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Not A Rookie: Tim Lincecum

First, the easy stuff.

Tim Lincecum was a really good college pitcher at the University of Washington. He was first drafted in 2003, a 48th round pick by the Chicago Cubs out of high school in Renton, Washington. As a freshman in 2004 he went 10-3, 3.53 with a 161/82 K/BB ratio in just 112 innings. As a draft-eligible sophomore in 2005 he went 8-6, 3.11 with a 131/71 K/BB in 104 innings, but most clubs felt he would return to school for his junior year and he was drafted in just the 42nd round by the Indians. Everyone respected his performance, but there were questions about his command and his mechanics. In 2006 his stuff took another step forward, his command improved slightly, and he went 12-4, 1.94 with a 199/63 K/BB in 125 innings.

On draft day, some teams rated him as a mid-to-late first round pick, concerned about his smallish stature, his still-erratic control, and his heavy college workload. He ended up going 10th overall to the Giants in the first round, which was actually a few slots lower than his most ardent supporters expected. He was brilliant in his pro debut in A-ball, then was promoted to the majors last spring after a 4-9, 0.29 start in Triple-A. In his major league debut, Lincecum went 7-5, 4.00 with a 150/65 K/BB in 146 innings. His major league stats were exactly what we should have expected: lots of strikeouts, not many hits, a few too many walks, dominant performances mixed with some erratic outings.

And so we come to the hard part. What happens now?

Lincecum's pre-2007 PECOTA comps were intriguing and bring up names you might expect: Francisco Rodriguez, Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, Juan Pizarro, Nolan Ryan are the top five. Others interesting matches include Ken Brett and Balor Moore, two fireballing lefties from the 70s who never really panned out. We also see Dennis Eckersley, Tom Gordon, and Sandy Koufax on the list. The 2008 PECOTAs aren't out yet.

His Sim Scores based on the 2007 season are much less impressive: Paul Moskau, Gordon Rhodes, Doug Drabek (not a good match really), Brian Williams, Lynn McGlothen, Steve Blass. Obviously this is not a list designed to make you feel good about his chances, and keep in mind that Sim Scores don't adjust for the era of play and are not very useful in small sample sizes like this.

Statistically at least I don't think we can conclude much other than the obvious: he strikes a lot of guys out, but still needs to improve his command. Some similar pitchers in the past turned out to be excellent, and some of them flamed out. We already knew that.

So this comes down to scouting. Many of you have seen Lincecum pitch more often than I have, and I would be very interested in your observations. Here are my opinions, but don't let that influence you overmuch, I want to know what you think.

First off, his size. Some people worry that he's not a huge guy, being just 5-11 and 170 pounds officially. Personally I don't really care about that. I'm more impressed by the fact that he's incredibly athletic. I've always felt the whole short right-hander thing was overemphasized by some people, and in the case of guys like Pedro Martinez or Greg Maddux or Roy Oswalt, the premium athleticism and wiry strength is much more important than the lack of height. In this regard Lincecum reminds me of someone like Bob Feller, who wasn't a big guy at all in terms of height, but was so athletic and strong that it didn't matter. Note that "strong" in this sense is not the same thing as just bulk muscle. It's the combination of strength and flexibility that I'm talking about. I think Lincecum has that.

Lincecum's mechanics are somewhat unorthodox but he repeats them very well. The leg kick also reminds me of Feller somewhat. His pitch counts at Washington were high, but he apparently has a rubber arm and has never shown ill effects. His control is better than it used to be, and with more experience it will probably improve further.

What kinds of problems can derail a young talent like this? Injuries and control problems are the two main dangers. I don't think his injury risk is any higher than for any other pitcher his age, as I think his athleticism cancels out the college workload issue. That doesn't mean his injury risk is zero, or even below average, mind you. It just means that it isn't higher-than-average, which it normally would be given the mileage on his arm.

As for the control issue, his track record shows steady improvement:

6.57 BB/9IP in 2004 (Washington)
6.12 BB/9IP in 2005 (Washington)
4.52 BB/9IP in 2006 (Washington)
4.00 BB/9IP in 2007 (San Francisco)

That's a nice graph. If it continues, he'll be one of the best pitchers in baseball very soon. If his control stabilizes where it is right now and does not improve, he'll be what he is now, an above average, occasionally brilliant, but erratic enough to not push into the elite category. If his control goes backwards, well that's where guys like Steve Blass come in, though keep in mind that Blass was actually a very good pitcher for several years before his control vanished. If he gets hurt all bets are off.

Looking at it in terms of possible outcomes:

Best Case Scenario: Hall of Fame type talent (Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens)
Medium Case Scenario: Very good at times but perhaps erratic or injury prone (Kerry Wood, Tom Gordon, Steve Blass)
Worst Case Scenario: Gets hurt and/or immediate control collapse (Paul Moskau, Balor Moore, etc.)

So, what's my call?

I think he will stay healthy and avoid catastrophic injuries. His control will improve somewhat, but not quite enough for him to end up in the absolute elite won't see Pedro-like 8-1 K/BB ratios out of Lincecum. He will be a legitimate number one starter for several years, win 197 major league games, and will pocket a Cy Young Award in 2012 at the age of 28 before starting a slow fade as his stuff gradually declines.
Not Bob Feller or Roger Clemens, but a damn good career.

What's your guess?