Sometime leading up to the big free agent signings of almost every offseason, some team ultimately signs a player to a questionably large contract. In mid-November of 2012, the big contract was given to the 33 year old Jeremy Guthrie, who received $25 million over 3 years. The right-hander was coming off a season where he posted a 6.35 ERA over 90.2 innings in Colorado, and a 3.16 ERA in 91.0 innings in Kansas City. It sparked all sorts of articles. Dayton Moore was an idiot. The price for free agents was rising. Sabermetrics and advanced stats have been thrown out the window. Well, Guthrie wasn't so bad in the first year of his contract (he owned a 4.04 ERA and gave the Royals 211.2 IP), Dayton Moore finally built a team with more wins than the Yankees, and the prices of all the other free agents were pretty much right on with what we expected.
Yesterday, the Giants and Tim Lincecum agreed to a 2-year $35 million deal, and guess what the reaction was? Within hours of the extension, I saw respected authors questioning Brian Sabean's sanity, begging for more advanced analysis in front offices, and of course forewarning teams and fans of the rising price of free agents.
Over a hundred years ago, philosopher George Santayana would have something to say about being condemned to repeat the past.
As I mentioned, the Lincecum contract has sparked all sorts of doomed analysis. More specifically, I've seen some say that the big deal will increase the asking price for Masahiro Tanaka, Ubaldo Jimenez, and it's even drawn some comparisons to Phil Hughes. While I'll agree to some extent that Lincecum has produced at about the same level as both Jimenez and Hughes over the last two years, I don't agree that he's worth comparing to these pitchers.
Lincecum obviously has a significant history with the Giants, as he's earned two Cy Young awards with San Francisco in 2008 and 2009, and led the league in strike outs for three straight years up until 2010. Even in 2011, Lincecum posted a 2.74 ERA, earned 220 strike outs, and placed 6th in the Cy Young award voting. 2012 was a disaster for Lincecum, and though he improved some in 2013, his velocity decline and statistical regression is hard to deny. I would personally find it difficult to find advanced data that says Lincecum will be worth the ace-type money he's now receiving over the next two years.
This is where the criticism of this deal originates. All the public data predicts that Lincecum is much more likely to be a middle of the rotation (or worse) pitcher, and to deal out an average of $17.5 million for that kind of production is legitimately ridiculous. I think there's a case to be made that Phil Hughes, moved to a pitcher friendly ballpark and league, could outproduce Lincecum at half the price.
The problem with this is that Phil Hughes is terrible. Harsh maybe, but that's what the numbers say, that's what the media says, that's what the Sabermetric community says, and that's what Giants fans will be thinking when they see that their two-time Cy Young award winner has been replaced by a player that has proven next to nothing in his career.
If Lincecum is terrible, I mean 2012 5.18 ERA awful, then Sabean made a mistake that will cost him only two year. If Lincecum performs at his 2013 4.37 ERA level, fans will continue to buy tickets to his starts, they'll buy his jerseys, and they'll watch him pitch on TV. If Lincecum somehow rebounds, he has the potential to be a franchise player for the Giants, something that's worth way more to the organization than his measly $35 million. Baseball is a business that thrives on an audience, not numbers, and Lincecum gives the Giants that audience. This is something Phil Hughes or Ubaldo Jimenez cannot easily bring to San Francisco.
All the while, the Giants' front office may not have the best reputation with the Sabermetric community, but that doesn't mean that they don't know pitching. I like advanced data, I have thousands of databases with billions of entries, coupled with thousands of formulas that I've copied, evolved, and created. There's so many more of us out there, but let's not pretend that we know any more about Lincecum than the Giants' own front office. They've won two of the last three World Series on the backs of their starting pitchers, and Lincecum has been a key to that success.