By Jack Moore
Maybe Tim Lincecum isn't quite ready to begin that second career in relief. Last Friday, Lincecum held the Marlins to three runs over seven innings. He struck out eight and walked just one batter as he continued a solid June: in four starts this month, Lincecum owns a 2.92 ERA over 24 2/3 innings.
However, Lincecum still owns a 4.52 ERA on the season (15 starts) and a 4.96 ERA in 48 starts dating back to the beginning of the 2012 season. As good as Friday's start sounds, Lincecum became just the 23rd starter in 75 games to allow more than two runs to the Marlins. His velocity continues to hover around 90 miles per hour, as opposed to the mid-90s of his Cy Young seasons, and his control (11 walks and hit by pitches in June) remains far from impeccable.
The Freak hasn't been at his freakiest over the past two years -- except for his dominant October in the Giants' bullpen. Lincecum appeared five times in relief last postseason and allowed just one run on three hits over 13 innings. He struck out 17 and walked just two batters. Even if it was just in short bursts, Lincecum had finally rediscovered the stuff that made him a back-to-back Cy Young winner in 2008 and 2009.
As CSN San Francisco's Andrew Baggarly reported earlier this month, the Giants would move Lincecum to a late-inning bullpen role "in a heartbeat" (per a team source) if they had the rotation depth to handle Lincecum's vacated spot. Between injuries and a lack of prepared pitching talent in the minors, however, the Giants have been forced to ride it out with Lincecum in the rotation.
But Lincecum has said he is willing to make the move at some point in the future. Between his rousing success in the 2012 postseason, his small frame, his violent mechanics and his struggles in the rotation for the last year and a half, it's less "if" and more "when." Whether it's with the Giants or with another team, Lincecum as reliever will present his club with the chance to deploy him in a role left behind by current game management conventions: the fireman.
To me, Goose Gossage defines the now defunct -- or perhaps dormant -- fireman role. Specifically, in 1975, 1977 and 1978, Gossage relieved between 60 and 75 games and threw at least 130 innings. He led the American League in saves in 1975 and 1978 and he posted an ERA of 2.01 or better all three seasons. Of his 26 saves, 11 required at least three innings of work. Just seven saw him work just one inning or less.
In his bullpen foray, Lincecum pitched at least two innings in each appearance, including one 4 1/3-inning appearance with six strikeouts in the NLDS against Cincinnati. With 13 relief innings pitched in 16 team playoff games, Lincecum was on a pace to throw right around 130 innings in relief over a 162 game season.
That just isn't how things are done in modern bullpens. Scott Proctor with the 2006 Yankees is the last man to pitch over 100 innings out of the bullpen, and even he was still primarily a one-inning reliever -- Joe Torre used him in a league-leading 83 games. Just eight relievers have thrown 100 innings since 2012, and many were used more as mop-up pitchers than as something approaching a relief ace.
The Gossage-type fireman is gone. No non mop-up reliever* has thrown more than 130 innings since Mark Eichhorn with Toronto in 1986. Keith Foulke's 1999 season -- hidden by a mediocre White Sox club -- is the closest we've seen to the Gossage fireman in the last 15 years. Foulke threw 105.1 brilliant innings in 67 appearances for Jerry Manuel's White Sox. He recorded a 2.22 ERA and struck out 123 batters against 21 walks, and even though he saved just nine games he garnered enough support to finish 10th in Cy Young voting.
*Average leverage index over 1.0, 95% of appearances in relief. Data from Baseball-Reference.
Foulke, naturally, went on to have a successful career as the now-traditional one-inning closer. A few other closers-in-waiting were given the same treatment in the late 1990s: Mariano Rivera in 1996 behind John Wetteland (61 appearances, 107.2 innings, 2.09 ERA); Derek Lowe in 1999 behind Tim Wakefield (74 appearances, 109.1 innings, 2.63 ERA); Jeff Shaw in 1996 behind Jeff Brantley (78 appearances, 104.2 innings, 2.49 ERA). But all were eventually eased into the one-inning closer role. Now, the fireman exists solely as a playoff novelty.
Lincecum will almost certainly never return to his Cy Young value as a starting pitcher. His prime came at ages 24 and 25; he will be 30 next year. But if the firemen of the past are any indication, Lincecum can still be a major piece for a contending team. Since 1980, 42 of 153 relievers to throw at least 100 innings in a season have posted at least three Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference. For reference, a starting pitcher with 3.0 WAR would have finished 38th among starting pitchers last season -- that is, the equivalent of a solid number-two starter.
The aforementioned Eichhorn, the last true fireman, posted a 1.72 ERA with 166 strikeouts over 157 innings in 1986 for Toronto, enough for sixth in Cy Young Award voting (and, amazingly, just third in Rookie of the Year voting, behind some guys named Jose Canseco and Wally Joyner). Dan Quisenberry reached three straight All-Star games in the role with the Royals in Kansas City from 1982 through 1984 and he finished in the top five in Cy Young voting four times. Willie Hernandez won the 1984 Cy Young and MVP award with 140.1 innings of a 1.92 ERA for the eventual World Champion Tigers. These firemen of the 1980s were dynamic pieces on competitive teams, and there's no reason Lincecum can't follow in their footsteps nearly three decades later.
Lincecum's postseason debut, a complete game shutout in the 2010 NLDS against Atlanta, was one of the best starts of all time. He struck out 14 behind an absurd 31 swinging strikes, walked one and allowed just two hits. His whole arsenal was on display, from a powerful fastball to a leaden sinker to a darting slider to a beguiling changeup. That arsenal, however, hasn't surfaced since Lincecum hoisted the Commissioner's Trophy for the first time, except for 13 innings out of the bullpen en route to a second championship last season -- 13 innings in which he reprised a role absent from the game for a quarter century.
Lincecum has been one of the most fascinating players in the game since his debut in 2007. Everything from his pitching ability and mechanics to his hair, personality and aura has made him a must-watch pitcher. Now, as he struggles to survive even as a fifth starter, we await his next trick. With the right situation and the right people around him, Lincecum could revive the fireman role and his career in the same stroke. If anything, it's just the logical next step for a career steeped in eccentricity from its inception.
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Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).