Originally written on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 11/18/14
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("Digging In" will be a feature at The Outside Corner that will take a closer look at some of the major issues going on in baseball today using a detailed sabermetric approach that will look to uncover things not normally mentioned when it comes to things like player contracts, team performance, trends and much, much more. Expect these to be very large, in-depth articles.)

On Monday, the San Francisco Giants came to an agreement with their ace, Tim Lincecum, to the tune of a two year, $40.5 million deal that will pay The Freak $18 million in 2012 and $22 million in 2013. Lincecum's arbitration status had been a much anticipated topic this offseason, as he would most likely break the bank on the process had the Giants not been able to sign him to a deal beforehand. Obviously, the Giants did what they could to make their ace happy in the short term at the least.

However, as it was reported by Giants beat writer Andrew Baggarly of the San Jose Mercury News, the Giants and Lincecum had talks earlier on this offseason about a much more lengthy deal, with the Giants offering five years and Lincecum offering eight. Tthe Giants were looking for a deal somewhere between Jered Weaver's and Cliff Lee's at $100 million. Obviously, when Lincecum came back with their offer, the Giants had to reconsider how to approach the situation, going instead with the ability to pay Lincecum's remaining arbitration years at a cost similar to what he would have received in the process in return for Lincecum being able to test free agency after the 2013 season.

But was the tradeoff a good one? Could the Giants possibly figure out a way to sign Lincecum to a long-term deal that wouldn't bog down their already growing yearly budget? And even moreso, should they do it? Much had been made about Lincecum liking to deal on the short term during contract negotiations, but it's interesting to note that Lincecum had the much larger deal in mind this time around. So how should Lincecum's unique path be viewed when it comes to his next contract, whether it's an extension or a brand new deal in 2013?

By Wins Above Replacement, Fangraphs had Lincecum at 27.9 for his career and Baseball-Reference had him at 23.2. Here are how his marks stack up:

2007: 3.2 fWAR, 2 bWAR (only 24 GS)
2008: 7.5 fWAR, 6.9 bWAR (Cy Young #1, led NL in K's)
2009: 8.0 fWAR, 6.3 bWAR (Cy Young #2, led NL in K's)
2010: 4.9 fWAR, 3.6 fWAR (led NL in K's, World Series)
2011: 4.4 fWAR, 4.4 bWAR (Yeah, I found that weird, too)

Obviously, he was marvelous in 2008-09, becoming the only pitcher ever to win consecutive Cy Young Awards in his first two full seasons, but 2010 and 2011 were steps down for Lincecum due to various reasons. 

In 2010, he had an absolutely horrid August: 0-5, a 7.82 ERA, and for the first time, perhaps, a ***** in the legendary Lincecum windup armor. He tooled with his mechanics a bit, bringing his arms above his head instead of pinning them to his thigh like he normally did, but this was mainly a reaction to some pretty bad starts against the Dodgers and Cubs in July. After getting through that issue, he was his normal, fantastic self, and helped lead his team to their first World Series in San Francisco with a brilliant postseason highlighted by his two-hit shutout in the NLDS where he struck out 14 Atlanta Braves.

In 2011, many interesting things appeared in Lincecum's stat sheet. For instance, in March and April, he had a 3:1 flyout/groundout ratio, and after his first start in May against the New York Mets, he never got his per game ratio above 2:1 the rest of the season. In June, he gave up 19 earned runs in his six starts, the same number he gave up in his 11 starts through March, April and May. He had four game stretches in both July and August where he didn't give up more than one earned run in each game. But if you took the number of earned runs from his 23 quality starts as opposed to his 10 non quality starts that season, he had 22 total earned runs allowed as opposed to 44. These variances allow for the non-quality starts to really affect the quality starts that he made, and take away from a lot of the dominant performances he had throughout the season. This lessened his overall value considering two thirds of the runs scored against him came in a small amount of games, whereas if the variance was closer to the 50% mark or lower, his value would have been a little bit higher and closer to his fantastic marks in the '08-'09 seasons.

Lincecum possessed otherworldly strikeout numbers near the start of his career. He struck out 10.5 per 9 innings in 2008, followed by 10.4 in 2009. He combined that with a K/BB ratio that ranged close to 4:1 those seasons. But then the numbers started running in reverse. His strikeouts went down to 9.8 in 2010 while his walks rose to 3.2, and then in 2011, his strikeouts went down to 9.1 and his walks rose to 3.6. There was also a slight uptick in home runs given up, as after giving up 11 and 10 homers in the two Cy Young seasons, he gave up 18 in 2010 and 15 in 2011.

Another thing to look at is Lincecum's pitch use. He came out of college as a pure power arm, regularly sitting in the mid 90's while touching close to 100 with a hammer of a breaking ball that was just pure nastiness, giving him two true 80 pitches on the scouting scale. He also had a changeup, but it wasn't used that much when he was at Washington, probably a 40-50 grade changeup, leaving room for improvement at the Major League level, and improve it has. Here's how the numbers stacked up, along with his average fastball velocity, courtesy of Fangraphs pitch tracking:

2007: FB - 66.9% (94.2), CB - 19.7%, CH - 13.4%
2008: FB - 66.1% (94.1), CB - 13.7%, CH - 18.5%, SL - 1.7%
2009: FB - 55.9% (92.4), CB - 17.4%, CH - 21.6%, SL - 5.2%
2010: FB - 54.6% (91.3), CB - 13.9%, CH - 23.0%, SL - 8.5%
2011: FB - 52.9% (92.3), CB - 7.3%, CH - 24.1%, SL - 15.6%

The trend is incredible: after spending almost 87% of his pitches on the fastball and curveball as a rookie, he's down to barely 60% in 2011. He introduced a slider into the repertoire for the 2008 campaign, but it initially was nothing much more than a show-me pitch. In 2009, however, he started to throw it a lot more often, and it was talked about that his success and his 2nd Cy Young Award could be mainly attributed to both his increased slider and changeup usage. Obviously, players coming in to the '09 season looking for the fastball/curveball combo didn't expect Lincecum to be so varied with his pitches, but along with the more varied arsenal came a switch to a 2-seam fastball, as well. That is the main reason for his dip in fastball velocity from his first two years, as the 2-seam grip leans more towards movement than speed.

Lincecum's 9.1 K/9 IP was the sixth highest rate in all of baseball last year, so for comparison, here's a breakdown of the pitch usage of all the pitchers that made up the top 10 along with their main secondary pitch.

1. Zack Greinke (w/SL as main secondary pitch): 75%
2. Brandon Morrow (w/SL): 88%
3. Clayton Kershaw (w/SL): 91%
4. Anibal Sanchez (w/SL): 75%
5. Cliff Lee (w/CUT): 76%
6. Tim Lincecum (w/CH): 76%
7. Michael Pineda (w/SL): 94%
8. Yovani Gallardo (w/SL or CB): 79%
9. Justin Verlander (w/CB): 75%
10. Matt Garza (w/SL): 77%

In bold, you'll see that both Lincecum and Lee are the only two pitchers that did not use a breaking ball as their main secondary pitch. But then take a close look at the Pitch F/X data of both players when it comes to their movement, courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz's Pitch/FX Data Tool:

Cliff Lee


Tim Lincecum


Lee's cutter basically mirrored what Lincecum's slider did in 2011, as Lincecum's slider wasn't the wipeout offering that every other Top 10 strikeout guy on that list used it as. In essence, it was a late-breaker with little movement; a slider by type, but worked basically like a cutter. If you considered Lee's cutter to be a subsitute for a slider, Lincecum was the only one on that list that used a non-breaking ball, the changeup, as his primary secondary pitch. However, his changeup was so good that it dropped off the table much like the power breakers that led his peers to such high strikeout numbers, turning what was initially a 40-50 pitch into something resembling a 65-70 pitch, leaning towards the upper echelon of changeups in all of baseball. This improvement and use of his changeup gives him a better overall repertoire of pitches, which is why even though the initial wow factor might not be what it once was, it still allows Lincecum to be a very good pitcher.

But is he worth what could amount to $25 million a year in free agency? Combine Lincecum's desire for an eight-year deal with what it would take to get to that $200 million mark, and that's exactly what a team would be looking to pay him for what would amount to his age 30-37 seasons, well into Lincecum's decline phase. With a win being valued at roughly $5 million dollars right now (closer to $5.1M), let's say that arbitrarily, a win value would go up by roughly $100K each year. In 2014, it would be worth about $5.4M. If you take that piece of inflation into effect, Lincecum would have to be a 35 WAR pitcher throughout the duration of the deal to be even worth the value of that contract.

Now, obviously, if the eight-year contract was signed instead of the two-year deal he took, things look a little different. Assuming that vaunted $200 million mark, if we use the same annual average value (AAV) prediction of $25M per year, he would have to be worth 37 WAR over that time period to equal the contract value, meaning that he would need 27 WAR in the non-arbitration years. If you do consider the contract Lincecum actually signed, there's a good chance he hits that 10 WAR mark his contract calls for if he finds a middle ground between his last two seasons and his first two seasons.

Going forward, the Giants will be in a tough spot not just with Lincecum but with Cain, as well. Cain is looking for an extension on his current deal, and the number that is being thrown around is similar to Lincecum's. As I mentioned previously in my article on how the Philadelphia Phillies have spent their way into situations where there is little to no value in the contracts they've given to players, the Giants would be better served to not follow the Phillies route when it comes to handing out deals. Sadly, thanks to Brian Sabean's track record on signing free agents, he has been way more hit than miss. Considering the Barry Zito signing, Sabean has established that he's not afraid to go after someone long-term.

So where do the Giants go after Lincecum's next two seasons? That is the dichotomy of the free agent market: It's very hard to find value in superstars, as the contributions they had made in their career leading up to free agency usually lends itself to too much money handed out. Hell, Prince Fielder just got a $214 million deal and even with him entering what's supposed to be his prime, many believe the contract is just too much. However, there is a precedent for long-term deals for pitchers, no matter if the majority of them aren't exactly good. For every contract handed out to C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez, there are deals similarly handed out to Zito, Carlos Zambrano, A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, Mike Hampton...you get the point.

In fact, Sabathia's contract might be a good thing for the Giants to experiment with when it comes to Lincecum's contract demands. The thing that blew everyone's mind with the initial deal was not the money, but the structure. It was a flat rate AAV of $23 million instead of the normal, back-loaded escalators in most contracts, PLUS it allowed Sabathia to opt out after three years. This would be in an attempt to improve on his contract at the age of 31, which he did this past offseason when he got a $1.4 million AAV raise and an additional year added on. Add the $69 million he earned before opting out and add the $122 million going forward, and Sabathia turned a seven-year, $161 million deal into an eight-year, $191 million guaranteed deal that could be worth upwards of a nine-year, $211 million deal should his 2017 option vest.

The deal the Giants signed with Lincecum for the next two years could be considered akin to the pre-opt out phase of that initial Sabathia contract. What the Giants are basically telling Lincecum to do is prove over the next two years that he is worth the long term investment. Considering Lincecum's status as the only active, non-Halladay member of the Multiple Cy Young Club, that might be a little harsh, but the last two years from Lincecum raise flags as to whether or not he's entering his decline phase early. Three consecutive years of declining strikeout rates and increasing walk rates don't paint the picture of someone entering his prime years, which normally range from 27-31.

That being said, if Lincecum does put up two good years in 2012-13, he does set himself up for a rather large payday in free agency and deservedly so. By then, he could accumulate upwards of 35 WAR, and if he does, he would be amongst the top 20 pitchers of all time to hit that mark in their first seven seasons according to Baseball-Reference. That alone merits the discussion of the contract Lincecum is looking for. It just depends whether or not somebody will be willing to make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball to do it, and by doing so, whether they would be willing to guarantee that magic $200 million number that has been thrown about. If the Giants indeed decide to pull the trigger, they will hopefully take heed of what the New York Yankees did with Sabathia. Lincecum might not be worth the number right now, but give him the incentive to perform towards that mark over a period of time by giving him the opt out option like Sabathia, and there's a good chance he could be worth every penny of the next big contract he signs.

 

Tim Lincecum image courtesy of Daylife.com

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