Ok, I'll ask. What the hell was that? The Tim Lincecum who posted a 2.81 ERA from 2008-2011, with a K:BB ratio of 10.0 in that span, was nowhere to be found in 2012. Gone was the two-time Cy Young winner, four-time All-Star, and early fantasy draft mainstay that we had grown accustomed to. In his place we just had a complete mess.
Lincecum led the National League with 15 losses and 107 earned runs allowed. His 5.18 ERA was the fourth-worst of any starter with more than 162 innings logged. His 1.47 WHIP was also the fourth-worst in that category. He failed to crack 200 innings and 200 strikeouts for the first time since his rookie season in 2007. His rate of walks allowed shot up, and he allowed a career-worst 90 free passes. He gave up a career-worst 23 home runs. He lost his rotation spot in the playoffs. Other than that, his season sucked. I haven't seen one-sided destruction like this since the Irish faced off against Alabama (topical!). Oh, and he led the league with 17 wild pitches. If you're in a league that docks you points for that stat, then 1) you're much nerdier than I am, and 2) you probably wanted to go upside Lincecum's dome with a 2x4 by season's end.
Lincecum was all screwed up from the word go in 2012, and he never had a stretch where he looked anything like his former self. His ERA was over 5.00 in each of the first four months of the season. In August, he lowered it to 3.90, but even then, his strikeout rate was a lowly 6.2, and he went back to pitching pretty badly in September. Theories ran rampant over why Lincecum had lost his mojo. Was his small build finally breaking down under the toll of the long seasons? Was he disguising an arm injury that resulted in a career-low average fastball velocity? Did his struggles coincide with a break from one of his formerly favorite recreational habits?
Whatever the cause, Lincecum probably torpedoed more than a few fantasy managers. Before the season, he was ranked easily in the top ten among starting pitchers, and was firmly in the top five in a few fantasy mags. The worst part of it was that if you owned him, you just had to keep starting him, figuring that he could suddenly regain his groove at a moment's notice and turn into that championship-caliber fantasy pitcher that you drafted so high. Sadly, he never put it together, and his owners could only watch as their team's ERA and WHIP fell into a hole and died.
I had voiced some caution about Lincecum before the season started, and it looks like my fears were realized, and then some. I took some flak when I wrote this article last year, when I suggested that Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were safer picks than Timmy for 2012. I looked at Lincecum's 2011 season, saw his career-worst K/9 and higher BB/9 numbers, and figured that he might be set for a decline. I didn't think he was going to tank, but I predicted a decline to something less than a star-level season. Boy, was I ever right.
Lincecum (justifiably) lost his spot in the rotation in the playoffs, but was extremely successful when used out of the bullpen in October. This has led to some speculation that he could be used as a closer. Perhaps Lincecum has a future as a good relief pitcher, especially if he can't right the ship as a starter, but for 2013? Forget it. The Giants are paying him $22 million this season, and they ain't paying him that much money to toss 70-80 innings. The Giants will ride out Lincecum as a starter until he proves he's past the point of no return.
So will you be drafting Timmy in 2013? I have to say, Lincecum's bad season was disconcerting for a variety of reasons. His command was out of whack all year, resulting in a horrendous 4.4 walks per nine innings. He still helped out fantasy owners in strikeouts, but his velocity was several ticks lower than it's ever been, leading some to believe that his arm is ready to give out.
I guess if you're looking for a silver lining, Fangraphs had his xFIP at a reasonable 3.82, citing an extremely elevated HR/FB rate as a potential cause for his high ERA. Lincecum allowed 23 home runs last season; he'd never allowed more than 18. Since he pitches in a park that is very homer-unfriendly, it stands to reason that this was a fluke. If the home runs drop next year, he'll see his ERA improve.
Still, as much as I love the guy and appreciate the years of joy he's given us Giants fans, I remain skeptical. His high strikeout totals provide hope that he's a mere mechanical correction away from regaining star status, but his loss of velocity and worsening walk rates scare the hell out of me. Plus, if you watched him every single game last year, as I did, he just didn't look right. I know that's armchair scout stuff, but it's enough to drive me away from taking him in any drafts. He has the potential to be the steal of the draft, as his stock has bottomed out, but unless he drops to the last few rounds, I'm not touching him with a ten foot pole.