Tim Lincecum has been awful this season. At present, he's lugging around a 6.19 ERA, and the Giants -- quite understandably -- have rumbled about moving the two-time Cy Young winner to the bullpen. Locked in what figures to be a tight, summer-long race with the loathed Dodgers, the Giants don't have the luxury of unlimited patience with regard to a Lincecum rebound. That leaves us all wondering: Will Lincecum get better?
The short answer is yes. The diminished velocity is a concern, as are Lincecum's struggles with his control. Given such declines, it does seem likely that Lincecum's days as an elite starting pitcher are over, at least barring rediscovery of the mid-90s fastball he once boasted. However, Lincecum does figure to improve substantially on his current level of performance.
First, his K rate has come back to an extent after bottoming out in 2011. That's a good sign. As well, his home-run rate, while elevated relative to career norms, isn't in "problem" territory. The real reason for hope, however, is Lincecum's strand rate.
Strand rate, as you may be aware, refers to a pitcher's success -- or lack thereof -- in terms of keeping base-runners from scoring. Most often, pitchers will settle in around the 70-72% mark. In other words, there's not much skill involved when it comes to leaving runners on base, at least as far as starting pitchers are concerned.
As for Lincecum, for his career he's stranded 74.7%, but in 2012 he's stranded just 60.5% of runners, which is abnormally low. In fact, that's fourth-lowest strand rate among all qualifiers. That figure will likely improve going forward.
If you look at fielding-independent pitching, then Lincecum, based on his underlying numbers, should have an ERA of 3.87. That's not vintage Lincecum, but it's a far cry better than his current ERA. It's his depressed strand rate that's inflating his ERA, and you shouldn't be surprised if Lincecum, from this point forward, posts an ERA of around 4.00 (or better) the rest of the way. The Giants can certainly live with that.