The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
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Former Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum turned in "freakish" seasons from 2008 to 2011

I was reminded last week by my friend Tim about the career of former major-league pitcher Tim Lincecum, who had one of the more spectacular four consecutive seasons in baseball history. That’s saying a lot, since it would put him in the same company as Hall of Famers Sandy Koufax, Pedro Martinez, and Randy Johnson. But it turned out his career wouldn’t last much longer after those four seasons, and there would be no bronze plaque in Cooperstown for him.

Lincecum, whose delivery was once described as “violent” because of the way his head and arm snapped when he threw the ball, acquired the nickname “The Freak.” He was a freak of nature because his small stature (5-11, 170 lb.) belied his ability to throw hard. He was a workhorse on the mound, pitching deep into most of his games and piling up a lot of innings early in his career. His unconventional delivery, combined with his extreme workload, ultimately took a physical toll on his body and prematurely curtailed his career.

One year after being drafted in the first round by the San Francisco Giants in 2006, Lincecum remarkably made his way into the Giants’ starting rotation. It should have come as no surprise, since he struck out 104 batters in 62 innings of work during his 13 starts (8 in 2006 and 5 in 2007) in the minors.

Lincecum made an inauspicious major-league debut with the Giants on May 6, 2007, as he gave up five runs, including two home runs, in only 4 1/3 innings. He occasionally experienced control problems and ended with a 4.00 ERA, but continued to impress with a high strikeout rate (9.2 strikeouts per 9 innings). He finished with a modest 7-5 record in 24 starts.

The baseball world began to take notice of Lincecum the next season, when he won 10 of his first 11 decisions. He went on to post an 18-5 record and 2.62 ERA for the season, leading the league with 265 strikeouts, 168 ERA+, and 10.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. His performance was rewarded with his first Cy Young Award. He made 34 starts, piling up 227 innings pitched. He averaged 108 pitches over those 34 starts. (By comparison, in 2022 Justin Verlander averaged 97 pitches over 28 starts, on 41% fewer total pitches.)

Lincecum had a repeat performance in 2009, earning another Cy Young Award, based on a 15-7 record, 2.48 ERA, and 1.047 WHIP. He again led the league with 261 strikeouts and 10.4 strikeouts per 9 innings. He pitched four complete games in 32 starts, while racking up 225.1 innings. He averaged 107 pitches over those 32 starts, including 10 with 115 or more.

He experienced a bit of a fall-off in performance in 2010, when his ERA increased by nearly one point to 3.43 (although it was practically the same as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ team-leading average ERA in the league). He led the league in strikeouts for the third consecutive year with 231, while compiling a 16-10 record in 33 starts and 212 innings pitched. Lincecum finished 10th in the Cy Young Award voting. Still the ace of the Giants staff, he won four games in the postseason, including two in the Giants’ World Series win over the Texas Rangers.

Lincecum posted an impressive 2.74 ERA in 2011, while finishing third in the league with 220 strikeouts. He made 33 starts again, compiling 217 innings. His 13-14 win-loss record was reflective of the fact that the Giants finished last in the league in runs scored. Yet he still managed to finish sixth in the Cy Young Award voting. He was still averaging over 100 innings pitched per game (104).

While Lincecum was an All-Star selection during those highly productive 2008-2011 years, 2012 was a turning point in the downfall of his career. He pitched 31 fewer innings than the year before, as his ERA ballooned to 5.18. He lost a league-leading 15 games, while collecting 10 victories. When the Giants made it to the World Series again, his role was much different from the 2010 Series. He made only one start in six playoff games, although his appearances as a relief pitcher were instrumental in the Giants winning their second Series in three years.

He continued to stay in the Giants starting rotation for the next three seasons, but he was clearly a different pitcher. His ERA during those seasons was well over 4.00, while his number of innings continued to decline. When the Giants won the World Series again in 2014, Lincecum did not pitch in any of the playoff games preceding the Series. He faced only five batters in a relief appearance in Game 2. What a difference in the Giants’ reliance on him from just five seasons earlier!

Lincecum played his last season with the Los Angeles Angels in 2016, when he made only nine starts. He was only 32 years old.

During his prime years, 2008-2011, Lincecum led the National League in innings pitched. When including his “down” years following that, he was third behind only Cole Hamels and Clayton Kershaw.

Here’s a look at three other pitchers who put in stellar four-season stints. Each of them is in the Hall of Fame. Unlike Lincecum, they were well into their careers when they accomplished their stretch of greatness.

From 1963 to 1966 Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax won the Cy Young Award three times and finished third the other year. The left-hander led the National League in ERA four times, with three of the years under 2.00. He led the league in strikeouts three times, topping out at 382 in 1965.

Pedro Martinez was a three-time Cy Young Award winner from 1997 to 2000. He finished second in the fourth season. He had three seasons as ERA leader and two as strikeout king. His 1997 season was with the Montreal Expos, while the other three were with the Boston Red Sox.

Arizona Diamondbacks lefthander Randy Johnson won the Cy Young Award in four seasons, from 1999 to 2002. He led the league in strikeouts all four seasons, while capturing the ERA title in three seasons.

Los Angeles Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw, who is still active, was a contemporary of Lincecum’s. From 2011-2014, he won three Cy Young Awards, while finishing second the other year. He led the league in ERA all four years, with two seasons as strikeout leader. He’s a likely future Hall of Famer.

Lincecum is one of only five pitchers to win multiple Cy Young Awards through his age-25 season, along with Roger Clemens, Denny McClain, Clayton Kershaw and Bret Saberhagen.

He only received nine votes when he became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2021. Even though he was one of baseball’s best pitchers during his four-year stretch, he didn’t have enough years at a high level to warrant more consideration.

Lincecum’s unorthodox mechanics and his untiring efforts on the mound worked against him in the long run. If he were starting his career today, his total number of pitches per game would be managed better, while he would likely benefit from current-day use of biomechanics data to limit the stress on his arm and hips.

But he’ll hold a place in the hearts of Giants fans forever. They’ll remember “The Freak” for his part in helping the Giants capture those three World Series rings.

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