Tim Lincecum & Jon Lester – Similar yet entirely different

Tim Lincecum

Tim Lincecum (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While at work a few days ago I was catching up on Twitter and Boston sports media and there seems to be this developing trend that because John Farrell is in as manager, that he has the magic solution for the Red Sox pitching staff. Not so fast. That’s just not simply how pitching works and it’s actually irresponsible to assume a prior track record automatically means their recent lack of success is anything but the player just simply isn’t performing at his capability. There are many factors to consider including the amount of luck, the ability of the players the pitcher faces, the wear and tear on their body/arm, innings increases and many others.

Interestingly I was watching the Giants/Cardinals series and had a thought when I saw Tim Lincecum warming in the pen. “Hey these guys are the same age and having pretty similar seasons off the top of my head, let me look further.” Naturally the reaction I assumed most would say is in response to Lincecum being a ‘matter of time’ before he fell apart, where as Lester somehow gets the benefit of the doubt because he has much simpler mechanics and a bigger frame. Is that how we should think? Of course from a scouting perspective if you lined up both Lester and Lincecum and said “pick one”, most would go with Lester for varying reasons we won’t get into. However the point is that both of these guys have had a track record of elite performance and both just finished their age 28 season.

Upon taking a look, you can clearly see that Lincecum has had much more dominant seasons over the duration of his career. However in the past 3 seasons from 2010-2012 there were two seasons in which both pitchers had pretty similar results, 2010 and 2012. Below you will find a FIP by age chart I pulled from FanGraphs.

via Fangraphs

Of course I doubt anyone would just take one stat and my word for it and say Lester and Lincecum are equally falling off the bandwagon. Of course, we’re baseball fans and we love to debate. However when you dig a little deeper you start to notice that several other factors that are typically indicative of regression are also alarmingly similar. For instance, both of their regressing K-rates. Lincecum has always been the more dominant in this area, however Lester did show signs of becoming more of a strikeout pitcher but has since shown he’s much more hittable the past season and a half. Take a look at the graph below representing both Lincecum and Lesters K/9 by age.

via FanGraphs

As you can see, both have had a drop in their ability to strike out hitters, which is important for several factors like limiting damage. Not all pitchers can successfully keep up the level of performance Lester was having, especially Linecum who was a top-10 starter in the game for a two season stretch. Regression is certainly going to happen because lets face it, not many guys can consistently perform at an elite level.

Not convinced yet? Take a look at the below graph which shows (again by age) the trends in WHIP between Lester, Lincecum and league average.

via FanGraphs

Folks, we’re talking worse than league average here. You’re not shocked if you watched them both pitch in 2012, but these are two elite pitchers, right? The interesting case here is that Lincecum has drawn a lot of attention for the regression in his stuff, mostly fastball velocity. However with a pitcher who features his arsenal, fastball & splitter velocity separation are absolutely crucial because of the way the two of those pitches appear to an opposing hitter. That separation is also why he was always more of a strikeout pitcher. Lester on the other hand has a wider array of pitches, but I can tell you that through watching him this season he is not the same guy, but he is receiving the benefit of the doubt out here in New England.

Both guys have thrown a lot of innings early in their career and even Lester “benefitted” from an arm wear & tear perspective due to his unfortunate cancer situation. My eyes are telling me that Lester is falling apart and so are the numbers. However if you paid attention to the media only and didn’t take a deeper look you’d think that Lincecum is a bum and Lester is “ready for a bounce back campaign under Farrell”. This is only to prove a point that numbers and scouting reports can’t be separate. They need to work together in unison to form the best educated guess. To me the best educated guess would be for the Red Sox to move Lester now before the situation becomes as clear as Linecums’s and his trade value is lost at a time when the team needs the prospect depth the most.

What do you think? Comment below and thank you for reading.


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