As Tim Lincecum begins his journey on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, let’s make one thing clear: There’s very little chance he’ll ever earn the necessary support for Cooperstown enshrinement.
No starting pitcher has earned the necessary 75% of the vote with less than 2,000 innings pitched, and Lincecum didn’t crack 1,700 during his 10-year career. His 19.9 Wins Above Replacement put him in an excellent but far from historic rent district of peers such as Jordan Zimmermann and Rick Porcello and is barely 60% the output of the enshrined starting pitcher with the lowest WAR.
Yet to consider Lincecum’s career through the cold and impersonal lens of modern metrics and the length of his peak and other such measurables is to largely miss the point of his impact on the game.
And his decade in the big leagues, at the least, was the very definition of fame.
It can be said that Barry Bonds built Pacific Bell/Oracle Park, and that Buster Posey was the linchpin and future Hall of Famer for San Francisco Giants teams that startled the baseball world by bringing three World Series championships in five years to China Basin.
Yet it was Lincecum who for four electric years was appointment viewing, stoking San Francisco in a fashion that even late-career Bonds – largely a stationary walk-home run machine – could not.
From his highly celebrated profanity after the Giants clinched the playoff berth that would end their title drought in San Francisco, to an arrest for marijuana possession that only buttressed his image as a lovable rogue, Lincecum and the Bay were meant for each other from the day the Giants used the 10th overall pick in the 2006 draft on the shaggy-haired kid from Seattle.
Was it a run worthy of Cooperstown, though? Let’s explore.
The case for
We’ve grown so accustomed to teams suppressing greatness by holding top talent in the minor leagues in order to save service time or, eventually, millions of dollars in arbitration.
Kudos to the Giants, then, who welcomed Lincecum through the door to San Francisco after he knocked it down.
When Lincecum gave up just one earned run in 31 innings of five Class AAA starts, the Giants summoned him to debut on May 6, 2007. Never mind that it was about six weeks before the likely deadline for players to eventually need three full years to reach arbitration eligibility – a move that would later cost the Giants tens of millions of dollars. Big Time Timmy Jim was ready.
And did he ever live up to the hype.
Lincecum did not pitch well enough to earn Rookie of the Year consideration, but his last 15 starts – 96 strikeouts in 94 innings, a 2.96 ERA – laid the groundwork for four of the greatest seasons in franchise history.
His first two full seasons produced back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards, and his 2008 campaign was nothing short of a masterpiece. Lincecum led the major leagues in strikeouts (265), adjusted ERA (168), fielding independent pitching (2.62) and strikeouts per nine innings (10.5). He won 18 games for a 72-90 Giants squad whose everyday lineup was a mix of fringe big leaguers (John Bowker, Jose Castillo, Fred Lewis) and veterans hanging on (Ray Durham, Aaron Rowand, Omar Vizquel).
At the time, Lincecum’s year seemed like a gem in a wasteland of lost seasons. It turned out he was building a bridge to a dynasty.
Lincecum practically replicated his 2008 season in 2009 – 10.4 strikeouts per nine, 261 strikeouts, 2.34 FIP – and suddenly the Giants improved to an 88-win team. A year later, he pitched them into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, his “F— yeah!” on a live mic setting the tone for the first of three World Series title runs.
The 2010 playoffs started and ended on Lincecum’s terms – he pitched a two-hit, 14-strikeout shutout against Atlanta in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, and struck out 10 over eight three-hit innings in Game 5 of the World Series, his second win in as many Series starts.
In 2011, the Giants’ odd-year curse kicked in, and Lincecum would provide the coda to the best four-year run of his time – 977 strikeouts in 881 ⅔ innings, 62 wins in 131 starts and, somewhat remarkably, an identical 2.81 ERA and FIP.
It looked like the first half of a surefire Hall of Fame run. Instead, it was the beginning of the end.
The case against
Lincecum fell to the Giants at the 10th overall pick despite a decorated career at the University of Washington because, simply, he defied physical limits. At a generously listed 5-11, Lincecum pumped his fastball into the upper 90s with wildly unique mechanics that he and his father stubbornly adhered to, to the chagrin of many scouts.
Father and son were right, though: Lincecum’s arm held up fine. It was his hips that did him in.
The torque required to power his 5-11 frame down the mound to generate all that velocity became an unsustainable equation. Lincecum’s velocity gradually fell off a steep slope as well and by their 2012 Series run, he was largely relegated to the bullpen (and pitched well – posting a 0.69 ERA in five multi-inning relief appearances).
But his hips were slowly degenerating and by 2015, he’d require arthroscopic surgery on his left labrum. As he put it the next year, he was now apprehensive where he used to be explosive.
The results reflected as much – diminished velocity degraded the effect of his secondary pitches and by 2015 – Lincecum’s final year in San Francisco – his strikeouts per nine innings was down to 7.1. His ERA in 2014-15 was 4.54.
He’d finish his career a 110-89 pitcher, with a respectable 3.74 ERA and 1.29 ERA, with 1,736 strikeouts. Great numbers, but all short of Hall standards.
Lincecum has so far received just three votes of the 141 publicly-revealed ballots via Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame tracker. That would leave him short of the minimum 5% necessary to stay on the ballot for 2023, although anonymous voters may be more inclined to offer a tip of the cap to Lincecum’s special career.
For Cooperstown? Not great. Yet Lincecum’s legend is more than secure, and even his decline could not stop the magic.
In 2013, Lincecum lugged a 4.61 ERA into an otherwise nondescript July game at San Diego – and yet, he was somehow unstoppable again, no-hitting the Padres, striking out 13 and gutting through four walks and 148 pitches, Posey ambushing him from behind after the last out settled into a teammate’s glove. A year later, this time at home, he repeated the feat, shrugging off his 4.90 ERA to no-hit the Padres again, this time walking just one.
No, a pair of no-hitters won’t provide passage to Cooperstown, either, though perhaps a future veteran’s committee may see fit to let sentiment overcome them. It doesn’t really matter, though. Lincecum authored one of the most unlikely and glorious careers of any hurler – three World Series titles, two Cy Young Awards – and that may be worth a lot more than a plaque.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Baseball Hall of Fame case: Tim Lincecum’s Giants career was glorious