers

Year

Age

Tm

Lg

W

L

W-L%

ERA

G

SV

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

IBB

SO

HBP

WHIP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

1981

34

MIL

AL

6

3

.667

1.04

47

28

78

55

9

9

3

13

5

61

1

0.872

6.3

0.3

1.5

7.0

4.69

Dennis Eckersley

Year

Age

Tm

Lg

W

L

W-L%

ERA

G

SV

IP

H

R

ER

HR

BB

IBB

SO

HBP

WHIP

H/9

HR/9

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

1992

37

OAK

AL

7

1

.875

1.91

69

51

80.0

62

17

17

5

11

6

93

1

0.913

7.0

0.6

1.2

10.5

8.45

In his MVP season, Fingers averaged 1.66 innings per appearance, while Eckersley only average 1.23 innings per appearance in one of the most bewildering MVP votes in MLB history. If we examine closers in their prime from ages 28-31, we can clearly see La Russa’s influence in the amount of innings pitched by closers.

Name (Age 28-31)

Games (4-year avg)

Innings (4-year avg)

Innings per appearance

Johnny Murphy (1937-40)

36

81½

2.26

Rollie Fingers (1975-78)

75½

125½

1.66

Bruce Sutter (1981-84)

62½

99

1.59

Goose Gossage (1980-83)

52½

81½

1.55

Dan Quisenberry (1981-84)

63¼

116¾

1.84

Mariano Rivera (1998-01)

64

71¾

1.12

Trevor Hoffman (1996-99)

67½

77¼

1.14

Billy Wagner (2000-03)

60

63

1.05

But what you also see from this chart is that the amount of games pitched did not change all that drastically. At 29, Lincecum could be a Bruce Sutter or Goose Gossage reliever appearing in 60-65 games pitching 90-100 innings at an average of 1.55 innings per appearance.  With Lincecum as the Fireman, the Giants would have their best reliever pitch the most innings, which is generally outside of the La Russa specialized bullpen model. Last season, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen led all closers in baseball with 76.2 innings pitched and the three highest inning totals of pitchers without starting a game last season were long relievers Anthony Swarzak (96 IP), Josh Collmenter (92 IP), and Tommy Hunter (86.1 IP).  Rather than my long reliever having the most innings, I’d rather have my best bullpen arm pitch the most innings, in the most important instances of the game, while limiting his appearances under 70 to reduce the wear and tear associated with getting a pitcher warmed up and in a game.  Under these circumstances, Lincecum’s value can be maximized best through 90-100 innings as a reliever rather than 190-210 as a number 3 starter.

No doubt, moving Lincecum to the bullpen would create a need for a fifth starting pitcher. The depth chart for the 2014 Giants’ pitching staff would look like this at the start of the season:

Starters

Relievers

Matt Cain

Tim Lincecum

Madison Bumgarner

Sergio Romo

Tim Hudson

Santiago Casilla

Ryan Vogelsong

Jeremy Affeldt

 

Javier Lopez

 

Jose Mijares

The Giants can either go the free agent or prospect route to fill the fifth starter slot.  In free agency, Ervin Santana could fit nicely into the pitcher-friendly confines of AT&T Park, but there’s just about zero chance they’d commit long-term money to Santana. Cheap starters Jason Marquis and Aaron Harang both pitched over 100 innings last season and could hold the fifth starter spot until prospects were ready to be called up. As for prospects, top prospect Kyle Crick is probably a year away, so prospects Mike Kickham, Eric Surkamp, and Edwin Escobar will all certainly get a look at Spring Training to determine if the Giants believe any of them are major league ready.

Regardless of who ends up as the fifth starter, the Giants would find at least a comparable starting pitcher to Lincecum’s -2.0 WAR in 2012 and -.6 WAR in 2013.  In addition, Lincecum’s brilliance in the 2012 postseason as a reliever should give the Giants confidence that not only would he be successful in the role, but that it’s also the best way to maximize Lincecum’s value. With Lincecum as the Fireman, manager Bruce Bochy could use him in high leverage situations the same way manager Joe McCarthy used Johnny Murphy to put out fires for the Yankees.  In the process, Bochy could rail against the La Russa specialized bullpen doctrine and justifiably place himself next to one of the greatest Yankee managers of all-time. So go on Bochy, be bold, show the baseball world that Joe Maddon isn’t the only creative manager in the game.

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