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Better Luck Next Time: Tim Lincecum

It was a disappointing fantasy season. Not for me -- I was pretty excited to land in fifth place in the Silver League, plus my Orioles made the playoffs -- but for many. Think of the first-round busts alone: Troy TulowitzkiAdrian Gonzalez, Joey Votto, Justin Upton, and my own Jacoby Ellsbury ... wow, that's a rough list for Red Sox Nation already.

On the mound, and in the second and third rounds of most drafts, things might have gone a bit better, but not for those sad souls who relied on Tim Lincecum. Thanks to the work of his teammates, his real life team is faring a lot better than many of his fantasy squads did, though they're fighting for their life after Lincecum was roughed up by the Cardinals. His stellar relief against the Reds seems to have prompted mildly premature talk of a comeback, but unless your rooting interest is somewhere in this series, you're probably already starting to wonder: what on earth should we do about Lincecum next year?

Lincecum is in an odd situation, to put it mildly, as 2010 and 2011 had seen him slip from sure-thing Cy Young winner to the status of a mortal ace. He seemed safely lowered on most draft boards behind the very best of pitchers in the expectations that his slow decline could continue. And then--just as the Mayans predicted--the End of the World hit in 2012.

He wasn't the worst pitcher in baseball, just the worst to qualify for the NL ERA title, with a 5.18 ERA that was nearly two full points above his career mark. Now, that number could be a bit misleading, as his FIP was just 4.18 (but a full run worse than in 2011!). His xFIP was better still, sitting at 3.82. Not exactly horrible, but certainly not what you paid for. So, what to do next year. Do we hope he was unlucky? Do we worry that maybe his traditional stats are reflecting a skill change not priced into his advanced metrics?

The easy answer for your fantasy baseball team, of course, is to let him be someone else's problem. Of course, you missed out big if you let players like Adam Dunn or Joe Mauer be someone else's "problem." The first thing that came to mind with Lincecum's year was Greg Maddux's 1999 season. This was the season that prompted Voros McCracken to suggest that a pitcher might not be in total control of his ERA. His ERA jumped from a miniscule 2.22 to a just-OK 3.57. It wasn't the jump that Lincecum made this past year, but it was at least as surprising for many. Looking at Maddux's numbers, we see a big jump in FIP as well, from 2.81 to 3.40, and a major dip in his strikeout rate: from 7.51 to 5.58. It was his BABIP, however that told much of the story, both of his great 1998 and his 1999: it moved from just .262 all the way to .324, more than .40 points above his career average. Maddux, of course, bounced back plenty--fantasy owners were well rewarded in 2000. How comparable is Lincecum.

Setting aside their vast differences as pitchers, there are similarities in their pitching records--and big differences. Both pitchers saw serious changes in their advanced metrics, though it's hard to say whether those might have been "real" or the result of having to pitch through bad luck more often. Some good news for Lincecum is that, unlike Maddux, he didn't see a decline in his K/9 rate and it remained above a batter per inning. That fact alone should give him some fantasy value next season, even if his ERA remains a problem.

Unlike Maddux, BABIP doesn't seem to be at the heard of Lincecum's 2012 struggles. His .309 mark isn't far above his career .295, and below what he posted in 2010. His homers allowed might be a bigger cause, as his HR/9 rate rose from just 0.62 in 2011 to 1.11 2012. His walk rate spiked to, to a career high 4.35 BB/9. So he put a lot more batters on and allowed more homers.

Anyone who watched Lincecum this year will tell you that control and homers can't be the whole story. His fastball velocity was down to just 90.4mph, compared to 92.2 last year, and all the way down from 94.0 in 2008. Maybe as a result, his line drive rate rose almost five percentage points, at the expense of his ground ball and fly ball rates. Batters were definitely hitting him harder, though exactly why remains unclear. I don't have the solution to the mystery--if I did, I'd have sold it to the Giants well before writing this article. Maybe we'll know by the beginning of the 2013 fantasy draft season and from that information we'll have a perfect idea of what to expect for next year.

Don't bet on it. Like all mysteries, this one probably has an explanation of some kind, but I wouldn't count on getting a public answer that's usable on draft day. Instead, here's the strategy I'm thinking of: don't reach on him or make him one of the top pitchers off the board. If someone wants to take a risk like that, let them. You can get someone else to equal his 2010-11 production at that price. Rather than give an exact dollar value or draft round, though, I'd suggest targeting him for your number three pitcher. If he repeats this season, you'll have two better pitchers and at least Lincecum will get strikeouts for a competitive team. Even if he doesn't pull anything back together, his ERA might well close in on his more palatable FIP and xFIP.

Lincecum's talent--and youth, as he's still just 28--are good reasons to bet on a comeback. Great young pitchers have flamed out early, and he could be one of them, but pitchers as good as he has been seem a lot more likely to regain excellence than fall off a cliff at this stage in their careers. Certainly, the Giants have enough invested in his talent that they won't be giving up. If you can get your hands on him when everyone else is picking up pitchers with lower ceilings and question marks of their own, go for it. For a price like that, I'd love to see him on my roster next year.

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