As Tim Lincecum fought through the first inning of Sunday’s game against the Chicago Cubs, his name started trending on Twitter. The tweets were predictable: Where’s the Cy Young award winner? What’s with the haircut? Send him to the bullpen!
After three starts, Lincecum’s ERA is a bloated 5.63, his WHIP is 1.56 and he’s walked 12 batters in 16 innings of work. In the wake of his 2012 performance — a National League-worst 5.18 ERA and a career-high 23 home runs allowed — it’s easy to see why fans are ready to convert him into a reliever. His dominance out of the ’pen last fall was an x-factor the Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers simply couldn’t answer.
It’s quite possible that Lincecum will be the next starter to reinvent himself into an untouchable closer, a Dennis Eckersley in orange and black. But Giants manager Bruce Bochy doesn’t need to rush the decision. It’s April.
At this point, Lincecum looks more like Timmy 2012 than the Cy Young Award winner from a half-decade ago.
He’s running into trouble early and struggling to find the strike zone.
But it isn’t all bad news: if you take out the two nightmare innings, his ERA is 0.64 and he is starting to show good command of his fastball. Lincecum’s issues appear to be psychological, and he could still regain his swagger; we’ve seen it with Barry Zito. It’s pointless to pull the plug before we hit the dog days of the summer, when the games really start to count.
You can splice and dice the stats to support just about anything, but the sample size is just too small to be making drastic changes right now. Once you send him to the bullpen, you probably can’t bring him back.
And who would replace him as the fifth starter? Right now, the lowest ERA in the Fresno Grizzlies’ rotation is Michael Kickham at 4.00, and he’s carrying a 1.78 WHIP with two no-decisions. Why would you replace a two-time Cy Young Award winner with an experiment?
There isn’t a lot of room for Lincecum in the Giants’ bullpen, either. Sergio Romo is rolling along with seven saves in eight tries, Santiago Casilla is sizzling with a 0.45 WHIP and, who knows, Brian Wilson might even rejoin the mix.
Jeremy Affeldt is struggling a bit, but once he gets going, the seventh, eighth and ninth will be accounted for; why would you relegate your $20 million arm to long relief?
Keeping Lincecum in the rotation gives Bochy flexibility as the marathon unfolds. In a 162-game season, injuries are inevitable. But Lincecum can throw every fifth day or plug a hole in the bullpen depending on the team’s needs down the road.
The Giants are 9-4, first in the NL West, heading into tonight’s game with the Milwaukee Brewers; there’s no reason to panic. Bochy’s club is also 3-0 in Lincecum’s starts, and in the end, winning is all that really matters, right?
Paul Gackle is a columnist for The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.