Lincecum wins like Millwood loses: every time

Tim Lincecum's velocity might be down, but the ace of the Giants' staff is as good as ever.
(Getty Images)

Of the great gifts provided by baseball’s statistical enlightenment, one of the longest lasting will be the death of win-loss record as the be-all, end-all indicator of a pitcher’s effectiveness. By now, as Zack Greinke(notes) surely would attest, it is about as telling as a Ouija board.

Win-loss record is merely an entrée, in this case, to the matter at hand: perfection, imperfection and perception. As June beckons, four starting pitchers sport a zero in the loss column. Even more haven’t won a game. And while we know better than to consider either goose egg a reflection of value, it’s still fascinating that nearly two months into the season, a handful have avoided any such ignominy and plenty have suffered nothing but it.

The habitual losers this week get another chance (or two) to do away with the stigma of entering June winless. The winners get to keep dreaming about doing over the next four months what they’ve somehow managed to do for two. None is likely to, of course, but if such a candidate exists …

1. His name is Tim Lincecum(notes). The two-time reigning National League Cy Young winner is 5-0, the best start of his career, and was aided last week by San Francisco teammates who bailed him out with a no-decision after a five-run inning last week.

It’s rare, actually, to see Lincecum on the better side of luck. His 15 victories last season were the fewest for a Cy Young winner in a full season. The Giants’ offense, in his three previous seasons, scored with the frequency of a pimply teen. Lincecum still earned recognition as the game’s best pitcher because he really was that good. And, if anything, he has improved.

Hitters are swinging and missing at Lincecum’s pitches more than ever. His contact percentage of 70.1 is the lowest in the major leagues, and he’s doing it with a fastball declining in velocity (average: 91.3 mph) and usage (only 53.2 percent of the time).

Lincecum survives because his other stuff remains superior, a distinct advantage …

2. He has over Carlos Silva(notes), who, at 6-0, has the major leagues’ best record. Yes, Carlos Silva. Weep away, Seattle.

Silva won his fourth straight start Sunday. He lasted 5 1/3 innings. He struck out one. He threw 81 pitches, which is only six less than his average. It was pretty much the prototypical Silva start. With his 3.52 ERA, Silva might not be the perfect example of misleading win-loss record, but he’s close.

And yet because of it, he might as well be Wrigleyville’s savior. Take away his 6-0 record, after all, and the Cubs are 15-24. Never mind that another starter might’ve thrived similarly with his top-10 run support. A shiny zero obfuscates such facts. Just go along for the ride with the perfect pitchers’ biggest, baddest …

3. Well, definitely the baddest, but not the biggest, a title that belongs to Tampa Bay starter Jeff Niemann(notes), member No. 3 of the undefeated club. He moved to 4-0 on Saturday and, since getting knocked out of his first start by a line drive, has been the picture of consistency.

The 6-foot-9 Niemann – the second-tallest player in the big leagues to San Diego starter Chris Young – ranks fifth in the American League in ERA at 2.54. While his peripheral stands don’t quite stand up with the gaudy number – only 36 strikeouts in 56 2/3 innings and an unusually high rate of runners left on base, nearly 85 percent – Niemann enjoys the fruits of the Rays’ offense and defense. Can’t hurt that this week Niemann gets to face the Chicago White Sox, one of baseball’s worst offensive teams, a matchup …

Mike Leake

4. At which Mike Leake(notes) laughs, because he gets to protect his perfection against Pittsburgh, the second-worst-hitting team in the big leagues.

Leake is an atrophied version of Stephen Strasburg(notes). His fastball travels 10 mph slower than Strasburg’s, his 6-foot, 190-pound frame is feeble comparatively and the hype surrounding him is likewise minuscule. And yet Leake, a rookie straight off the Arizona State campus, is in the major leagues and 4-0, and Strasburg is in Triple-A Syracuse.

Whether Leake can continue to induce bad contact remains the key to his thriving. Some pitchers take underwhelming raw stuff and command it like a conductor wielding a baton to make sweet music. Such was the career of Greg Maddux(notes). And 351 wins and 22 major league seasons separate the two, it shows what’s possible for players such as Leake, who …

5. Can’t, you know, throw 100 mph with sink like Ubaldo Jimenez(notes). OK, so he is not undefeated. Well, going into the last week of May with an ERA under 1.00 deserves a special dispensation, and his 8-1 record gives him the best winning percentage among those with a loss.

Remember that amazing start Greinke got off to last season, the one where he went 29 innings without giving up an earned run? Well, at the end of May, his ERA was 1.10. Jimenez’s today is 0.99, with his next start Wednesday against Arizona.

His last start was typical: seven innings, one hit, no runs, 14 groundball outs. He left with cramps. His muscles did a better job of stopping him than nine men holding bats. In nine starts, Jimenez has allowed seven earned runs. Josh Beckett(notes) has three games of seven or more runs this season. And 65 other players …

6. Have had game with seven-plus runs this year, including Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton(notes), who, too, doesn’t merit inclusion on this list. He won a game May 5. His other eight starts ended in losses. He is, at 1-8, and with a major-league-worst 8.71 ERA, the anti-Ubaldo.

Pittsburgh manager John Russell sticks by Morton anyway, confirming after his last start that he would remain a starter. “We feel Charlie has the type of arm you want in your rotation,” Russell said. “We’ve seen his progress. … It might not be the leaps and bounds a lot of people would like to see, but as long as we continue to see improvement, as long as he continues to work, then we will be willing to stay behind him.”

Morton is throwing 93.1 mph, nearly 2 mph higher than his career average, and his slider and changeup are effective pitches. Some of his struggle can be attributed to bad luck (a high home runs-per-flyball rate) and some of it skill (the faster fastball has been the single worst pitch in baseball) and all of it adds up to …

Kevin Millwood

7. Frustration better exemplified by Kevin Millwood(notes), winner of the toughest-luck loser award. Traded this offseason from Texas to Baltimore, Millwood is 0-4 despite a 3.71 ERA – less than two-tenths of a run higher than Silva’s. The Orioles are his deadbeat dads, offering next to no support in his starts.

Three times Millwood gave up two earned runs or fewer and got no-decisions. His last two starts, he gave up three earned runs. Same thing. The Orioles actually aren’t all that awful after he leaves. They’ve won four of 10 games started by Millwood, far better than .286 winning percentage in games he doesn’t start. He can take solace in that …

8. While Felipe Paulino(notes) considers what it’s like to pitch a gem – like the seven-inning, one-earned run, no-walk, 11-strikeout beauty he spun May 8 against San Diego – and lose. All he needed was another two runs. It was too much to ask of the worst offense in the major leagues, Houston, and so Paulino stands today at 0-6.

Paulino remains something of a mystery to the Astros, who see his 96-mph fastball and excellent slider and wonder why he’s more headcase than ace. The no-walk game was an aberration; Paulino has 27 walks in his other 38 1/3 innings. And for someone who has surrendered home runs at will in the past, his one allowed this year begs for regression, too.

Translation: It ain’t getting much prettier …

9. Not like life for Atlanta starter Kenshin Kawakami(notes), who has to win soon. The Braves’ offense is too good. Not a juggernaut or anything. Not Houston’s and Baltimore’s either.

And anyway, Kawakami has been serviceable. In his last start, he held Cincinnati scoreless for six innings before leaving after 79 pitches with a bad back and blisters on his right foot. New shoes helped the foot. Rest soothed his back. He’s got two starts this week, first at Florida, then at home against Pittsburgh, and if anybody can snuff out the bad zero this week, it’s him. Never will Kawakami get to the level of …

10. Tim Lincecum, but then no one is, not even Jimenez. The consistency and depth of Lincecum’s accomplishments only remind how special it is what he does. The 5-0 record is merely gravy for those late converts who still worship wins and losses.

During spring training, as Lincecum struggled, the question floated about: Is he losing it? Even a little? I asked the man who knows him as well as anyone.

“He’s mostly working on rhythm and command of his pitches and has realized he doesn’t have to maximize his fastballs to get people out,” said Chris Lincecum, Tim’s father. “It’s been fun watching him evolve.”

Chris went to spring training for two weeks and, for fun, flashed his son hand signals from the stands, as he had during high school and college. Lincecum didn’t need to look anymore. He was more than ready for the season. He felt, in fact, pretty perfect.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 24, 2010