April 26, 2008
Lincecum and Lefty
Remember the 1972 Phillies? I don't, either. I was a year old, and unlike Rany Jazayerli, I was not already in third grade at that age. The '72 Phils, however, get talked about quite a bit because of one very special pitcher. Left-hander Steve Carlton joined the team near the end of February, traded away from the Cardinals to resolve a contract dispute. The tall southpaw had been a good, but not great pitcher in his career to date, making three All-Star teams and winning 20 games in 1971, but struggling enough with his command-207 walks in two seasons-to keep his ERAs in '70 and '71 relatively high.
In '72, pitching for the worst team in the league, Carlton had the season of his-or many others'-life, throwing 346 1/3 innings, completing 30 of his 41 starts, winning both the NL Cy Young Award and the pitching triple crown. In a season shortened by a player strike, Carlton was the winning pitcher in just 46 percent of the Phillies' wins, and the starter in just shy of half of them. When he pitched, the Phillies were 29-11 (.760). When he didn't, they were 30-86 (.259). The Phillies allowed 93 runs in games Carlton started, 2.7 per game. They allowed 542 in the other 116 games, an average of 4.7, or close to twice as many per game. He was the team's only All-Star, and arguably its only good player.
Thirty-six years later, we may be dancing this dance again. Tim Lincecum is to the 2008 Giants what Steve Carlton was to those 1972 Phillies-an ace among deuces, a man among men, the only thing keeping the team out of Triple-A. So far this season, the Giants are 5-0 when he pitches, 6-13 when he doesn't. They're +9 in run differential and have allowed just seven runs in the five games (1.4 R/G) in which Lincecum pitched. They're -41 and have allowed 99 runs (5.3 R/G) in the other 19.
Lincecum is the entire reason for this. Supported by 12 runs in his four starts, he's held the opposition to just three runs in those outings. Throw in a relief appearance in his season debut (an odd game in which Bruce Bochy initially held Lincecum out due to the threat of a rain delay), and he's allowed just four runs in 29 1/3 innings, striking out 34 men. He has yet to allow a home run and has given up just five doubles among his 27 hits allowed. Yes, 27. That's beceause, despite a great strikeout rate, the Giants' porous defense rates 27th in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, and that has helped Lincecum allow a .380 batting average on balls in play. His numbers could and should be better if not for the Giants' inability to prevent singles. The return of Omar Vizquel won't help all that much; he's not that much better with the glove then Brian Bocock is, and the Giants' real problem is on the right side of the infield, where they have just one marginally average defender on the days that Rich Aurilia plays first base.
Tim Lincecum is 4-0, 1.23 despite getting virtually no support from his offense or his defense. He's the closest thing to a one-man team in MLB-his combined pitching and hitting VORP is 15.3, and the rest of the Giants have combined for 10.7. He is, like Carlton was in 1972, a superior talent on a team not remotely worthy of him. I half expect that they slip little pieces of paper into the game programs at AT&T Park now-"The role of Barry Bonds will be played by Tim Lincecum."
The Giants aren't even as good as their 11-13 mark would indicate. One of the quirks in their season to date is that they've been very lucky. They've outperformed their runs scored and runs allowed by 2.7 games, second only to the Marlins. The Giants are 6-4 in one-run games, +2 runs, and 5-9, -34 in the other 14.
When they're tied late in the game, I'm actually rooting for them; I would be pretty entertained to see the worst team in baseball, or at least a contender for the crown, play .600 ball in one-run games while losing the rest by close to three runs a contest. It will make for a great teaching point about how team quality disassociates from performance the closer the games are. The crowd that insists performance in one-run games is about knowing how to win would have a fun time explaining how a team that goes 34-76 when the game isn't close is 33-19 when it is because of some special character they possess.
Even if that happens, on every fifth day, the Giants will be a lot of fun to watch thanks to Lincecum. The right-hander is rapidly reaching that Pedro Martinez level where any game he pitches is the game to watch that night, with the potential for 15 strikeouts, a no-hitter, or one of those shutout/two-homer combinations that puts the "one-man team" issue into sharp relief.