in 2008 and 2009, Lincecum took it up a few notches. By FanGraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Lincecum was the best pitcher in the National League in 2008 and 2009. Over the last eight years, Lincecum's 2008 and 2009 seasons rank as two of the top four seasons by a pitcher in the National League. His strikeout rate went up to nearly 29% in each year and he had career best ERAs of 2.62 and 2.34. Over the next two seasons, Lincecum dropped from the top pitcher in the NL to 9th and 12th in FanGraphs WAR. He was still good, but no longer elite.
The 2012 season is when it all started to fall apart for Lincecum, as he had a career-worse ERA of 5.18. Pitchers have the most control over strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. In Lincecum's case, his strikeout rate dropped, his walk rate went up, and he allowed more homers than ever before. This trend continued over the next two seasons, as Lincecum went from one of the best pitchers in the NL to a below-average major league starting pitcher.
Let's look at the three things a pitcher has the most control over, mentioned above: strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed. The following three graphs show how Lincecum's rates in those metrics compared to starting pitchers in the National League for each season:
There's one more metric that contributes to the decline of Tim Lincecum--Left On Base Percentage (LOB%). Left On Base Percentage measures the percentage of base runners who are stranded during the course of the season. These are the guys who get on base, but do not score. Generally, starting pitchers have stranded around 72% of the runners who get on base against them. When he was going well, Lincecum stranded runners at a higher rate than league average. This has changed over the last three years:
Another thing to look at for Lincecum is how he's able to control strikeouts and walks with the bases empty and with men on base. Let's look at his results in those situations:
Another problem for Lincecum has been his declining fastball velocity.
When Lincecum was at his best, he was able to strike out batters at a higher rate than he does now and he didn't allow batters to hit the ball as well as he does these days. The Heat Maps below show how much harder Lincecum was hit in 2014 compared to his peak years of 2008 and 2009. These graphics show the Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average) allowed by Lincecum based on where his pitches were in the strike zone. They are from the pitcher's point of view.
Despite his struggles over the last three years, Lincecum is getting another shot at the Giants' rotation in 2015. The staff will be led by Madison Bumgarner, but after him there are question marks. Tim Hudson will be 39 years old. He was close to league average in 2014, despite a very low strikeout rate (5.7 K/9). He had off-season surgery on his right ankle and is already behind on his throwing program. Matt Cain is coming off a season in which he was limited to just 15 starts. He's had two straight seasons with ERAs over 4.00. Jake Peavy will be 34 and pitched over 200 innings last year with a solid 3.73 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. If he can stay healthy, he should be useful. Of course, Peavy has started 30 or more games just twice in the last seven seasons. Ryan Vogelsong will be 37 years old and started 32 games last year, but is expected to start the year as a reliever. It wouldn't be surprising to see him get plenty of starts this year, though. Finally, Yusmeiro Petit had a terrific 10.2 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in 2014 while starting 12 games and pitching in relief in 27 others. He is unlikely to start the year in the rotation but if there are injuries or ineffectiveness by the others, Petit will get some starts.
Those are the guys Lincecum will be competing with for a rotation spot. If he can figure out how to pitch with diminished velocity and solve his problems pitching with men on base, he should be fine. It's unlikely he will ever be what he was in 2008 and 2009, but he could return to relevance as a league average or better pitcher. He hasn't been able to do that for the last three years, though, so he's a big question mark heading into the 2015 season.