The Situation: Tim Lincecum(notes) has just won two Cy Young Awards in a row and he's only the seventh pitcher in major league history to do so. The rest of the club is obviously a who's who of pitching, comprised of five current or future Hall of Famers and the last 30-win man in the majors — Denny McLain, Pedro Martinez(notes), Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux(notes), Randy Johnson(notes) and Roger Clemens(notes). So where does The Freak go from here?
It's hard not to expect a slight regression to the mean, mostly for two reasons: Just about no one is this good, and almost every young pitcher who's had this much success at this young of an age has had their arm fall off. The Giants seem to have some sense of that, declining to lock up Lincecum long-term and nearly taking him to arbitration before signing him to a two-year, $23 million contract. Presumably, if they believed in his long-term arm health, they'd have made a better effort — no matter what the cost — to keep him in San Francisco for the long haul. He was pretty much the best pitcher in baseball in 2008 and 2009. Is he still?
The Question: Can Tim Lincecum win his third straight Cy Young, joining Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to accomplish that feat?
The Analysis: First of all, Lincecum's success at such a young age is near unprecedented. Only two other under-25-year-old pitchers in history have had two seasons with 260+ strikeouts and an ERA+ above 160: "Sudden" Sam McDowell and Walter Johnson, who might be the best pitcher ever. So it's a little hard to find useful historical comparisons when writing this article.
But Lincecum's inning count is a concern, as he's pitched 452 1/3 innings in the last two years. In the last 20 years, only 15 other 25-and-under pitchers have had multiple seasons of 220+ innings and most were pretty burnt out after that. Dontrelle Willis(notes), Justin Thompson, Ben McDonald, Steve Avery and Jaime Navarro were the worst, but Barry Zito(notes) also experienced a major decline, Ben Sheets(notes) has been plagued by injuries ever since and Ramon Martinez(notes), Brad Radke(notes) and Andy Benes retired due to injury a few years after they turned 30. Greg Maddux, John Smoltz(notes), Mark Buehrle(notes) and Andy Pettitte(notes) turned out just fine, but most of Lincecum's predecessors suffered from the experience.
Over at Fangraphs, R.J. Anderson took a look at just how many pitchers have had two straight seasons as good as what Lincecum produced in 2008 and 2009 and the short answer was: Not many. Johan Santana(notes) is the only recent pitcher who has done it three years in a row. Even among excellent pitchers, that level of excellence is nearly unsustainable. That's why the projection systems are generally predicting a slight step backward for Lincecum: ZiPS predicts an ERA of 2.68, but Bill James expects 2.80, and CHONE predicts 3.12. Still a great year and one that would put him in solid Cy contention — but not quite as good as his first two full seasons.
The Forecast for 2010: For full disclosure, I tend to be pessimistic about young pitchers' arms. As Dave Cameron wrote earlier this offseason in a post about Clayton Kershaw(notes), "Even the best young pitchers in the game, Felix Hernandez(notes) and Tim Lincecum, have lost two mph off their fastballs since arriving in the big leagues. Throwing hard is a young man's game, and one that is very hard to sustain as the workload piles up." That doesn't mean that Lincecum will have a bad year, but it does mean that the odds are that Lincecum's fastball in the future won't be as explosive as it was in the past, and odds are good that he won't win his third straight Cy Young Award. And after 2011, when this contract runs out, he probably won't be as good of a pitcher as he has been up to this point in his career.
But he'll still be plenty good this year. He's the surest ticket in baseball for 200 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.00. His battle for the Cy will be a tough one with Roy Halladay(notes) now sharing his league and Chris Carpenter(notes), Adam Wainwright(notes), Josh Johnson(notes), Johan Santana, Dan Haren(notes) and even teammate Matt Cain(notes) presenting tough challenges. Lincecum's name should definitely appear somewhere in the top five, but he'll have some trouble getting wins out of that anemic San Francisco offense, particularly if Buster Posey(notes) won't be ready for a few more months. Stilll, he'll continue to be one of the best pitchers in the majors, so long as that workload doesn't decide to catch up to him this season.
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Other 2010 questions answered by Alex Remington
• What can we reasonably expect from Jason Heyward?
• Does Derrek Lee have another great season left?
• Can Chad Billingsley return to last season's first-half form
• How long can Derek Jeter defy the effects of aging?
• Who will be the brightest offensive star in the O's universe?
• Will anyone hit 50 home runs in 2010?
- Greg Maddux