You can’t win a game in the first quarter, but you can lose it.
This philosophy, most commonly applied to football, can easily be adapted to fantasy sports – You generally don’t win your league in the first few rounds of a draft, but spending one of your top picks on someone who fails to live up to expectations can be a deathblow, as Tim Lincecum’s owners discovered last season. Prior to 2012, Lincecum was widely regarded as a top-30 overall player and a top-5 pitcher. Obviously, things didn’t quite pan out that way.
If you drafted Lincecum, you did so in either the 2nd or 3rd round, and your reward was this. So atrocious was his season that if we were to base his value solely on his 2012 performance, Lincecum wouldn’t even be drafted in most leagues. But since we’re talking about a 2-time Cy Young winner who’s only 28 years old, he most certainly will be (he’s at 134 in Tristan H. Cockroft’s most recent rankings). Someone in your league is going to draft Tim Lincecum. Should it be you?
Lincecum’s catastrophic 2012 went well beyond a typical off year. He was, by nearly every statistical measure, among the worst pitchers in baseball (among qualifying pitchers, he posted the 4th highest ERA, the 4th highest WHIP, the 4th highest BB/9 and the 3rd highest loss total). His struggles can be traced most obviously to a marked decline in velocity (according to PitchF/X data, his fastball averaged just 90.4 MPH in 2012, a full 2 MPH off his career average), but he also struggled with his command (as detailed in this excellent piece from FanGraphs), perhaps the result of an attempt to alter his approach to compensate for the fact that he’d lost the ability to overpower hitters with his fastball. Lincecum’s only flashes of his former greatness came as a reliever in the postseason, where he was instrumental in the Giants’ World Series win.
Lincecum’s bullpen heroics, coupled with the Giants’ dismissal of closer Brian Wilson, have lead to speculation that he could follow the career path of John Smoltz or Kerry Wood, and while I do believe that this may be the best option for him long-term, it’s unlikely that it will happen this year. Lincecum will earn $22 million in 2013, which is an exorbitant sum to pay a reliever (the most that Mariano Rivera, almost universally regarded as the greatest closer of all time, has ever made in a season was $15 million, and he plays for a team with nearly unlimited financial resources). Furthermore, the Giants have publicly maintained that Lincecum will begin 2013 in the rotation. If he logs significant time as a reliever this season, it will be because he’s again struggled as a starter - meaning that anyone who drafts him with the hope that he’ll be an elite reliever in 2013 must understand that the potential half-season of quality relief will likely bring with it another half-season of ugly starts.
Theories abound regarding the underlying cause of Lincecum’s struggles. Some suggest that they were a byproduct of weight loss prior to the season. Some say they may have been related to a rift with catcher Buster Posey. Others theorize that perhaps they were the result of a loss of mental focus stemming from concerns regarding his impending paddling at the hands of O’Bannion. And then there are those who argue that we’re finally seeing what was always a likely outcome of Lincecum’s mechanics; that his body simply isn’t the type that can be expected to hold up to the rigors of his violent delivery in perpetuity. Unfortunately, given Lincecum’s pronounced drop in velocity and the apparent lack of a specific injury on which to blame it, this would seem to be the most likely explanation, as well as the most difficult to remedy.
Concerns regarding the long-term feasibility of Lincecum’s pitching style are nothing new, of course. Jim Duquette, GM of the Orioles, passed on Lincecum in the ’06 draft (along with nine other teams) and defended his decision thusly to Sports Illustrated: "There was a feeling that [Lincecum] was short, not a real physical kid, and mechanically he was going to break down, that there was enough stress on his arm, elbow and shoulder. Our scouting department kind of pushed him down because of the medical aspect."
Sadly, it looks as though Duquette may have been correct in his assessment. As much as baseball has moved away from evaluating players based on physical attributes in the Moneyball era, Lincecum’s critics have cited his small frame and unorthodox mechanics as red flags for years, and his 2012 appears to have made Carnacs of them all. Lincecum and the Giants have been exploring various possible fixes for his issues throughout the offseason (some more logical than others), but if the problem is that his body is beginning to wear down from the physical demands of his throwing motion, there’s no easy fix. His only options would be altering his delivery (a move which, while certainly not unprecedented, would be a very dramatic step, and one of which the outcome would be virtually impossible to predict) or making a permanent move to the bullpen, which the Giants do not seem willing to consider at the moment.
Unfortunately, I believe we’ve seen the last of Tim Lincecum as a consistently effective starting pitcher. All it takes is a look at the career trajectories of other pitchers of his caliber who’ve struggled as immensely as he has at such a young age to see that the odds of him ever regaining his past form are quite long. As a baseball fan, I sincerely hope I’m wrong, because he was one of the game’s most unique talents and seems like a genuinely good guy, but as a fantasy owner, I won’t be going anywhere near Lincecum this year. The odds that we’re seeing the results of the breakdown of his body are just too high. He’s worth a fantasy draft pick based on the possibility, however remote, that his issues are correctable, but the risk is such that he’s not worth more than a late-round flyer, and unless your league is populated entirely by hardcore players (or by fellow connoisseurs of breathtakingly brilliant fantasy baseball writing who read this column), someone’s probably going to snatch him up much earlier than that. Casual fantasy owners have a tendency to overvalue certain players based on name value, and in Lincecum’s case, you should let them. As another man of Lincecum’s build once said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”