Wherever Tim Lincecum was sitting in the San Francisco Giants’s dugout on Wednesday night, there was a good chance he felt almost as lonely as Matt Cain was. Because after Wednesday night when Cain pitched the first perfect game in Giants’s franchise history, the reality became clearer: Matt Cain is the real Freak of that team.
In the last few years, the Giants’s starting rotation has been touted as one of the best in Major League Baseball. A giant ballpark and a mostly giant division mean that pitchers will almost always thrive as a Giant. The orange team by the bay was the epitome of that, flaunting a rotation with two of the best pitchers in baseball, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, along with a fine youngster with an amazing name, Madison Bumgarner. The Giants rode this star-studded pitching crew, anchored by Lincecum, all the way to the World Series in 2010, taking the Fall Classic in old fashion.
Fast-forward a few years later and the tale is different. Lincecum is no longer what he once was. Ever since he was the Cy Young in 2008 and 2009, Timmy hasn’t been a massive of pitching prowess. He’s gone back and forth between pretty good and not very. He posted a 3.43 and a 2.74 earned run average in his last two full seasons; a 1.272 and a 1.207 WHIP during the same time. Those earned run averages have been his highest since his rookie year. His velocity, once one of the most dangerous for a big league starter, has now dipped to average. His fastball simply doesn’t have the blow-you-away power it once possessed – the cornerstone of Lincecum’s success earlier in his career. He may have sacrificed some of his speed for the sake of control, but that hasn’t been translating to stunning success overall. Lincecum has had stretches of starts – even before this year – where he looked like a kid on the mound, struggling with his motion and control over his pitches. Clues were dropped all over the byline of box scores, along with the vision on the television screen, which showed that the Freak was changing.
The startling signs of Lincecum’s inconsistency and dropping value have come to full focus this season. After being shelled by the rival Arizona Diamondbacks on Opening Night, Lincecum has not recovered. He’s gone off the deep end and shown the worst numbers of his career: 2-7, an ERA of 6, 77 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched, a 1.583 WHIP, 1.97 strikeouts to walks ratio, 75 hits allowed, 39 walks, and a 59 ERA + so far this season.
No, Lincecum has not moved to the American League East.
After two straight years of inconsistency and numbers that pale in comparison to his Cy Young seasons, these horrific numbers suggest that Timmy’s value is sinking at a speedy rate. What’s more frightening is that he’s lost control of his pitches. Far too often this season Lincecum has thrown bad pitch after bad pitch, in the best zones for hitters, allowing himself to be clobbered. In the past, his strong velocity allowed him to compensate for such errors in location, but now he can’t be so fortunate.
Matt Cain, on the other hand, seems to only be getting sharper. He’s 8-2 with a 2.18 ERA, 96 strikeouts in 95 innings pitched, a 0.853 WHIP, 6 strikeouts to every walk, 65 hits allowed, 16 walks, and a 163 ERA+ so far this season. Adding to all of this was his last start in which he struck out 14 Houston Astros en route to a perfect game. Cain might not cause an absurd batter-and-a-half an inning to swing and miss, but these overall numbers might just destroy the entire AL East.
When he’s on his money, Lincecum is even better than Cain. For his career, he’s 71-48, has a 3.17 ERA, 1,204 strikeouts in 1,100 innings pitched, a 1.214 WHIP, 2.88 strikeouts to walks ratio, 917 hits allowed, 418 walks, and a 128 ERA+. That line is even better than Cain’s over his eight-year career thus far.
But those stats don’t tell the current reality. Lincecum hasn’t shown his former ace quality, as he has been struggling mightily so often in the last few years. A true, consistent ace – the Roy Halladays, the Cliff Lees, the Justin Verlanders, and you better believe it, the Matt Cains – almost never show any faults. They’ll have less than a handful of bad starts in a season, not a couple handfuls of bad starts in one year like Lincecum.
Matt Cain, on the other hand, has been pretty constant. In his career thus far he’s 77-75, with a 3.28 ERA, 1,181 strikeouts in 1,412.1 innings pitched, a 1.173 WHIP, 2.42 strikeouts to walks ratio, 1,167 hits allowed, 489 walks, a 126 ERA+. Many of those numbers may seem weaker than Lincecum’s, but Cain is the one who has stayed the course. Since 2006, his first full year as a starter, to 2009, Cain has posted earned run averages of 4.15, 3.65, 3.76, and 2.89. And over the last two seasons when Lincecum began to be erratic, Cain had a 3.14 and 2.88 ERA, and a 1.084 and a 1.083 WHIP. Cain’s only inconsistency, well, may be that his ERA is becoming lower and lower over these last three seasons, instead of staying the same. How scandalous!
Cain doesn’t have more potent stuff than Lincecum and has never put up historic numbers (aside from a perfect game with 14 strikeouts) but he’s been spectacular in his own right. And even better, he has ace-like quality, suffering less than a handful of bad starts in a season. In the last few seasons for the Giants, Cain has been the solid anchor, the best and dependable star among a number of storied pitchers. Lincecum is a roller coaster ride and is showing it even more now. If a pitcher can’t locate his pitches, then he’s in trouble. Big trouble.
The Giants know exactly how valuable Matt Cain is to them. All he does is locate his pitches and hurls quality and dominant starts. The Giants rewarded Cain by giving him the richest deal for a right-handed pitcher in Major League history: 139.75 million dollars over eight years. What did the Giants give Lincecum? A sign of how much they trust him: a two year, 40.5 million dollar deal. (I’m sorry, did I say deal? I meant to say bone.)
The disparity between the two deals show how much faith the Giants have in their pitchers. Cain is the most reliable and one of the best in the game; Lincecum is the best, if he can locate his pitches, can find consistency, and doesn’t change up mechanics, messing himself up. See the complexity? Timmy on his mark is truly remarkable, but he’s not worth investing in. He, like his motion, is wild and uncontrolled. He can’t put up steady numbers anymore. He doesn’t show that he’s an ace. Add that onto a pitching motion that could break him down at any time, and there shouldn’t be a mystery as to why the Giants wade in caution and offer him short-term contracts. They know he’s not a Matt Cain. They know he’s not an ace. But Lincecum should rejoice: Cain’s perfect game was the last clue for everyone to stop fawning over the Freak and focus on the real ace of San Francisco. Now, Timmy can get a little time to himself while one of the best pitchers in the game continues to become better and better. That might just be something even better than an ace.