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Monday, June 6, 2011
Lincecum: On pace for all-time greatness?

By David Schoenfield

Tim Lincecum starts Monday night for the Giants. In his fifth season, he already has 995 strikeouts and can become just the eighth pitcher since 1900 to record 1,000 strikeouts in his first five seasons. (UPDATE: He struck out five Nationals to reach 1,000.) The list:

Tom Seaver, 1155
Bert Blyleven, 1094
Dwight Gooden, 1067
Kerry Wood, 1065
Pete Alexander, 1036
Hideo Nomo, 1031
Mark Langston, 1018
Tim Lincecum, 995

Pretty good company: Three Hall of Famers, a 194-game winner (Gooden), a 179-game winner (Langston) and a 123-game winner (Nomo). Only Wood failed to win 100 games. Four of the next five guys on the list are Hall of Famers as well: Roger Clemens, Bob Feller, Don Sutton, Frank Tanana and Fergie Jenkins.

You probably can't read too much into this, but for all those who worry that Lincecum will get injured ... well, all these guys except Wood had long careers as starting pitchers. Tanana did suffer a major arm injury but managed to hang on as a soft-tosser for a long time and he won 240 games. Gooden did later develop some shoulder problems. Basically, if Lincecum hasn't been hurt by now, there's a pretty good chance he'll be around for a long time.

Now, strikeouts are just one statistic, and Lincecum has the advantage of playing in a high-strikeout era and in a good pitcher's park. Has he been one of the best pitchers through five seasons? (Obviously, he has four months left in the season.) From Baseball-Reference, here is the list of top-10 pitchers by WAR (wins above replacement level) through their first five seasons:

1. Pete Alexander, 36.8
2. Tom Seaver, 36.7
3. Bert Blyleven, 29.3
4. Dwight Gooden, 28.6
5. Nap Rucker, 28.3
6. Bob Feller, 28.1
7. Frank Tanana, 28.1
8. Eddie Plank, 28.0
9. Robin Roberts, 27.9
10. Teddy Higuera, 27.3

Not surprisingly, some of the same names. It's a reminder of how of good Tanana was from 1973 to 1977: 66-49, 2.69 ERA, 73 complete games and 19 shutouts. (And, really, it was only four seasons, as he made just four starts in '73.) Teddy Higuera is the surprise name on the list. If you don't know about him, maybe he is a precautionary tale for Lincecum: He was a little 5-10 lefty for the Brewers and went 78-44 with a 3.28 ERA from 1985 to 1989. But he began suffering back problems in 1989 and later tore his rotator cuff.

As for Lincecum, his Baseball-Reference career WAR is 20.8, which currently puts him at 44th. If we extrapolate his 2011 numbers (2.0 WAR so far) we get four additional WAR, which pushes him up to 24.8 and into the top 20.

How does Lincecum fare among active pitchers? Only four actives are currently ahead of him on the WAR chart for their first five seasons: Tim Hudson (24.9), Brandon Webb (24.4), Roy Oswalt (22.4) and Barry Zito (21.0). Let's see what happened to those after their first five seasons.

Tim Hudson
First five (1999-2003): 80-33, 1052 IP, 3.26 ERA, 137 ERA+, 796 SO, 338 BB, 24.9 WAR
Next five: (2004-2008): 66-44, 965 IP, 3.73 ERA, 117 ERA+, 576 SO, 281 BB, 15.2 WAR

Like Lincecum, Hudson is a small right-hander. He never threw as hard as Lincecum although he had lows 90s heat when he first came up. He's never had the strikeout rates of The Freak, but turned into a supreme ground-ball pitcher and has overcome Tommy John surgery in the 2008 season.

Brandon Webb
First five (2003-2007): 65-55, 1089 IP, 3.22 ERA, 144 ERA+, 880 SO, 368 BB, 24.4 WAR
Next five: (2008-): 22-7, 230 IP, 3.47 ERA, 134 ERA+, 185 SO, 67 BB, 4.8 WAR

Webb went 22-7 in 2008 and finished second to Lincecum in the Cy Young voting, but hurt his shoulder in his first start of 2009 and has yet to make it back to the majors.

Roy Oswalt
First five (2001-2005): 83-39, 980 IP, 3.07 ERA, 142 ERA+, 850 SO, 225 BB, 22.4 WAR
Next five (2006-2010): 67-44, 1034 IP, 3.29 ERA, 129 ERA+, 816 SO, 242 BB, 17.1 WAR

Oswalt hasn't suffered much of a decline through the years. His strikeout rate has dipped a bit, but some of his decline could be attributable to a bad team behind him in Houston in his latter years. By the way, take note of all the big, hulking right-handers just selected in the draft: Lincecum, Hudson and Oswalt are all 6-foot or shorter.

Barry Zito
First five (2000-2004): 72-40, 981 IP, 3.41 ERA, 130 ERA+, 774 SO, 332 BB, 21.0 WAR
Next five (2005-2009): 61-66, 1018 IP, 4.24 ERA, 104 ERA+, 727 SO, 454 BB, 10.7 WAR

Zito always lived a fine line, walking 80-plus guys a year without having a monster strikeout rate. It worked for several seasons, including a Cy Young season, but he was just a slightly better than league average pitcher his second five seasons (although at least a durable one, making 32-plus starts every season).

One final list. Leaders in Baseball-Reference WAR since 2007:

1. Roy Halladay, 27.6
2. CC Sabathia, 25.4
3. Felix Hernandez, 21.9
4. Dan Haren, 21.6
5. Tim Lincecum, 20.8

Because he had just a partial season in 2007, Lincecum has fewer starts than the other guys. Lincecum's ERA+ is better than Haren's and Hernandez's, the same as Sabathia's, and a bit lower than Halladay's.

So the question: Which pitcher would you most want for the NEXT five seasons? Discuss below or on our SweetSpot Facebook page.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Josh Hamilton
Listen, Josh, it's OK, you can look. It's over. The Rangers lost 13-7 against the Tigers. It's one game.