Between 2008-2011, Tim Lincecum was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, while posting four-consecutive seasons with at least 200 innings pitched. And in three of those seasons, he featured an ERA under 2.75.
In short, he was dominant. He earned the nickname “The Freak” and became a media darling across the country. His face was seemingly plastered on the cover of ESPN the Magazine or Sports Illustrated every other week, and SportsCenter did numerous featurettes on him throughout the baseball season.
All of the praise and attention was certainly deserved. Only Cliff Lee compiled a better FIP (2.79) than Lincecum’s 2.81 FIP amongst qualified starters in those four seasons, and the right-hander also had the fourth-lowest ERA (2.81).
That’s why it seems so awkward to say the following: fantasy owners should flat-out avoid Tim Lincecum. There, I said it.
Sure, he offers plenty of strikeouts and currently owns the highest swinging-strike rate of his career at 12.3%, but too many red flags exist to advocate owning him — or at least starting him — at this moment.
The most obvious concern surrounding Lincecum is the increased walk rate. It has grown in each of the past four seasons, and it’s ballooned to an unreasonable level the past two years. Through his first two starts, he owns a 9.00 BB/9 walk rate. No matter the strikeout rate, that’s not valuable in actual baseball — much less fantasy baseball.
His command is falling apart. It can be shown by his inability to throw pitches consistently in the strike zone. The following table compares Lincecum’s Zone% to that of the league-average amongst starters across Major League Baseball in every season since he broke into the big leagues:
The trend is clear. It’s not just the fact that his percentage of pitches in the strike zone has steadily decreased. The remainder of the league has followed suit as the classification of the strike zone has changed in these metrics throughout the years, but that’s why the differential from the league-average Zone% is so important. He’s losing ground, and in the past three season, he’s lost ground quickly.
Perhaps the most prevalent story surrounding Lincecum last season centered on his diminished velocity. From 2011 to 2012, his average fastball velocity dropped from 92.3 mph to 90.4 mph. Combine that with the increased command troubles, and the San Francisco Giants had a recipe for ineffectiveness on the mound.
The early velocity readings from his two starts this year haven’t yielded much hope. In fact, his average fastball velocity in 2013 (granted, two starts) matches his average velocity from last season, so any fantasy owners who drafted Lincecum on the chance that his velocity would rebound must be concerned.
Finally, one more red flag must be mentioned — though it does necessitate the largest small-sample-size warning. His ground-ball rate has drastically declined through his first two starts this season. In each of his first six big-league seasons, Lincecum posted an above-average GB%. This season, however, his ground-ball rate has plummeted to a mere 36.7%.
That fluctuation in the percentage of ground balls given up by Lincecum is a huge concern, especially for a guy who is sustaining decreased velocity, continues to struggle to find the strike zone and who experienced significant home run issues last year. That’s a cocktail of disaster for the Giants and for fantasy owners. Some adventurous owners may wish to keep Lincecum on his or her roster in case the magic returns, but I fail to see how the 28-year-old former Cy Young winner does anything to provide fantasy value at this moment.
Count me out. I’m not happy about it and it feels wrong, but I’m not willing to risk it this season. Let someone else grasp at the shadows.
J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).