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Tim Lincecum's Infinite Slack (And Barry Zito)

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Ugly series in Cheeseland. The Giants are built for pitching, defense, and sacrifice flies, so when the opposition averages seven home runs a game, it's going to be tough going. The Giants hit tons of hard outs all series, but remember this: balls hit hard and over the outfield fence can't get caught. 

Despite the rough series, I'm focused elsewhere: Tim Lincecum's next start. In my book, he's still the big story of the season. The April funks of Brandon Belt and Buster Posey aren't yet alarming; Brandon Crawford's having a wonderful start, costly error Wednesday night notwithstanding; the bullpen is as bullpen does; and the team's winter moves and roster decisions are generally making sense.

Well, OK, comebacks are a big story right now. In six of the last nine games, the Giants have been behind by four, five, two, three, six, and three runs at the game's low point. In four of those games, they've charged back into the lead. They were a break or two away from doing it in the fifth game, Tuesday in Milwaukee, and Wednesday night they came back from a 3-0 deficit to tie but never scored again.

As fun as it is, though, I don't see all this plucky scratching-back as a season-long repeatable skill. It's fun, it's gritty, but it's not the long arc of drama. It's not a glimpse into the soul of the team. The saga of Lincecum is just that. This is Posey and Cain's team now, if you like to use shorthand, but post-Barry Bonds, it was all Lincecum, all the time. He was the bridge to the championship years. He made it fun again. We didn't call him The Franchise for nothing. We are watching the passing of an era, however brief it might be. 

So, then: Timmy. And by "Timmy," I also mean "Barry Zito." Let me explain.

Before Zito got yunieskied Tuesday, there was lots of talk of "Freaky Friday," with Zeets and Timmy switching places like Jodie Foster and Lindsay Lohan. Until Zito throws another solid seven innings, I imagine that talk will cool for a while. Indeed, Zito got roasted Tuesday on the post-game sportsphonica (these days hosted by Ray Woodson, the best KNBR has had in a while). Good-bye, slack from NLCS Game 5. Good-bye, slack from the World Series. It's like he never slapped an RBI single off Justin Verlander. 

Let's imagine it's mid-July, and Zito has taken a thrashing in one of every three outings the whole season long, and the Giants have won 67% of his starts, instead of 100%. I'd bet there would still be calls for his gun and badge, while Lincecum could go 5, maybe 6 innings per start with a 5+ ERA, and still get infinite slack.

I don't have advanced word-cloud or twitter-measure tools, so I won't be able to confirm the fan-attitude levels months down the road. But assuming I'm right, it's kind of funny. Barry Zito provokes ire in large part because of the $126 M albatross around his neck from day one. He hasn't earned his keep. Fair enough. But it's also fair to note that if Lincecum is just as bad in 2013 as he was in 2012 (and there's no reason so far to think otherwise), he'll have earned more than $40 M for being one of the worst pitchers in the bigs two years straight. 

Of course, Lincecum gave the Giants spectacular performance for pennies on the dollar until his 2012 meltdown, while Zito has been barely adequate. We could slice and dice dollars and performance in infinite permutations, but here's one more way to look at Zito's worth: In 14 seasons, he's accumulated 36.4 WAR, good for 192nd all-time among pitchers (Baseball Reference version). Before you snicker, take a look at who's just ahead and behind him with about the same career length: Bob Lemon (15 seasons, 184th); Burt Hooton and Catfish Hunter (both 15 seasons, tied for 190th); Chris Carpenter (15 seasons, 199th). Cliff Lee has the same amount of WAR as Zito, although in two fewer seasons. That's pretty good company.

Now check this out: with 23.4 WAR over seven seasons, Tim Lincecum is tied for 414th on the all-time list (with Joe Nathan, no less). If Lincecum posted the same total the next seven years, to match Zito's career length, he'd be tied with Milt Pappas for 114th all-time and just behind Ron Guidry (14 years) and Frank "Sweet Music" Viola (15 years). Wow: Lincecum could have another seven-year run with two Cy Youngs and a couple more dominant years and not even crack the top 100.

So next time you're on a barstool watching a Giants game, try this one out on your neighbor: in the end, who's going to have a better career, Tim Lincecum or Barry Zito? It might not be Freaky Friday, but it could be the Tortoise and the Hare. No one would dare argue Zito's been a better Giant than Lincecum, but the long-term career view might just cut him a little bit more slack. 


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