Tim Lincecum and Other Epic Collapses in History

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16: Starting pitcher Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants pitches against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on June 16, 2012 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Tim Lincecum left the mound in Seattle's Safeco Field last Saturday with an horrendous 6.19 ERA, more than three full runs above his career mark before the 2012 season. This disaster of a first half has many Giants fans (as well as certain remarkably handsome fantasy owners) in a state of pure befuddlement.

There have been a number of theories postulated across the internet recently as to why this is happening, though I'm sure it's not just one reason alone. But as I am often wont to do, I decided to concern myself more with the historical context of Lincecum's 2012 season. Rather than what is causing it, I wanted to ask, just how rare is this sort of epic collapse?

In order to grasp both the degree of consistency Lincecum had displayed in the past-- as well as the magnitude of his current collapse-- I measured the drop in ERA+ from his 2012 season against his previous three seasons ('09, '10, '11). I then compared that drop to other drops in baseball's history using the Lahman database. In order to best mirror Lincecum's situation, I required at least 450 innings in the 3 seasons before the 'drop' and at least 77 in the 'drop year'.

NAME

PREVIOUS 3 YEARS

3Y_IP

3Y_ERA+

DROP YEAR

ERA+

AGE

IP

ERA+ DROP

Lefty Grove

31_32_33

855.7

165

1934

73

34

109.3

92

Carl Lundgren

05_06_07

584

146

1908

56

28

138.7

90

Steve Blass

70_71_72

686.3

123

1973

36

31

88.7

87

Hippo Vaughn

18_19_20

898

147

1921

64

33

109.3

83

Randy Johnson

00_01_02

758.3

189

2003

110

39

114

79

Pedro Martinez

01_02_03

502.7

202

2004

125

32

217

77

LINCECUM

09_10_11

654.7

135

2012

58

28

77

77

Roger Clemens

90_91_92

746.3

180

1993

104

30

191.7

76

Christy Mathewson

03_04_05

1072.7

160

1906

87

25

266.7

73

Walter Johnson

18_19_20

760

190

1921

117

33

264

73

[ min 77 IP in 'DROP YEAR', 450IP in '3Y']

There are three things I disliked about this first result. The first is that I should feel ashamed to be picking on a 39 year-old man, Randy Johnson, for having an off year. I mean, he's first ballot Hall of Famer, and who am I? Just some dude? That's just entirely unacceptable behavior on my part. We are all aware of the toll age takes on a pitcher's skills (even if Johnson had successfully stalled the effects of Father Time until he was nearly 40), and that is something that needs to be controlled for when looking for seasons comparable to Lincecum's.

Secondly, Pedro Martinez's alleged 'drop year' in 2004 was actually still quite good at a 110 ERA+. He shouldn't really be punished for living as a god-like being in his three previous seasons.

And while Carl Lundgren seems to have had a nice stretch of seasons where he was one of the better pitchers in baseball (a 146 ERA+ in his 3Y sample), it was still way, way back in 1908. That's an incredibly long time ago (just ask Cubs fans) and I'm not sure I'm really interested in that.

So I went back to the database and threw out any 'drop years' where the pitcher was in his 30's. I also limited the results to only include 'drop years' that were below league average and occurred after 1920, aka 'the live-ball era':

NAME

PREVIOUS 3 YEARS

3Y_IP

3Y_ERA+

DROP YEAR

ERA+

AGE

IP

ERA+ DROP

LINCECUM

09_10_11

654.7

135

2012

58

28

77

77

Danny Jackson

86_87_88

670.3

127

1989

64

27

115.7

63

Bill Stafford

60_61_62

468.3

121

1963

58

23

89.7

63

Dave Stieb

83_84_85

810

152

1986

90

28

205

62

Jim O'Toole

62_63_64

706

121

1965

63

28

127.7

58

Denny McLain

68_69_70

752.3

134

1971

77

27

216.7

57

Gary Peters

62_63_64

523

145

1965

88

28

176.3

57

Steve Hargan

65_66_67

475.3

128

1968

72

25

158.3

56

Mark Mulder

03_04_05

617.3

116

2006

62

28

93.3

54

Bobby Bolin

64_65_66

562

123

1967

69

28

120

54

[ min 77 IP in 'DROP YEAR', 450IP in '3Y', 'AGE' < 30, 'DROP YEAR' >= 1920, 'ERA+' < 100]

With a drop in ERA+ of 77, the new criteria shoots Lincecum to the top of the list as perhaps the worst collapse in the live-ball era before the age of 30 and it's really not even close. If we were to include his 2008 Cy Young season in the previous years sample as well, the drop grows to 85. This may shock Giants fans and handsome fantasy owners, but perhaps it shouldn't. Because it certainly feels historically bad.

I don't intend to suggest that any of the pitcher's seasons following their 'drop years' may provide us with an indication of what is in store for Lincecum in the future, but I do think it's interesting to highlight of few of these cases.

1. Injury

Mark Mulder's name will likely jump out at you as the most instantly recognizable. If you remember, that was the season it was revealed that Mulder was suffering from rotator cuff and shoulder pains which ultimately led to surgery later that off-season. Mulder has attempted twice to return to baseball since then, once in 2007 and again in '08, but was shutdown for shoulder soreness in both attempts.

2. Blip

Dave Steib, who had just signed a big contract only a year prior, saw his FIP explode from a respectable 3.69 to a steep 4.86 in his drop year and watched his ERA tag along with it. The jump in FIP, as it turns out, was mostly attributable to a rise in HR/9 (up to 1.29 from .75 in '85) which fortunately for Steib promptly returned career levels the following season. His ERA and general effectiveness against the AL hitters of the day was restored and soon enough Steib was posting ERA+ seasons north of 140 again.

3. Extended loss of effectiveness

Danny Jackson's troubles as a 27 year old in 1989 seemed to be caused by a bit of everything. His K% dropped, his BB% surged, and a spike in HR% did not help matters either. Jackson experienced the same disappointments with his peripheral stats in his two subsequent seasons, until finally returning to respectability at the age of 30. He then posted some modestly above-average seasons before finally fading into the shadows of history.

We have to wait to see if Lincecum's struggle in 2012 is merely a blemish on a long and impressive career or the beginning of a sharp decline into irrelevancy. Each collapse in history has it's own fascinating story to tell, and Lincecum begins writing his next chapter on Friday in Oakland.

Notable Exclusions

Steve Blass's infamous 1973 season where he suddenly lost all control of the strike zone (a 225% spike in walk rate) may be the most obvious exclusion from the second list. Blass, who appeared at #3 in the first query, was 31 at the time of his drop year and therefore did not qualify.

Both Jake Peavy and Zack Greinke's 2010 seasons made the list at a drop of 49 'points' each, which places them 24th and 25th respectively. (You can view the full list here.) Josh Beckett's 2010 also made the list, interestingly, but had just turned 30 that season and was also disqualified. Beckett would have been 20th on the list, ahead of both Greinke and Peavy. Brad Penny was also removed for being a year too old in his disastrously memorable 2008 campaign.


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