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Monday, January 16, 2012
Tim Lincecum worth a long-term extension

By Christina Kahrl

There’s a long-held bias against shorter pitchers in baseball. Part of that’s based on the entirely reasonable observation that pitchers only so tall are limited in the number of angles they can come into the strike zone with; part of it’s also associated with the expectation that shorter pitchers can’t handle the workload of regular rotation work.

These were some of the reasons why the Giants’ Tim Lincecum slipped to the 10th overall choice in the 2006 draft, something Brian Sabean and company happily exploited when he fell to them. Yet the Freak’s height (5-foot-11) and slight build are also parts of the reason why some might wonder whether the Giants should now sign the two-time Cy Young winner to a multi-year extension to keep him in the fold beyond his date with free agency after 2013.

Tim Lincecum
There are plenty of reasons the Giants need to lock down Tim Lincecum, his shorter height withstanding.
Scouts certainly don’t have it wrong in the broad strokes — of the 359 starting pitchers who have thrown 800 or more innings from 1969-2011, just 60 were 6 feet tall or shorter, and 24 of those 60 were lefties. So in 43 years just 36 rotation right-handers standing 6 feet or less have tossed 800 or more innings in the big leagues. Some of that might be blamed on selection bias, but not all of it.

However, some teams have recognized this and made a point of developing short pitchers to exploit this "market inefficiency." In the ’90s the Astros cranked out Roy Oswalt, Kirk Saarloos and Tim Redding, none of whom stand taller than 6 feet. (Not to mention the 5-foot-10 closer Billy Wagner.) The Astros also traded for Mike Hampton (5-10), and then later swapped Hampton to the Mets for Octavio Dotel, another 6-footer.

Oswalt’s name is worth bringing up because he’s an established ace today, but he’s not the only notable power righty who stood in nobody’s shadow at the front of a rotation. Greg Maddux is generously listed at 6 feet; he’s going to the Hall of Fame. Catfish Hunter and Juan Marichal already have. Pedro Martinez is the same height as Lincecum.

Extraordinary talents, of course, make for exceptions, and Lincecum is clearly exceptional. Perhaps his loss of velocity is a source of greater concern, because his fastball’s down around 92 mph where it was sitting at 94 during his Cy seasons. His strikeout rate has similarly dropped — at 24 percent last year, it was still above MLB average, but his rate’s going down at the same time that strikeout rates hit all-time highs. But it’s also worth noting he’s mixing in a lot more sinkers these days, and generating a higher proportion of groundball outs.

Whether that’s the workload or the wisdom of age is the $20 million Average Annual Value question. The Giants are already going to pay Lincecum a raise from last year’s arbitration-generated $14 million, and next year they’ll have to pay another raise beyond whatever he gets this winter. Why not take arbitration out of the equation and put at least a five-year deal on the table now? Including posting fees, the Red Sox spent more than $100 million on 6-footer Daisuke Matsuzaka, and that was in 2006-07 dollars. Jered Weaver accepted less than $20 million per year when he accepted his five-year, $85 million extension last August. That was after his first two spins in arbitration.

FanGraphs’ valuation metric has the value of Lincecum’s work the past two years just under $20 million per season, which might make that sort of pricing tough to accept. On the other hand, the same metric says Lincecum’s performance was worth more than $30 million in each of his Cy Young campaigns. So there’s certainly no guarantee that Lincecum would accept a five-year, $100 million offer, even if it were made, and even if the Giants were willing to trade on their direct knowledge of Lincecum, and whether the dropping strikeout rates and velocity are more by design than red flags for the faint of heart.

Certainly, Sabean has never been afraid to sign a big check. And that’s part of the problem; the Giants still have Barry Zito to afford. But that’s an expense that has almost run its full course with just two years to go and $46 million to spend ($39 million to employ Zito, and $7 million to kiss off their 2014 club option). The Giants can’t afford to let the past entirely dictate their future.

As far as the Giants’ budget goes, now and beyond 2012, they already have big expenses coming off the books. The Giants no longer have to pay $6 million or more apiece for Cody Ross, Miguel Tejada or Mark DeRosa. Next year, they can replace the reliably mediocre Freddy Sanchez at second base for less than the $6 million it cost per year to employ him, Aubrey Huff’s $10 million per season salary goes away as well, and the last checks to Aaron Rowand to pay off that $60 million mistake. The immediate future of the offense belongs to Pablo Sandoval, Buster Posey and Brandon Belt, and the closest any of them are to free agency is Sandoval after 2014.

So the time to shell out for the rotation, the platform of the team’s success in 2010 as well as 2012 and beyond, is now. And that means not just affording the more conventionally beefy Matt Cain before he heads into free agency after this season, it means keeping their Freak on.