The BBWAA got it right for both Cy Young Awards this year. Tim Lincecum, who turned 25 years old in June has now won the Cy Young awards in each of his first two full years in the National League. This has never been done before, although Roger Clemens and Bret Saberhagen had also won two Cy Young Awards by the time they were the age Lincecum is now. It raises the question of what the future might hold for Lincecum. According to baseballreference.com, the three players to whom Lincecum is most similar are Bill Bevans, Norwood Gibson and Mickey Hughes who combined for 113 Major League wins. This speaks more to the quirks of baseballreference.com’s methodology than to Lincecum’s likely future.
Lincecum, known as “The Freak” because of his size and unorthodox pitching delivery has been an extraordinary pitcher during his first two years plus in the Major Leagues. During this time, he has pitched 598.2 innings striking out 671 while walking 217 with an ERA of 2.90. While these numbers are extremely impressive, they do not provide much of a context. Lincecum’s numbers look better in a comparative context. Only 24 pitchers have pitched 550 or more innings with an ERA+ of 135 or better before the age of 25. Lincecum’s career ERA+ is 152. The only players who had better ERA+ for their age, with 550 or more innings pitched were Walter Johnson and Ed Reulbach. The closest postwar pitcher was Tom Seaver whose ERA+ at a comparable age was 149.
Lincecum has averaged 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings (k/9) during his brief career. Only 13 players have averaged nine or more k/9 at this age while pitching at least 550 innings at Lincecum’s age. Lincecum is third on this list behind Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. Wood and Prior, of course, had very different career paths then Johnson, Reulbach or Seaver and are good reminders of the threat injuries pose to all young pitchers.
Lincecum has averaged 3.12 strikeouts for every walk (k/bb) so far. Only 23 pitchers have been close to that effective, posting a k/bb of 2.8 or better at such a young age with 550 or more innings pitched. Lincecum is fourth that list behind James Shields, Jose Lima and Ben Sheets. In all cases, I have sought more inclusive lists by trying to find pitchers who have 90% or more of the innings Lincecum has pitched and statistics that are 90% or better of what Lincecum’s are.
Looking at these numbers individually only tell part of the picture. Dropping the barrier to 80%, there are only nine pitchers who have ever thrown 500 or more innings with an ERA+ of 120 or better, 2.5 k/bb and 8k/9 by the time they were 26 years old. The other eight pitchers are Pedro Martinez, Roy Oswalt, Johan Santana, Roger Clemens, Felix Hernandez, Mark Prior, Dwight Gooden and Cole Hamels. Lincecum’s numbers at this point in his career far exceed the criteria established for this group, but he has fewer innings pitched than any of the other pitchers. Lincecum’s relatively low number of innings pitched relative to the rest of the group make some of his numbers seem more impressive than they might be. Lincecum did not begin pitching until he was 23, while some of these others notably Gooden, Clemens and Martinez started pitching at an earlier age when they were still, to some extent, honing their pitching skills. However, the lower number of Major League innings pitched, may help Lincecum avoid arm injury.
There is obviously a lot of space between Walter Johnson and Tom Seaver on one side and Mark Prior and Jose Lima on the other; and it is still too early to know where Lincecum will end up. Nonetheless, in his first three years in the majors, Lincecum has established an unusually high ceiling for himself; and not just by winning two well deserved Cy Young awards. A closer look at the numbers indicate just how exceptional, if not downright freakish, Lincecum really is.