Although Tim Lincecum has not officially called it quits yet, the last time he played in the MLB was 2016.
The combination of a unique delivery that required the whole body to be healthy and nagging injuries as he aged led to the premature demise of Lincecum’s effectiveness. He is now 36 years old and approaching the required five calendar years away from the league to be eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot. He will be voted on in 2022 along with David Ortiz and Alex Rodriguez.
Nicknamed The Freak, Lincecum was perhaps the most electric player in baseball from 2007 to 2011. Whenever he took the hill, it was must-see television. He wasn’t just style-over-substance either, winning two Cy Young awards, making four all-star teams, and leading the league in strikeouts three times. For a brief period, he was the best pitcher in the game.
The question is: was that period long enough to earn a call to the hall?
Pros for Lincecum and the HOF
It is hard to express exactly how dominant Lincecum was for five years, especially since during the last five years of his career he was essentially a replacement-level starting pitcher or worse. But let’s give it a shot.
From 2007 to 2011, The Freak accumulated 25.6 bWAR in those five seasons. The average Hall of Famer’ career sits between 50-70 WAR, meaning Lincecum managed half of the average Hall-of-Famer’s career in just five seasons. In those five years, he trailed only a Hall of Famer (Roy Halladay), two probable Hall of Famers (Justin Verlander, C.C. Sabathia), and two possible Hall of Famers (Felix Hernandez, Cliff Lee).
In his 188 starts during those five years, he struck out 10+ batters 30 times, or once every six starts. He won 66% of his games (69-41). His xFIP (3.20) and SIERRA (3.18) were the second lowest of all starting pitchers, losing out only to Halladay. He had the lowest HR/9 rate of any starting pitcher for that five-year stretch (0.58) and the highest K/9 rate (9.87).
Lincecum pulled off a lot with his small frame, and did it in a very short period of time. He won back-to-back Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009. Only 11 pitchers have won the award in consecutive seasons. Five of those 11 pitchers are already in the hall while another three are probably going to get there (Jake deGrom, Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw), and one would be if not for PED rumors (Roger Clemens).
He was part of three World Series champion teams with the Giants in 2010, 2012, and 2014. He was a four-time All-Star, a three-time strikeout leader, and he threw a pair of no-hitters. In fact, the former Washington Husky is one of only two pitchers to win multiple Cy Youngs, multiple World Series, throw multiple no-hitters and make multiple all-star games. The other pitcher? Sandy Koufax.
There is a “star” portion of this, too. We will know for sure how much star power contributes to current players’ hall chances when the media votes on both Timmy and Ortiz on the next ballot. It would be fair to say that Lincecum’s stature in San Francisco rivals that of Big Papi in Boston. After all, he was integral in the Giants’ first two of those three titles.
Lincecum’s teams never lost a playoff series, and he was a big reason why posting a 5-2 record with a 2.40 ERA and 65 Ks in 56.1 playoff innings. In his first postseason start, he threw a two-hit shutout in the 2010 NLDS, striking out 14 Braves. He went on to win the Babe Ruth award in 2010, which is given to the postseason MVP. The Giants’ ace never shied away from the big moment. He was excellent in three World Series with a sparkling 2-0 record, 2.46 ERA and 26 Ks in 18.1 innings.
Cons for Lincecum and the HOF
If the baseball Hall of Fame is reserved for those freakish performers, how can they keep out The Freak? It’s simple: longevity. There are still writers who swear by the ancient pitcher benchmark of 300 wins. Even with a more enlightened body of sportswriters voting, Lincecum’s win total of 110 is incredibly light. In fact, his 10-year career barely meets the minimum requirement for length necessary to qualify him for the ballot.
What about new metrics?
One of the metrics Baseball Reference uses to determine Hall of Fame cases is Black and Grey ink; how often a pitcher finishes first (black) and top-10 (grey) in pitching categories. The average Hall of Fame pitcher has scores of 41 in black ink and 201 in grey ink.
Lincecum rose to the top of most pitching categories but fell quickly after his first five seasons, managing only 21 in black ink and an 84 in grey in the back half of his career. Obviously, both of those marks are below average, however, his black ink number is better than 27 Hall of Famer pitchers, and his grey ink number is better than seven.
The problem with those numbers, however, are that he does score higher in black ink than pitchers like Jack Morris (20), Bert Blyleven (16), and Mike Mussina (15) to name a few, but the rest are relievers. In grey ink, he’s tied with Hoyt Wilhelm and only leading the rest of the relievers.
Another problem is, as soon as Lincecum’s first five years were over he regressed from routinely posting an ERA in the twos and threes from 2007-2011 to the fours and fives from 2012-2016. He also never posted a positive WAR after 2011.
The one metric used to measure the impact of a player’s prime is JAWS, which measures a seven-year stretch of peak WAR. Lincecum’s prime was just too short. If JAWS measured a five-year stretch, he’d be in very good company, but his seven-year total of 21.6 would be the worst of any Hall of Fame starting pitcher, mostly because his year six and year seven were negative WAR productions.
Finally, Baseball Reference also uses HOF Monitor and HOF Standards scores. The average Hall of Famer scores 100 and 50, respectively. Lincecum scores a 66 and 17, which are far below those marks.
Lincecum’s hardware is impressive, but there are precedents for keeping out pitchers with two Cy Young awards: Johan Santana, Brett Saberhagen and Denny McLain. All three of these cases provide different aspects that are damning for a Lincecum HOF bid.
McLain and Lincecum had two very similar careers. True, McLain’s career is slightly worse than Lincecum’s by most metrics, but he won not just back-to-back Cy Youngs, but an AL MVP for winning 31 games in 1968 and went on to contribute to winning the World Series. Conversely, McLain had off-field issues that contributed to him not getting into Cooperstown, such as an embezzling conviction, a prison stint, and connections with organized crime.
Santana had a longer career with more success, but he was not the same pitcher in the playoffs and never won a World Series.
Finally, there’s Saberhagen, who probably should be in the hall. His career WAR (58.9) over 16 years included some postseason success (World Series title & World Series MVP in 1985) even if his overall playoff record was not very good. Oddly enough about Saberhagen, one could point to his lack of All-Star appearances. In a 16-year career, he was an All-Star only three times — but this just underscores how silly including All-Stars as consideration is because, in both of his Cy Young seasons, he didn’t make the mid-summer classic.
Are two elite seasons enough to earn you a trip to Cooperstown? No. We already know that.
What about if you add three more very good seasons? Probably not.
The question is: How many more would he need? It’s difficult to say. Maybe another four. If you think that is still too few, then you haven’t looked at Koufax’s career lately.
There is an argument to be made that Lincecum is the best Giants pitcher since Juan Marichal. After all, he owns more Cy Youngs than the rest of the organization combined. Oddly enough, there are players in the hall who never had a single season as good as either of Lincecum’s Cy Young years — I’m looking at you Harold Baines, Don Sutton, and Jack Morris, to name a few.
There is another part of this. Lincecum is officially listed at 5’11”, which is simply not true. Having met him multiple times, this mark is off at least three inches. I’m 5’7″ and I basically look him straight in the eye. In order for Lincecum to reach the elite level he was for five years, his father had to develop an unorthodox delivery that maximized every inch of his potential — and he succeeded.
But even in maximizing his potential — which some Hall of Famers didn’t do, and some did with the help of PEDs — he wasn’t good enough. He was good enough in the sense that when he was pitching his best, he was Hall-of-Fame caliber — his diminutive frame simply could not take the stress to operate at that level for long enough. This is the sad conclusion one has to draw from Lincecum’s case: if you are short, your body might not last long enough playing with the big boys, even if you have more skill than them.
Lincecum’s case is built almost solely on hardware, and he has a lot of it. In fact, he has more hardware than a number of inductees.
Ultimately it’s not enough. Santana had a similar career in longevity and regular-season hardware but didn’t make it past the first ballot, earning only 2.4% of the vote. I believe that because of his star power, name recognition, and postseason success, Lincecum will get more votes and stay on the ballot multiple seasons, but that’s about it.
If he is ever to get in, he will have to get in by the veterans committee — probably after they let in Saberhagen. For now, he will be a great addition to the Giants organization hall of fame.