When Aces Struggle: Is Tim Lincecum Having a Historically Bad Season?

The Cy Young award was created in 1956 by Commissioner Ford Frick and was initially handed out to only one pitcher, the best in all of baseball. Immediately after Mr. Frick retired in 1967, the rules were changed to give out two Cy Young Awards, one for the American League and one for the National League. Over the past 58 seasons, 16 illustrious pitchers have won the award multiple times, including one Tim Lincecum, who may be having the worst season ever for any pitcher on this list. I wanted to discover whether or not Lincecum’s struggles were historic for a pitcher who had a previous track record of dominance, and the conclusions are rather interesting. Let’s take a look at each of the multiple Cy Young winners, and their most difficult seasons, starting with Lincecum.

Note: I only looked at season’s that occurred once the pitcher had won at least 1 Cy Young. Many pitchers have to learn how to get hitters out during their first couple of seasons, and I only wanted to take a look at struggles after a pitcher had/has discovered they are indeed elite.

Tim Lincecum

I discussed Lincecum’s issues some earlier this season, but they become even more baffling when you consider he’s only 3 seasons removed from a Cy Young campaign, 2 seasons removed from winning the World Series, and is in his age-28 season, which is normally considered the prime of a players career. Its almost baffling then that his current pitching line stands at 2-8 with a 6.07 ERA, 58 ERA+, 1.542 WHIP, with a 2.02 K/BB ratio. Lincecum has proven he can still strike out batters at an elite rate, 9.9 batters per 9 innings, but he’s allowing more hits (9.0/9 innings) and walks (4.9/9 innings) of his career. He’s been one of the worst pitchers in the National League, probably only better than Jeremy Guthrie, who has an ERA over 7.00 and doesn’t have anything close to the track record of Tiny Tim.

Roger Clemens

Clemens never threw a season once in his career with an ERA+ below 100, which is normally the league average. Twice in his career he posted an ERA+ 102, for the Yankees in 1999 and again for New York in 2002. His worst career ERA was posted for the Boston Red Sox was 4.46 in 1993. All the Rocket did after that season was win 4 more Cy Youngs, 3 more ERA titles, and 3 more strikeout titles, but all of that success is somewhat questionable when you consider the steroid allegations hanging all over Clemens. He may have won in court, but its going to take a lot more than that to rehabilitate his reputation among fans, writers, and fellow players, including Goose Gossage. Because of all these issues, Clemens is obviously a poor comparison for Lincecum, so let’s move on.

Randy Johnson

Another poor comparison to Lincecum, but this time due to the sheer difference in size between the two pitchers. Johnson stood at an imposing 6’10”, 220 pounds, about a foot taller than Timmy. Johnson won 4 of his 5 Cy Young awards down in the Arizona desert, during what was probably the most dominant stretch of pitching in baseball history. He led the NL in ERA+ and struck out over 300 batters every year from 1999 to 2002, a stretch the likes of which will probably never be seen again. During his 2004 Cy Young campaign, the Big Unit struck out more batters per 9 innings (13.4) than any starting pitcher in Major League history, a feat that will be difficult to top. Johnson didn’t truly decline until his age-42 season, when he threw 205 innings for the 2006 Yankees with a 5.00 ERA for an ERA+ of just 90. He pitched a couple more seasons in Arizona and San Francisco, having moderate success and now awaits his Hall of Fame induction. As I expected, not too much in common here either.

Steve Carlton

We may actually be getting somewhere with Carlton here, because, one year after throwing an absurd 346.1 innings with an ERA+ of 182 and 310 strikeouts for the lousy 1972 Phillies to win the Cy Young, he predictably struggled in ’73. During Carlton’s ’73 (he was 28 by the way)season he again threw a ridiculous 293.1 innings, but with less success posting a 97 ERA+ for a normal 3.90 ERA. To compare Carlton’s workload to any current pitcher however is somewhat laughable, because no pitcher will ever again throw over 300 innings, that amount would probably get a manager fired.

Carlton bounced back however, winning 3 more Cy Youngs (1977, 1980, 1982), while consistently pitching one of the heaviest workloads in the league. He finally had a true decline in 1986 (age 41 for him), putting up a 5.10 ERA (79 ERA+) while splitting time for Philadelphia and San Francisco. This is just a classic case of age catching up to a pitcher, and due to Carlton’s phenomenal workloads, its difficult to really compare him to Lincecum.

Sandy Koufax

Koufax with 3 Cy Young Awards is next on the list, had a relatively short career of only 12 seasons because he was forced to retire with arthritis in his pitching arm in 1966. It took Koufax nearly half his career to really begin to dominate hitters, unlike Tim Lincecum who became an instant sensation in his 2nd season. Koufax threw 4 no-hitters and one perfect game, but maybe his most impressive accomplishment has to be his final 2 seasons. Koufax went a combined 53-17 with a 2.04 ERA in 1965 and a 1.73 ERA in ’66 while throwing over 325 innings in each season and striking out 699 total batters. Since those were his last two seasons, at age 29 and 30, he never had a decline and truly went out at the top of his game.

Tom Seaver

The greatest pitcher in Mets history won all 3 of his Cy Youngs with the franchise and his 2.86 ERA the 3rd best in the history of baseball during the Live Ball era (post-1920). He led the National League in strikeouts 5 separate times as a Met, and only when he was traded, in a trade with Cincinnati for Doug Flynn (career .238/.266/.294), Steve Henderson (.280/.352/.413), Dan Norman (.227/.287/.362), and Pat Zachry (career ERA+ 102 in 1177.2 innings). Not exactly what you want to get back for a 3 time Cy Young winner. Seaver had some good seasons in Cincinnati, but never quite dominated the same way and actually posted his worst season in their uniform. During 1982, Seaver’s age-37 season, he went 5-13 with a 5.50 ERA (67 ERA+), and a WHIP of 1.617. This again, is a sign of an aging player. Seaver’s fastball wasn’t as crisp, his strikeouts per 9 had been plummeting for years, and it all caught up to him one season. Seaver would go on to throw a another 800-900 productive innings until he retired at the age of 41.

Jim Palmer

The Orioles great was also a 3-time Cy Young Award Winner was a master of consistency, never once posting an ERA above 4.00 from 1965, his rookie season, to 1982, and incredible 17 season stretch. He was never an elite strikeout pitcher, often pitching to contact and relying on an excellent defense that included Brooks Robinson, a 16-time Gold Glove winner, at 3rd. He was also famous for finishing what he started, throwing an incredible 211 complete games in his 19 year career, a number no modern major league may ever approach again.

Side note: To put that in perspective, the two guys most associated with the complete game now, Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay (who’s also the active leader), have 17 and 66 career complete games apiece. Its fairly safe to say the dominant 9 inning starter is dead.

Arm fatigue in his late 30s led to Palmer’s worst seasons,1981 and 1983, when he only threw 127.1 innings with a 3.75 ERA (97 ERA+) and 76.2 innings with a 4.23 ERA (94 ERA+) respectively. He never really had a severe decline in performance, proving to be an average pitcher even at his worst.

Pedro Martinez

Pedro Martinez 1999 and 2000 seasons are among the most impressive in all of baseball history, especially when you consider the fact that they come during the height of the steroid era. Pedro won the Cy Young both years while eviscerating AL hitters, posting a 23-4 record with a 2.07 ERA, 243 ERA+, and 313 strikeouts in just 213.1 innings in 1999 only to follow that up by going 18-6 with a 1.74 ERA, 291 ERA+, while getting 291 K’s in 2000. The 13.3 K’s/9 innings he put up in 1999 ranks as the 2nd best in baseball history only behind Randy Johnson’s stellar 2001 season. Pedro’s worst season occurred while he was playing for the Mets in 2008 when he only pitched 109 innings with a 5.61 ERA (75 ERA+). That was his age-36 season, and Pedro was dealing with some arm issues that limited how many innings he was able to pitch. He was still able to throw 60 solid innings (including playoffs) in 2009 to help the Phillies to the World Series, but his career was never really the same after he left Boston when he was 32. Due to his diminutive size (5’11” 170 lbs), Pedro makes for a nice comparison to Lincecum, but in truth, Martinez was a better pitcher who had a much deeper arsenal of pitchers to work with, which may be why he never struggled like this.

Bob Gibson

If you want to talk greatest pitching seasons of all-time the conversations probably has to start and end with Bob Gibson’s 1968 season, when he threw 304.2 innings with an ERA of 1.12, 28 complete games, and 268 strikeouts. In terms of run prevention and the ability to finish a game and keep an opponent off base, its the greatest season ever. He gave up a total of 38 earned runs in 304.2 innings! Just absurd, and until his final season in 1975, Gibson was one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the run-suppressed National League of the ’60s and ’70s. Gibson was also a great fielder too, winning 9 Gold Gloves.

That previously mentioned 1975 season, though, was the only real time Gibby struggled other than when he was breaking into the majors. Gibson posted a 5.04 ERA (75 ERA+) when he was 39, going only 3-10. After giving up a grand slam to a Cubbie with an odd name when he enter his last career game as a reliever, Gibson would later say “When I gave up a grand slam to Pete LaCock I knew it was time to quit.” Again we just have another case of a great pitcher aging poorly, not struggling mightily in the middle of his career.

Denny McLain

The Detroit Tigers ace from the 1960s was the player I was most surprised to learn was a 2-time Cy Young winner. He won the AL Cy Young in 1968 and 1969. McLain is the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, going 31-6 with a 1.96 ERA (154 ERA+) while throwing 336 innings in 1968. McLain was somewhat of a goofball, once lobbing a meatball over the plate for childhood idol Mickey Mantle to hit for a homer and was suspended for gambling. He saw a drastic dip in performance from 1970 onward, and was out of baseball by the time he was 29. In McLain’s last season (age 28), split between Oakland and Atlanta he threw 76.1 innings, posting a 6.37 ERA (56 ERA+), which stands to be the worst season for any pitcher on this entire list. As far as age is concerned, McLain is the closest thing to a comparison that I can find to what has happened to Tim Lincecum, but their struggles occurred for far different reasons. McLain appeared to be losing his interest in baseball, was earning constant suspensions and had a badly fatigued shoulder, whereas Timmy is just having some control problems and a dip in velocity.

Gaylord Perry

Perry, much like Tom Glavine, was remarkably consistent in his career, throwing over 200 innings in 17 different seasons and over 300 innings in 6. He was the first player to ever win the Cy Young in both leagues, taking the AL’s in 1972 while in Cleveland and the NL’s in 1978 while playing for San Diego. Perry also had a reputation for doctoring baseball’s with sweat, vaseline, spit, and other similar substances, although he was only ejected for throwing a spitball once in his career. Perry, much like many other pitchers on this list, began to decline with age, suffering his worst seasons after turning 40 years old. The 4.94 ERA (87 ERA+) he put up in Seattle over the course of 16 starts in 1983 was probably his worst season, which makes a considerable amount of sense, considering the righty was 44-years-old at the time.

Brett Saberhagen

The Royals’ ace of the 1980s won 2 Cy Young Awards with the team, in 1985 and 1989 but otherwise had somewhat of a roller coaster career. He won his 1st Cy Young during his 2nd season at the very young age of 21, going 20-6 with a 2.87 (143 ERA+), and followed that year up by going 7-12 with a 4.15 ERA (102 ERA+). His career would continue along this odd path, where Saberhagen would have a good season one year, a bad one the next. He struggled with shoulder injuries for a large part of his career, briefly retiring for the 1995 season when he was only 31 after having the worst season of his career as a member of the newly formed Colorado Rockies, when he threw 43 innings with a 6.28 ERA (86 ERA+). Part of his struggles could be attributed to the fact that Coors Field, particularly in its early years, was an absolute bandbox where runs were scored at an all-time record rate.

Tom Glavine

The master of the change-up, Glavine won 305 total games in his career, claiming 2 Cy Youngs while showing remarkable durability. Glavine pitched at least 165 innings every season from 1988 to 2007, posting an ERA+ above the usual league standard of 100 in 16 of those seasons. Glavine’s change-up was considered his best pitch, much like Lincecum, which makes for a nice comparison, but Glavine was never a strikeout pitcher like Lincecum (no seasons over 200 k’s), and Tom never struggled in his career the way Tim has recently.

Glavine’s worst season occurred when he was 37 in 2003 as a member of the New York Mets. Glavine went 9-14 with a 4.52 ERA (93 ERA+), when he posted one of the K/BB rates of his career (1.24). But again, it’s normal for an aging pitcher to struggle, and age-37 feels like a normal barrier for a elite pitcher to begin his decline.

Roy Halladay

Lincecum’s former contemporary in greatness, Roy Halladay, has also fallen on hard times this season, although his are due to injury. Halladay took one of the more bizarre routes to excellence, completely changing his wind-up, demeanor, and pitching style on the mound in order to succeed. From the time of his reemergence in 2002, the righty has baffled hitters with a variety of excellent pitches and pinpoint control. He’s led his league in innings 5 times in his career and has 5 seasons of over 200 strikeouts. This season (3.98 ERA/98 ERA+) has been Halladay’s worst since 2002 , which isn’t really fair because he hasn’t been entirely healthy. He’s 35 now so his time as an elite pitcher may be running out, but I think it’s fairly safe to expect Roy Halladay to make a few more All-Star teams in his career, which will boost his already strong Hall of Fame resume.

Johan Santana

The lefty with a Bugs Bunny change-up would probably be considered one of the top-30 pitchers in Major League history if not for so many shoulder issues. He missed the entire 2011 season, and in 2012 has bounced back nicely, even throwing the 1st no-hitter in New York Mets history. Santana’s 2004-2006 stretch ranks as one of the most dominant in baseball history. He led the AL in ERA+ and strikeouts all 3 seasons claiming 2 Cy Young Awards and one 3rd place finish. Santana is still just 33 years old, and if he can put together another 3-5 solid to All-Star level seasons he could pitch his way into the Hall of Fame. His current resume is already strong, and since becoming a full-time Major League starter in 2002, he has never had an ERA above 3.40 and has never posted an ERA+ lower than 129.

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Lincecum’s struggles are pretty historic for a pitcher who has proven he can sustain dominance for a stretch of multiple seasons. No pitcher outside of Denny McLain, who was a gambler who’s interest in baseball appeared to be fleeting by his late 20s, ever struggled so mightily in the middle of their career. If he continues on this pace, Lincecum’s 2012 season will challenge McLain’s 1972 season as the worst ever by a pitcher who has won multiple Cy Youngs. It will be interesting to see if Lincecum can bounce back during the 2nd half of the season to give the Giants back their ace, who would fit nicely alongside Matt Cain.

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6 comments

  1. denny

    Just to clear up an error. I severed my rotator cuff that is the reason that I was not effective after 1970. I thank you for the brief conjecture but I have now supplied the facts to you. In fact from 1966 to 1973 I had more than 100 cortisone injections to absolutely no avail. Have a great day.

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