Sixty Feet, Six Inches: Why Lincecum should be No. 1 in 2009

Should we worry about Tim Lincecum's workload?

I mentioned in a recent Out of the Box column that there might be concerns about the 138 pitches he needed to pick up his first big league shutout on Saturday. Lincecum continues to throw a ton of pitches in each game even though the Giants have nothing to play for. In his past six starts, his pitches per game were 119, 115, 132, 92, 127 and 138.

Because I want to rank Lincecum at the top in my first look at starting pitching rankings for 2009, I really want to feel confident that his workload is not an issue and that my 200-plus innings of fantasy gold is locked in. Lincecum leads the National League in ERA and the majors in strikeouts, and I think he still has some room to get even better.

CC Sabathia leads the big leagues in pitches thrown this season after firing 256 innings last year, but it hasn't seemed to affect him any. Then again, Lincecum certainly is not CC Sabathia in terms of body type.

Lincecum, 24, and his teammate Matt Cain, 23, are third and fourth in the big leagues in pitches thrown this season. After one of Cain's recent outings, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said the workloads of both pitchers were discussed and will be monitored, but they will maintain the status quo, as detailed in the above-mentioned Out of the Box column.

Although I expected all parties involved to say that everything was fine, I spoke with Lincecum, Cain and Bochy a few days ago about this issue.

"[They] ask me how I'm doing, and I tell them I'm doing fine," Lincecum said. "If I don't feel like I am, then I let them know. I've always been honest with them, but I also want to get my workload up to get used to that many innings or that many pitches when we hopefully start making the playoffs. I've always thrown a lot of pitches in games and still felt fine, despite what people might say about my unconventional mechanics or my lack of size. It doesn't really make a difference to me.

"I used to throw 150 pitches pretty regularly in college in my starts, and it's not anything that I haven't done before," he said. "You're on shorter rest and the innings are more strenuous here, but you just take care of yourself during the season."

Said Cain: "[Bochy] and [pitching coach Dave Righetti] listen to us and ask if we feel good or feel bad, and if we need a day off or an extra day before a bullpen, they take it in the right way. They're not going to shove things on us. They ask us how everything is going during the game, and if we're getting to the 110 mark or whatever, it's always, 'How's it going?' or, 'How's it feeling?' We say we can keep going, but it's not a big deal if we say, 'That's it.' That's fine, too. They've been great with us."

But one could argue that most of the time a pitcher won't take himself out of a ballgame. As a competitor, a pitcher always wants the ball and usually feels he has enough for one more inning or a few more pitches, and it's up to the manager to overrule and protect his team's prized arm when there is nothing left to play for.

As Cain said, "It's a long season and hopefully a long career. It's not always about what's going on this year, they might be thinking about the future as well."

"We said that we would watch it, and if we needed to lighten the load we would do that," Bochy said. "Matt feels fine, and Timmy's throwing the ball great. We're not having any issues with these guys right now. Neither one is having any problems with their arm or anything, so these guys are out there pitching. When you play a season, you play through September. This game hasn't changed, and the fact is, some people go to the postseason and pitch through October. There's no concern about our guys."

Again, none of what was said was unexpected. The concern is not necessarily how they might be feeling at the moment, but whether their high pitch counts could affect their performances next season, particularly in the second half. I do think that sometimes these concerns get a little bit overblown, but it's a consideration nonetheless.

Cain has proven to be pretty durable in his first three seasons in the big leagues, and as I've said before, I think Lincecum's unorthodox mechanics are actually helpful in this regard as opposed to a hindrance. For what it's worth, both pitchers have been showing their usual velocity late in games, with Lincecum still topping 95 mph even past the 130-pitch mark.

Lincecum has taken a big step forward this season partially because he has increased his strikeout rate while dropping his walk rate. He's now posting a strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than three to one. What is he doing differently?

"Just going after hitters and trying to throw strikes, as opposed to working around guys or trying to get them to chase," Lincecum said. "I'm better at getting guys out in the zone, and I'm not afraid to let my guys play behind me. I had always kind of gone for strikeouts in the past, and I still do, but it's nice to get those quick innings where you get a ground ball or a double play to get you out of an inning faster than throwing 10 more pitches trying to get more strikeouts."

One of the reasons Lincecum is better at getting guys out in the zone is an improved changeup, a pitch he never really threw in college because he never needed to. He started working a modified split-change into his repertoire last season, and it's more consistent this year with better sink and fade. He's using it a bit more often this season to keep batters off his fastball and curve.

"I didn't really throw a changeup until I got to the big leagues," Lincecum said. "I had worked on it at various levels, but it's not really a pitch I felt confident in throwing at all. It's not perfect, but you work on it enough, and it's a pitch that becomes a little more second-nature. I've become more confident in the way I throw it. It's nice to have that pitch when one of the other ones isn't working."

So, heading into 2009, I can say these things about young Lincecum:

1. Lincecum already ranks No. 3 this season behind Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay in our Player Rater.
2. I think that he can handle the workload he's been given this season and that it won't be an issue in his performance next season.

3. He still can get better, as his changeup is improving, and he also has toyed with a slider this season.

The bottom line is that it adds up to the top spot in the starting pitching rankings for next year.

Comings and goings

Erik Bedard will undergo arthroscopic surgery on the labrum in his shoulder and likely will miss a portion of 2009. Labrum surgeries are always a big concern, as some pitchers just aren't quite the same when they return. Ben Sheets thinks it is still possible he can pitch again this season even though he left his most recent start with what originally was termed "forearm tightness." But he then revealed he's been battling an elbow issue for quite some time, and it's possible he could be done for the year. Seth McClung had replaced Manny Parra in the Brewers' rotation, but Parra might be needed to start again with Sheets hurt. Texas' Brandon McCarthy will miss at least one start and perhaps more with a finger strain. Scott Feldman moves back into the Rangers' rotation. Alfredo Aceves will remain in the Yankees' rotation, with Sidney Ponson's moving to the bullpen. J.A. Happ will remain in the Phillies' rotation, with Kyle Kendrick moved to the bullpen. Shaun Marcum left his past start with numbness in his forearm that likely will shut him down for the season. The Blue Jays have not announced who will replace him, but none of their options is fantasy-worthy. The Rockies have shut down Jeff Francis for the season because of shoulder discomfort, and Livan Hernandez will replace him. The Indians won't take any chances with Anthony Reyes' elbow, so he won't pitch again this season. Scott Lewis, who has been stellar in his first two big league outings, will stay in the rotation for the final two weeks. Alberto Arias will remain in the Astros' rotation with Wandy Rodriguez still sidelined with an oblique injury. He's not recommended. Justin Duchscherer (hip injury) will throw a simulated game Thursday with the intent of trying to move back into the A's rotation this weekend. Daniel Cabrera's elbow woes likely will end his season, keeping Garrett Olson and Radhames Liz in the Orioles' rotation. The team hopes to get Jeremy Guthrie back for at least one more start in about a week.

About the rankings

I'm sure the rankings will generate some discussion, but try not to quibble too much if you feel a particular pitcher should move up or down three to five spots. In many cases, it was extremely close, and I really wouldn't argue the point very hard. For example, I really went back and forth on Jake Peavy over Cole Hamels simply because Peavy's DL stint this season and mild shoulder problems the previous two seasons make him a slightly riskier play, even though I think he would outperform Hamels given a similar number of innings.

If you want to ask why a particular pitcher was or wasn't rated or a similar question, I'll be happy to address them in the comments section.

Also bear in mind the kind of volatility we're dealing with when trying to project starting pitching for next season. Of the top 60 starting pitchers on the Player Rater for 2007, one-third of them did not stay on that list this season.

Jason Grey is a graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and has won two Tout Wars titles, one LABR title and numerous other national "experts" competitions.