COMMENTARY | Whether it's taking the ball in a World Series, All-Star game or on opening day, Tim Lincecum is accustomed to being tested.
Against the Boston Red Sox on Monday night, The Freak failed his exam.
It wasn't long ago that the only thing more untouchable than Lincecum's changeup was his place in the Giants' rotation. Drafted 10th overall out of the University of Washington, Lincecum sped through the minor leagues in less than a year. At 5 feet 11 inches and 170 pounds, the per-pubescent-looking fireballer quickly became a fan-favorite.
His first full season in the majors, San Francisco's mighty mite went 18-5. He finished tops in the National League in strikeouts for three straight seasons and, in 2008, won the first of back-to-back Cy Youngs. Two years later -- during his club's first World Series title run in more than half a century -- he was only slightly less effective, still managing a 3.43 ERA and winning 16 games. He made his third All-Star game, ranked third in the National League in strikeouts, and won 4 of his 5 postseason starts.
If his performance was supposed to be tapering off, no one told Lincecum. In 2011, he rebounded with another stifling ERA, this time of the 2.74 variety.
His ERA back below 3.00, the world once again made sense to Giants fans, even if his motion didn't.
The fact is, whether around the water cooler or the waterfront, Lincecum has always been a popular topic of conversation. But whereas previous discussion centered upon the length of his moptop, current debate has weightier consequences. At 6-13 and last year's 15-loss season, a 5.18 ERA is no longer an aberration.
Or is it?
Since returning from the All-Star break, Lincecum has been a study in contradiction, one game brandishing the arsenal that carried him to stardom, the next getting lit up like a journeyman.
The Jekyll and Hyde act has be frustrating for all parties, and with Lincecum due to become a free agent at the end of the season, Giants brass must pour over a vexing set of statistics, some that support re-signing the 29-year-old and others that lend themselves to severing ties.
The case for re-signing Lincecum
Since June 4, Lincecum's surrendered three earned runs or less in 10 of his 14 starts. He reached double-digit strikeouts in 3 of his 5 July starts, including his recent no-hitter against the San Diego Padres.
Other numbers, also, bear out a possible resurgence.
A year after slogging to the worst WHIP of his career (1.468), Lincecum's improved to 1.277, virtually equivalent to in 2010 when he boasted a 1.272 figure and only slightly higher than 2011's WHIP OF 1.207.
But perhaps most encouraging has been the number of walks allowed. Frequently bitten by control issues the past season and a half, Lincecum's 3.3 BB/9 versus 2012's 4.4 BB/9 is the lowest it's been since 2010, and the same figure as in 2008 when he won his first Cy Young.
Toss in the hurler's durability -- he's on pace to start at least 32 games for the sixth consecutive season -- and the scarcity of quality starting pitching in the major leagues, and the Giants have some serious thinking to do.
The case for saying goodbye
Yes, the righty's ERA is the most glaring data point, but it's not necessarily the most instructive.
That dubious honor belongs to the home run category. Consider that in 2008 and 2009, Lincecum allowed less than one round-tripper every 18 innings. The past two seasons, that number has more than doubled, leaving a not always robust Giants offense to compensate.
As home runs have gone one way, strikeouts have trended another, dropping precipitously each year and far enough to land the one-time punchouts artist 40 Ks behind last season's NL leader.
Also disturbing has been the burden placed on San Francisco's bullpen. Like most who rely on the strikeout for success, Lincecum has always run up his pitch count. But as he's surrendered more hits and more runs, he's had to throw more pitches in order to get out of the inning. The result has been a dramatic downturn in innings pitched. During the 4-year stretch from 2008-2011, Lincecum averaged close to 7 innings (6.7) per outing. That number fell to 5.6 innings pitched/start last season, and has rebounded only modestly in 2013 (6.1).
Given the troubling shifts, not to mention the ever accruing fatigue to his 29-year-old arm, there's ample cause for concern.
What, then, do the Giants do? Do they a) roll the dice, hoping their 4-time All-Star has at last begun to recover his former self, or b) deem the risk too great to justify Lincecum's expense, thank him for his service and send him on his way?
With likely starts against the division-leading Pittsburgh Pirates, and a pair of turns atop the slab facing the red-hot Dodgers, there's still time for Lincecum to build a case. Whether it ultimately serves him rests entirely with his right arm.
John Foletta is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers Cal Athletics for Rivals.com. A Bay Area native, Foletta is a lifelong San Francisco Giants devotee.
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