Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Your 2016 Giants: The Lincecum Conundrum

The recent news was the Giants saying that it's a long shot for Lincecum to return to the Giants, as he wants to be a starter and they only have relief roles available, and they already have a good 6th starter in Heston, who would be good in the long relief role as well.

ogc thoughts

I guess I'm getting curmudgeonly in my older age.  I'm getting really tired of people either not bothering to read my writing or just suffering from very poor reading comprehension.  I'm also getting tired of people who think that they are god or something (or at least act like that).

I'm NOT Emotionally Attached to Lincecum

I don't know how to make it any clearer than that.  I get angry when I make myself very clear - being OCD, I literally have a conversation in my head, back and forth, from all angles - and I'm not being heard.  Sometimes that anger goes to me, because sometimes I find that I wasn't very clear.  Other times I get angry at others because they ascribed feelings to me that I didn't express.  But with Lincecum, I've been very clear.

This is not my first time in the rodeo:  I learned baseball was a business when Bobby Bonds got traded, and I learned even legends don't spend forever in one uni when McCovey was traded (sorry, but Mays was washed up when I started following the Giants, I knew of his legend, but Willie Mac was still good when I first started following baseball).  Then the stream continued until this golden era of trophies.

So, no, Lincecum leaving the Giants don't really matter that much to me, other than what I've been stating for many months now:  I think he can be a very good reliever for us.  I appreciate what he has done for us, but in this business, ultimately, it's about what he can do for us now.  And if I see a free agent who could help the Giants on the cheap, I'm going to speak my mind.

And there's negative attachment as well as positive attachment.  There are people who are so done with Lincecum (based on what he has done while injured the past few years) that they can't even acknowledge that his hip has been the cause of his recent problems and that perhaps he can return to some semblance of his former talents.  They can see past the negativeness to see the positives that lurks below the surface.  Unfortunately, Lincecum's situation is a narrative, and if you are missing parts of the puzzle, you won't get the whole story, you'll think that his seasonal stats tell the full story.  I think most people are missing parts of the puzzle.

I Think The Experts Know His Condition and Situation Best

I also see opinions put out there about Lincecum's condition.  Well, the only opinions I would trust are the one who operated on him and said that it was a success, are the ones who have been his coaches, are the ones who are there reporting on him daily.   These wannabe doctors think that they know Lincecum's health but they get details wrong and/or miss key information points regarding Lincecum's situation.

Here is what I have found from the various accounts I have read:
  • The hip is not degenerative, unlike what the Giants training staff had announced early on.  He did not have any "degenerative" condition, the doctor saying the pitcher only had “early wear“ that's normal, and no advanced arthritis whatsoever. 
  • The Dr. performed an arthroscopic procedure that involved repairing a torn labrum and shaving down a bone buildup to alleviate an impingement in the socket. The surgery at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colo., was deemed a success.
  • The bone buildup is the result of normal, repetitive stress.  
  • The surgery ended up only being on the left side, despite early diagnosis that both hips were affected, and both hips were in better shape than the Dr. had expected, given prior information.
  • The expected time for him to return to the mound was 12-20 weeks (and, from my calculations, that has been accomplished, he was reported to have been throwing since early January).
  • "I'm very optimistic," said the Dr.  
  • Also, from the Giants trainer:  “The doctor was confident he was able to help Timmy out,” Groeschner said. “The doctor was pretty confident that he can get back to major league pitching for next season.”
  • More about and from Dr. Philippon:
    • The Dr. is "one of the foremost hip surgeons in the world" and has performed successful labrum repairs with A-Rod and Tulo (though I would note that we all know the caveat that not all surgery will necessarily be successful).
    • The Dr. has worked on tens of other top athletes, such as Mario Lemieux, Greg Norman and many others. Rodriguez is having an amazing season for a 40-year-old, and Tulowitzki is back to starring at shortstop this year, making the All-Star team before his trade from the Rockies to the Blue Jays. 
    • He sees no reason to be anything but positive about Lincecum, who is much younger than Rodriguez and about the same age as Tulowitzki. 
    • "I think it's going to help tremendously to regain the velocity on his pitches and the (control) of them," Philippon said. "If you cannot control the hips – that's what generates the power – it's difficult to get full motion. 
    • "Every pitcher is different. In his style of pitching he uses the hips a lot," Philippon said. "We're going to make sure he returns perfectly balanced. We want to make sure his pitching balance is better." 
    • When there's a torn labrum and impingement in the area, Philippon explained that a pitcher's movement becomes limited, muscles have to compensate and acid builds up, thus the loss of power. 
    • Lincecum was off to a decent start this season, but started to slide off the mound as his hips became an issue. He went on the disabled list after being struck in the forearm with a batted ball against the Rockies July 27, and while recovering from that injury, the hip issue reared up. 
    • Philippon noted that Rodriguez, who's nine years older, has regained a lot of power, which shows how effective these surgeries can be. "A guy like Tim, who's 31," Philippon said, "he has all the reason in the world to be optimistic."
  • Righetti's thoughts on Lincecum:  “That was the biggest problem he had,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. “Some guys can just flip their foot open and their leg comes open and they land. He doesn’t do that. He swings it over his whole body and it was just not helping him pitch well. He was flying open with his whole body, and just dragging his arm. It was taking a lot out of his arm in a short period of time.
  • Baggarly's description of what Lincecum has been going through in recent years:  Lincecum wasn’t dealing with pain in his hips the past few years as much as stiffness. Because he employs an extreme range of motion in his delivery to generate power, he relied on a healthy, spongy labrum to provide stability. When that labrum became damaged, he had to start whipping his whole body around to get over his left leg. That led to more strain on his arm, which led to stamina issues. And regardless of any mechanical tweaks he made, instability in the hip made it almost impossible to repeat his motion.
  • For what it's worth, Chris Lincecum's take (via and plus Schulman):  
    • “The prognosis is good, and that’s a major relief,” Chris said. 
    • “I think he’ll be stronger and able to create more leverage. That right leg drives you over the front leg, and he has to be able to drive his upper torso through his hips over his front leg, creating velocity. This affects all his pitches, not just his fastball.” 
    • When Tim feels right physically and mechanically, he ends his long stride by having his left side heading directly to the target, the foot either toward the target or even a little closed (pointing toward the third-base line). This season, as the hip became more of an issue and increasingly limited him, he found himself landing with his foot drastically opening up (toward the first-base line). As a result, his balance was off, his leverage suffered and his torque wasn’t the same. 
    • “He didn’t have that explosion,” Chris said. “That core — the hips, gut, groin, lower back — needs to be strong every delivery.” 
    • The Lincecums spent a lot of time together in the offseason, working on refining Tim’s complex delivery. That was a change from previous years in which Tim tried to figure out his mechanics on his own, a reason for his struggles, he admitted early in spring training. 
    • Tim said he felt more comfortable after reuniting with his dad, who says now that when his son arrived at spring training, his mechanics were perfect. When the season started, Tim was back in a groove, posting a 2.08 ERA through eight starts. 
    • The more the hip became an issue, however, the more the mechanics changed for the worse. He was so unbalanced that he’d stumble on the mound. It happened several times May 14 in Cincinnati. His ERA ballooned. 
    • “As games went on, that foot kept opening up more and more,” Chris said. “Now he’s going to have a solidified hip so that it doesn’t have to open up, and he can create that torque in his hips.” 
    • The hip issue became unbearable to the point surgery was required, but it surfaced before this season. Tim has felt something in the area for years, as Giants trainer Dave Groeschner revealed Thursday and Chris confirmed.
So, as the Dr himself said after the operation, Lincecum's condition is not degenerative.   So that's not a factor.  He also said that it would take 3 to 5 months for Tim to just get onto a pitcher's mound, which places that time to be around early January, and the reports are that he has been throwing off the mound since then.  That has been achieved successfully.

Now he's working on his form and mechanics, and that's been what's taking longer than he thought.  But as we saw with Cain last season, once healthy, re-finding the form that makes you successful is more elusive than had been hoped.  Still, that does not mean that he won't reach that at some point, Cain said that he finally felt normal in that last start of 2015.

And as can be seen above, particularly in the Schulman article, there is a narrative to Lincecum's struggles to perform and how that interlinks with the troubles with his hips.   A narrative that I feel that the people who are negative about Lincecum are missing.

People Need to Parse What Sabean Says

I'm surprised that people still need to be told this, but while Sabean always speaks the truth, he's going to toe the corporate line as well.  You need to read between the lines, as he's good at keeping things behind his kimono, to steal one of his favorite phrases.  So just because he just came out and said that it's a long shot that Lincecum returns, and that the bullpen is the only place the Giants can put him, and that the Giants have a capable 6th starter and long reliever in Heston, it does not mean that's the whole story.  Don't be a newbie.

What is exactly new being said here?  We already knew it was a long shot that he returns:  he wants to be a starter, and we now have five starters plus a 6th starter who would be starting for a lot of other teams.  We knew this all the way back to when Cueto was signed and the Giants said good-bye to Vogelsong (but not to Lincecum).  So we also knew that IF he returned, it would be as a reliever.  Nothing new.

We also knew that the Giants viewed Heston has the long reliever and think very well about his abilities.  So that's no surprise either.  That he's been anointed the 6th starter is most sort-of news in what most people rehashes, but given that Lincecum hasn't even had his showcase yet and, moreover, isn't a member of the Giants at the moment, that's not a real surprise either, when you get right down to it.  And what are you going to expect Sabean to say about Heston, anyway, they rarely go the negative route with a player unless the player appears to not be accepting of their advice (Sandoval, Belt).  And Heston has been the good soldier.

The True News:  Giants Continue to be Interested in Lincecum's Services

The true bit of news in all this is that in spite of all the hoo-ha that has been made about Lincecum, the Giants continue to say that they are interested in him, but the question is whether he's interested in them.   They cut off Vogelsong long ago, but continue to state that they are interested in retaining Lincecum.

People also needs to tie in the timing of this as well.  Spring Training is less than a week away, only days away, and Lincecum has still not scheduled his showcase.  Again, the timing has slipped to the second half of February, and given we are at the half way point of February, I would not be surprised if it slips to March now.   As I noted previously, the later this showcase gets pushed back, the less teams will be interested in following along, they need to move on and make plans with the players that they already have in camp.  And the more likely he ends up back with the Giants.

A number of teams have been openly interested, such as Miami, but these teams aren't going to wait forever.  At some point they will move on, they need to evaluate their own players, not a free agent who is hoping to hang on to his major league career, particularly one coming off major surgery on a major part of his pitching mechanics, and who is finding it hard to schedule this showcase that was prematurely noted for January something, but now is pushing into March soon.

Still, you never know, Miami clearly hired Bonds for the publicity (and to help their star, Giancarlo Stanton), they might throw money at Lincecum just for the notoriety.  But until they do, anyone looking at this situation has to see that most likely few teams will be interested in Lincecum when it comes time to step up or shut up and tender a contract beyond a minor league contract.

The Narrative As I See It

Anybody thinking that Lincecum will return to prior velocity, as in elite velocity, will be sorely disappointed.  As shown by Roy Oswalt, shorter MLB starting pitchers like Lincecum will eventually suffer velocity losses, that is just a part of the passage of Father Time, and particularly so for pitchers who do not ice their arms.

However, the narrative per what I've read above is that the hip started to really bother him in the last season, which is the season when his velocity took the dive way below 90 MPH.  In 2012-2014, he had his fastball roughly in the 90's still.  That's the threshold I think is what the Doctor's statement should be applied to.

All anyone who I've seen being negative about Lincecum has done is list his stats year by year during his decline years and declare him done.  And that might be true, even doctors can be wrong.  But here is the narrative as I see it, because just looking at his overall numbers miss a lot of nuance that gets buried in the numbers:
  • 2010:  
    • Last season Lincecum's father was helping him extensively with his mechanics.  
  • 2011:  
    • First season Lincecum was on his own with his mechanics.  Last good season.  But he was already started to lose it, ending the season with a six start stretch of 4.03 ERA.  
    • What he reported was that the weight he added on for the 2011 season by eating a lot of In-n-Out Double Doubles, sapped his stamina, as well as putting too much weight on his legs, weakening him and he said that he would lose that weight for 2012.
  • 2012:  
    • First bad season.  Even when he had his father guiding him during the great years, he still had one month periods where he wasn't good at all, average at best.  But this season he was lost with the first start and didn't find it until after the ASB, when he had a 13 start stretch of 3.06 ERA, finishing with a second half ERA of 3.83 vs. his first half 6.42 ERA.  
    • He probably shot himself in the foot by losing so much weight on his own without trainers to guide him, and lost too much weight in order to play baseball properly.  It took him a while probably to get into true baseball shape.  Even while struggling with less velocity, down in the 90's, he was still striking out batters at a 9.2 K/9 pace, which shows how much deception his pitching motion has with batters and why he does not need velocity in order to be a good performer in the majors going forward.
  • 2013:  
    • His poor 2012 and poor start to 2013 convinced him that he needed to start studying hitters with Posey before games and learning what not to pitch to hitters.  Gaudin was reportedly the guy who finally got through to him about that, telling him that mid-season.  Before, he could confuse the best hitters and keep them at bay with his velocity and stuff, but with only mortal velocity in the 90 MPH range, his stuff could only do so much.   Again, you can't just look at this season as if he was the same all season long - he wasn't - and he had a 5.12 ERA in the first two months, 4.00 ERA over the last four.  
    • He still struck out 8.8 K/9 and boosted his K/BB to 2.54, which was still pretty good, but it still wasn't enough to generate a great ERA, because he just started studying hitters in the middle of this season.  
    • But that wasn't entirely his fault, as his good performance in adjusting was hidden by a sudden rash of inherited runs scoring after the relievers took over.  In all 13 of 20 inherited runners scored, 65%, when normally it was 28%.  That's 7 extra runs scored placed on his record than usual, giving him a 4.37 ERA when with an average bullpen performance, that gets him down to 4.05.  And in those 21 good starts, 12 of 15 inherited runners scored, pushing his ERA up to 4.00, when it should be have been around 3.46, which would have been good for a tie for 38th in ERA with Justin Verlander.  In that range of ERA rank, he would have been good for 3-4 WAR production.  
    • As it was, his seasonal xFIP was 3.56 and his fWAR was 1.8, but his bWAR was a -0.6.  On the surface, looking at just his overall performance, he had a bad year, but his underlying peripherals still shone pretty well, and understanding all the factors that made up his season makes it clear that he was actually pitching well for most of the season, but was hurt first by his poor start and then by the bullpen giving up so many of his inherited men on base.
  • 2014:   
    • And so Lincecum continued to adjust to his new mortality.  He started focusing on inducing poor contact in spring training, that was his mantra now.   And it was working.  He had some problems early on (first two starts 9.90 ERA) but he not only settled down but he was very good, going 18 starts at a 3.11 ERA, and after 20 starts and 120.0 IP, he had a decent 3.68 ERA overall, which got most SP 2-3 fWAR over a full season.  
    • Then he was put into the relief situation, where he saved the game by pitching in the 14th inning.  In the six starts before the relief appearance (including his no-hitter), he had a 1.16 ERA, and in the six after the appearance, he had a 9.49 ERA and was removed from the rotation (rightfully so).  He didn't have a start again in the season, and was barely used in the playoffs.  
    • It was a mystery to fans then, but after his 2015 season got cut short early because of his hip issues, enough to warrant surgery, with a reported history of it affecting him to some extent during his career, I think it's pretty clear that his hips was affecting him late in 2014 and came to a boil in 2015.  As was noted above, his hip issues has caused Lincecum to lose his mechanics and this obviously affected his ability to repeat his motion and to keep on pitching well.
  • 2015:  
    • He and his father reconciles professionally, and his father works with Tim on his mechanics for the first time since the 2010 season.  Chris declared Tim's mechanics to have been "perfect" going into spring training.  Lincecum continues to espouse the "weak contact" mantra.
    • Lincecum was good from the start, leading the team.  He had a 3.27 ERA in April (4 starts), and 2.83 ERA in May (6 starts).   He had 5 DOM starts in his first 8 starts, 2 DIS, and he had a 2.08 ERA.  
    • But his season was already starting to go downhill in May, as 3 of his last four starts in May were not good starts.  After that good first 8 starts stretch, with 5 DOM, in his next 7 starts, he only had 1 DOM.  In those 7 starts, he had a 7.53 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 5.3 BB/9, 1.41 K/BB, 1.88 HR/9, 5.96 FIP, as opposed to those first 8 starts, 2.08 ERA, 6.8 K/9, 4.0 BB/9, 1.71 K/BB, 0.19 HR/9, 3.28 FIP.  Him being hit on the arm by a batted ball mercifully ended his season, which probably was close to being shut down at that point anyway.  And clearly, it was his hips that affected him, which colors his performance downturn in 2014.
    • He struggled to rehab and return but eventually had to be operated on in order to return in the 2016 season.  The Dr. pronounces the surgery to be a success, that it was just normal wear and tear, that only one hip needed work on, and that he should regain his velocity once he's healthy again.  
  • Overall:
    • As one article linked above noted, Lincecum's hips had been affected since he was 9 years old, but the effects apparently did not show up until recent seasons.   He stated that it was not degenerative.  The Dr. stated that his loss of velocity was due to this hip issue.  How much is up to interpretation.
    • But clearly, his velocity has been declining.  Per FG, he was in the 94 MPH range 2007-8, 91-92 MPH range 2009-11, 90 MPH range 2012-2014, and 87 MPH in 2015.   To expect that Lincecum will exceed 90 MPH, which is his last plateau, would be homerism and emotional attachment to the extreme.  Even his father, in his original statements after the surgery, did not bring up any hope of return to his prior velocity highs, he only discussed how good his son's mechanics were prior to the season, which he said was "perfect".  If his hips were the cause of the prior drops in velocity, I think the decline would have been continuous.  Instead, he had plateau (94 MPH), after plateau (91-92 MPH), after plateau (90 MPH).     
    • Still, over 2014-15, when he was healthy enough and performing, even at 90 MPH in 2014 and 87 MPH in 2015, he had good starts which added up to good performances overall until his hips started affecting his mechanics greatly.  Even without additional velocity, Lincecum has been a good pitcher, it has been his ailing hips that eventually drives his season off the side of the road.
Summary Thoughts

Stay or go, I'm fine with whatever happens with Lincecum.  I think that we should be able to get him for a low MLB deal, and can stash him in AAA until he's in baseball shape and ready, continuing his rehab.  I think once he's ready, he can be a really good relief pitcher for us, velocity gain or no velocity gain.   But it's still a risk, as we don't know how long he needs to rehab, much like Cain last season, where he was healthy but didn't find his sweet spot until his last start of the season.  For a small amount, I'm willing to risk that for the gains he could produce.

In any case, if a team is desperate for his marquee value and overpays, so be it, that's baseball sometimes, when a team wants someone so desperately that they offer a lot of money in spite of the situation.  Good luck to him then.  But the longer it takes to schedule the showcase, the less teams will be interested in him, the less they will be willing to offer to him, the less likely any other team would offer him an MLB contract, let alone keep a rotation spot open for him.  A relief role might be all that is available to him when the showcase actually happens.

The Giants like Heston and I think he's only being stashed as the 6th starter because 1) they can't be assured that Peavy and Cain will both be healthy and performing in 2016 and 2) Heston himself tired out late in the 2015 season and stashing him in the long relief spot keeps him fresher later in the season, as well as being great insurance in case anything should happen.   And should Lincecum be signed, Heston will hold the spot for him in the majors until Tim is ready, at which point, Heston would get regular starts in AAA, which will keep him in shape for a starting position, should we need him later in the season.

The narrative for Lincecum is long and convoluted and has a lot of moving parts, much like his throwing motion.  So I understand why others are missing parts and/or are skeptical.   I believe that he can still be a good MLB pitcher, he just needs to get healthy and be able to repeat his motion more consistently.  The doctor who operated on him says that he should be able to do this now.   And that should result in less strain on his arm.

I think he would be better off relieving going forward, so that his body will get less wear and tear, plus give his body less wear to get over with in recovering.  But I understand the desire to return to what he's always been, a starting pitcher, that's an ego thing, and you need to have a bit of a big ego to make it big in the majors like he did.  Good luck to him if he wants to start (as long as it's not for someone in the NL West or the Cards or the Marlins or the AL East or the A's).

In any case, I know that all I can do is make my best case and let it go, and see what happens on the field.   I have had a lot of experience with this, as, for example, I've been saying that the Giants were going to be the Team of the 2010's decade for a while before they won their 2010 Championship and been patiently watching them do that.  Not that it matters if I was right, but that I said it, and now see what happens.

All I've really cared about with my prior discussions about Lincecum is that my voice be heard, and sometimes I get censored for some crazy reason, as all I'm doing is expressing my opinion.   That is part of the reason why I started blogging, so that my voice could be heard and so that I could express my opinion.   I could be wrong, but then again, you could be wrong, dead wrong, as that is all you are doing too, expressing an opinion.  Or as one commenter noted, being speculative.  I've now laid out my narrative:  believe it, doubt it, whatever.

As we'll find out relatively soon as I can't wait for Opening Day!  I think the Giants have the makings of a great team, and I think that they have the most talent and are the most capable to win a championship compared to all the recent opening day rosters we have had since this glorious golden period began in 2009.
We've had good pitching before, and we've had good hitting, but this should be the first season we have both going good for us, with twin aces in Bumgarner and Cueto, perhaps more with Samardzija and Cain, plus a lineup that, top to bottom, only has the pitcher has the weak spot, and such a lineup last season, when most were in the lineup, was among the leaders in runs scored.  Even with Pence missing much of the season, the Giants were still tied for 4th best in the NL with the Pirates, who plays in a hitters park.  Looking only at road numbers, the Giants were second only to the Mets, who had only 4 more runs scored.  Add in a good bullpen that we already have, plus many in reserve, our bullpen should be great as well.

This is the most excited I've been about a season!

Go Giants!

2 comments:

  1. Definitely excited about this season. If this team stays healthy they should be a major threat. If we get Lincecum and if he can pitch it will be a bonus. One thing you pointed out about Lincecum, that always disturbed me about him, was that it took him until 2013 to start studying hitters with the help of Posey. Maybe it was his hip, but I always thought he did not put in what a major league pitcher needed to do to work on holding runners, hone in his control, and develop some semblance of a pick off move. Perhaps he was so good in high school and college, and then in the minors those things did not seem important. In the majors you have to try to take every advantage you can get. On the other hand, he is one of the most exciting pitchers to don a giants uniform.

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    1. I totally agree with you. Contrast that with Cain and Bumgarner, neither if whom take their skills for granted and worked hard to improve even when they are already good enough.

      But that's modern sports, heck, that's true in the past too, look at Babe and Mickey, two of the best ever, think how good they could have been had they not abused their bodies.

      Contrast that with guys like Ted Williams and Pete Rose, who worked hard with what they got

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