Tim Lincecum GiantsThere weren’t many questions for the Giants heading into this season but the few questions were big ones. Perhaps none was bigger than whether Tim Lincecum would regain his 2011 form — much less his Cy Young Award-winning form. And once you’re talking about Lincecum, you’re talking about Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez and whether Lincecum is more comfortable pitching to Sanchez, how Sanchez affects Lincecum’s performance, and whether the pairing is good for the team overall.

We reached this point through a confluence of events, some intentional, some less so. Last season, Posey was coming off the catastrophic injury to his left ankle and leg. By all accounts, he had done everything the doctors and trainers asked of him and more. He joined the Giants in Scottsdale in February, 2012 looking as fit and strong as ever. Still, manager Bruce Bochy knew he’d have to take it slowly with Posey during the season, lest too much work behind the dish put an unnecessary strain on the catcher’s reconstructed leg.

As Comcast SportsNet’s Andrew Baggarly noted over the weekend, Bochy’s plan last season was to rest Posey and put Sanchez behind the plate for Barry Zito’s starts. Why? Because Zito was considered the No. 5 starter, and therefore, least likely to pitch the Giants to victory. If Bochy had to conserve Posey for four starts out of five games, he’d rather rest Posey in games the Giants had the least chance of winning anyway. At least that’s Baggarly’s theory. Of course, things turned out quite differently, especially in the second half, when the Giants won Zito’s last ten regular season starts, and all his starts in the postseason.

Things turned out differently in another way, too, as it was Lincecum who pitched like the No. 5 starter, and not the staff ace he’d been since 2008. That’s where the intrigue began.

After fourteen starts, Lincecum had a record of 2-8 with a 6.19 ERA and a 2.02 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Posey had been behind the dish for all but one of those games. Lincecum’s next start, on June 22, was against the A’s in Oakland. A great time to rest Posey but keep his bat in the lineup as the DH. Lincecum teamed up with Sanchez and threw six innings, gave up three earned runs, four walks and eight strikeouts. Lincecum took a no-decision, but the Giants won the game. Sanchez caught Lincecum’s next start, too, on June 27 against the Dodgers. Seven innings, four hits allowed, two walks, eight strikeouts, and no runs. The Giants won and Lincecum’s record improved to 3-8.

Sanchez was behind the dish for all but four Lincecum starts the rest of the season. Posey started two Lincecum games and Eli Whiteside started two.

If you didn’t watch many Giants games in the second half of last season, and read only the first six paragraphs of this post, you might have concluded that Bochy continued to pair Lincecum with Sanchez because it worked — that Lincecum’s pitcher metrics improved significantly with Sanchez behind the plate. You would be wrong.

Here are the numbers. Batters slugged slightly higher against Lincecum in games caught by Posey, but otherwise, the slash lines look pretty much the same. Lincecum had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio with Posey and runners stole significantly fewer bases with Posey behind the plate.

Split G ERA R H HR SB CS BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS
Buster Posey 15 5.46 53 86 9 6 0 41 92 2.24 .258 .340 .429 .770
Hector Sanchez 16 4.87 43 85 11 18 2 44 84 1.91 .255 .341 .414 .756
Eli Whiteside 2 5.40 7 12 3 1 0 5 14 2.80 .255 .340 .489 .829
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/9/2013.

 

Lincecum wasn’t performing any better, and yet there he was, paired with Hector Sanchez in start after start down the stretch. Everyone started buzzing: “Does Lincecum dislike Posey?” “Are they friends off the field?” “What is going on?” Bochy did the best he could to take the blame, saying, in so many words, that it was his decision when to put Posey behind the plate, when to play him at first base, and when to rest  him, and that the team need a healthy and refreshed Posey down the stretch and, hopefully, in the postseason.

Many fans didn’t buy it, and understandably so. Lincecum had performed well in the past with Posey behind the plate. From 2011:

Split G ERA R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS
Buster Posey 9 1.55 16 45 10 0 4 4 4 18 69 3.83 .196 .260 .291 .551
Hector Sanchez 1 0.00 1 4 3 0 0 2 1 2 6 3.00 .167 .231 .292 .522
Chris Stewart 18 2.37 32 93 28 1 8 12 6 53 120 2.26 .216 .305 .341 .646
Eli Whiteside 5 7.53 21 34 7 1 3 5 3 13 25 1.92 .312 .390 .477 .867
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/9/2013.

 

And 2010:

Split G ERA R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO SO/BB BA OBP SLG OPS
Bengie Molina 15 3.23 34 79 13 2 6 13 2 39 107 2.74 .226 .304 .327 .630
Buster Posey 15 3.76 41 93 12 5 10 12 1 28 100 3.57 .253 .313 .395 .708
Eli Whiteside 4 2.86 7 22 3 1 2 2 0 9 24 2.67 .256 .323 .384 .707
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 4/9/2013.

 

And we all remember how well the battery worked together in the 2010 postseason, guiding the the Giants to their first World Series Championship since moving to San Francisco.

The first time I heard an explanation that made any sense was one morning on KNBR. Baggarly was on with Murph & Mac and they asked him to explain why Lincecum wasn’t pitching to Posey. I don’t remember Baggs’ exact words, but he talked about Lincecum’s long-time comfort pitching to Bengie Molina, and that Sanchez was much more like Molina — the kind of catcher who goes to the mound when the situation is dicey, gives the pitcher a pep talk, and pats him on the butt. Posey, on the other hand, was more clinical, strategic, and direct. Instead of “Rah-rah, you’re doing great” it was “Stop shaking me off and follow my lead.”

By pairing Lincecum with Sanchez, Bochy was betting that even if he didn’t perform any better, Lincecum would feel better, and that Lincecum’s positive psyche would be critical for the team’s success. At least that was my take.

Maybe it worked. Maybe keeping Lincecum happy in the second half of the season eased his transition to the bullpen for the playoff run. Lincecum pitched masterfully in relief —  like the Lincecum of old — and nearly all with Posey behind the plate.

At Media Day, and again at Fan Fest, Posey and Lincecum smiled and talked about working together this season. Tim Kawakami wrote about an optimistic future for the battery but at the same time, he echoed Baggarly’s KNBR comments as the reason why Lincecum had preferred to pitch to Sanchez last season. Kawakami:

So it’s no surprise that Lincecum is looking and feeling different this year, and talking about a better work ethic.

And now, by the way, Lincecum is pitching for his career: In a contract year, after a terrible season as a starter; if he wants that huge next deal, he probably has to figure out a new way.

He can’t be aloof about the Posey takeover, it’s a real thing. And Lincecum is showing that he’s on board with it, because he’s smart, because he wants to win, and because this is Posey’s team now, beyond all doubt.

That was February. This is April.

Sanchez was behind the plate for Lincecum’s first start this season, because Brandon Belt had the stomach flu, and Posey had to play first base. Understandable. Unfortunately, we saw too much of the 2012 Lincecum: seven walks, four strikeouts, three hits and two unearned runs allowed in just five innings.

So back to Posey, right?

Probably not.

In that weekend story I linked to above, Baggarly explained not only why Zito was paired with Sanchez last season, but why that likely meant more Lincecum-Sanchez games this season. Baggarly:

So I think if Bochy has Posey rest or play first base on Lincecum’s day, it’ll be for the same reasons he had Hector catch Zito to start last season. Might as well rest your MVP for the games you’re least likely to win. That’s never anything Bochy could say publicly, of course. He has to express confidence in Lincecum just like every other member of his pitching staff. So he’ll use the schedule to explain it away, and the conspiracy theorists will keep on theorizing.

Lincecum is in the last year of his contract. He’ll be a free agent this winter. He should have every incentive to work with the catcher that will most enhance his performance. But his preference for Sanchez last season, coupled with his decreasing importance to the Giants’ success, may keep him from pitching to Posey — the one catcher who might actually help Lincecum get back on his feet. At this point, Sanchez doesn’t appear capable of that.

Sam Miller wrote a magnificent post over at Baseball Prospectus last Friday. Miller broke down Lincecum’s start and showed Sanchez’s inferior pitch framing abilities with GIFs and freeze-frame photos. Miller concluded that Sanchez’s pitch framing was to blame for the home plate umpire to call more than a few pitches in the strike zone as balls. That led to more pitches thrown, more walks, and ultimately to Lincecum leaving the game after five innings. Miller:

Sanchez is a young catcher who can theoretically hit but who struggles with some of the more nuanced parts of the game, such as framing. In 56 games last year, Sanchez gave back eight runs on framing alone; apply those runs to his WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) and the Giants’ replacement level backup turns into a very questionable major leaguer, for now at least.

[Yes, it costs money to read Baseball Prospectus, so I understand if you can’t access Miller’s post. Find someone who has a subscription if you can. The post is that good and important.]

Lincecum pitches tonight against the Rockies and it looks like Sanchez will be behind the plate. Henry Schulman just sent this tweet:

Bochy’s job is to manage the team for the long haul, to get the Giants to the postseason and put them in a position to win once they get there. That may very well mean pairing Lincecum with Sanchez in most starts, to give Posey’s legs a rest behind the plate, and to maximize the Giants’ chances of winning the most games. It’s not Bochy’s job to worry about Lincecum’s free-agent value next winter. That’s a concern for Lincecum and his agent.

If things play out this season as they did last season, that’s going to be a very big concern, indeed.