It seems absurd, but Lincecum's worthy of Cooperstown talk at 25
Lincecum edged out Carpenter and Wainwright to win his second Cy Young
Lincecum's overall domination was enough to overcome his modest win total (15)
When it comes to Lincecum, a third Cy Young seems to be a matter of when, not if
It should be ridiculous. To raise the possibility that a 25-year-old -- a "veteran" of just three major league seasons, with only 40 career wins and a look so youthful that he almost certainly still gets carded -- is worthy of serious Hall of Fame discussion, ought to, by all rights and common sense, be ridiculous.
It should be, but it isn't. Certainly no more so than the fact that Lincecum, a man of boyish features and a violent windup, is not only in the major leagues but dominating opposing hitters at all. In fact, the only thing ridiculous about Tiny Tim is the giant amount of talent that he has displayed in his brief and marvelous career in San Francisco. It is that ability that he uses to overpower opposing teams with a mid-90s fastball and ferocious off-speed pitches and has resulted in his winning consecutive National League Cy Young Awards. That achievement alone is doing as much as the testimonials from frustrated hitters, amazed teammates and breathless scouts in amplifying an increasingly strong case that Lincecum is on his way to Cooperstown.
To be sure, he is still a long ways off. The graveyard of baseball history is littered with pitchers who burst onto the scene only to flame out far short of their expected landing point (see Prior, Mark; Gooden, Dwight; and Score, Herb). But in only three seasons, Lincecum has laid a serious claim to being the best pitcher in baseball and the most likely to continue that success in the near, and perhaps distant, future. He has the second-most strikeouts in history in his first three seasons by age 25, the 12th-best winning percentage, and since the end of World War II, the 22nd-best ERA. In other words, he is well on his way.
Of course, Lincecum came awfully close to ending Thursday with the same number of Cy Young trophies as he had when the day began. Both Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, the dueling aces of the Cardinals, put together Cy-worthy seasons, and did so for a playoff team and with impressive conclusions to their campaigns, while both Lincecum and the Giants struggled down the stretch and stayed home in October. Just how close was the voting? It is the first time that three pitchers have each gotten as many as nine first-place votes, just the second time a pitcher won the award without receiving the majority of first-place votes (Wainwright had 12 to Lincecum's 11), and the NL's third-closest finish in the 40 seasons that the ballot has been expanded to three pitchers.
In the end, Lincecum's overall domination was enough to overcome not only the impressive years of Wainwright and Carpenter but his own modest victory total of 15 -- the fewest ever by a Cy Young-winning starter in a non-strike-shortened season. (Stat heads of the world rejoice: With Zack Greinke and Lincecum claiming Cy Youngs this year despite fewer wins than their legitimate competition, your revolution is in full flower.) Lincecum led the league in strikeouts (261), K/9 (10.4), complete games (4) and shutouts (2). He was second in ERA (2.48), adjusted ERA and hits/9, third in innings pitched and HR/9, fourth in WHIP, wins and winning percentage and seventh in K/BB ratio. For good measure, Lincecum also held batters to the lowest batting average, on-base percentage and OPS of any pitcher in the National League. In other words, he had the strongest statistical case, regardless of his win total. The fact that he bested Wainwright and (especially) Carpenter suggests that a pitcher's total body of work is being given more weight than ever before.
Having already trumped Carpenter and Wainwright with a resume that many felt was inferior this year, Lincecum now has to be considered a heavy favorite to start making this honor a near-annual occurrence. It might be telling that Lincecum is the only pitcher in the league to even receive a single Cy Young vote each of the past two years. In other words, while the list of contenders may differ from year to year, Lincecum figures to remain a consistent factor. There are plenty of other high-quality pitchers in the National League with Cy Young potential, of course. Philadelphia's Cliff Lee displayed Cy Young-stuff with regularity during his first few months in the Senior Circuit, and the Mets' Johan Santana, when healthy, can be every bit as overpowering as Lincecum. Dan Haren of the Diamondbacks has not yet been consistent or dominating enough over a full season to suggest he is better than Lincecum, and fellow D-back Brandon Webb is coming off major arm surgery that kept him out of all but one game last year. Carpenter is an annual threat, but is a constant injury risk. Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers may get to that point someday, but he is still just 21 and learning on the job. Similarly, Tommy Hanson of the Braves was impressive as a rookie in 2009, but it remains to be seen how he will respond as teams start adjusting to him in the future. Ubaldo Jimenez and Jorge De La Rosa of the Rockies posted strong years in 2008, but it's too early to say whether or not that was a fluke.
Lincecum is the only premier pitcher without serious question marks. Besides, even if Lincecum's Triple Crown stats, like wins and ERA, aren't the best in the league, it seems highly unlikely that he'll slip dramatically enough in any of the other categories at which he is so consistently near the top. And that means that he's always likely to be in the Cy Young discussion every year. Put it this way: Who else could be considered a Cy Young favorite next year other than Lincecum?
All this would seem to suggest that winning a third Cy Young is a matter of when, not if, and that would all but cement Lincecum's place in Cooperstown. As it is, his candidacy looks a lot more interesting now than it did on Wednesday. Of the 14 previous pitchers to win multiple Cy Young Awards, six are already in the Hall of Fame (Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Jim Palmer, Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson and Gaylord Perry), four more are all but certain to get in (Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Tom Glavine), two are still building their cases (Lincecum and Johan Santana) and one is Roger Clemens, whose candidacy remains up in the air amid a cloud of suspected steroid use.
That leaves only two players who have won multiple Cy's and are not in the Hall of Fame: Denny McLain, who was derailed by suspensions and injuries shortly after winning in 1968 and 1969, and Bret Saberhagen, who won in 1985 and 1989 as part of a successful 18 year career.
Moreover, McLain is the only pitcher to win consecutive Cy Youngs who is either not yet in Cooperstown or will not be (it's unclear which direction Clemens' case will go). This alone puts Lincecum in the discussion. What elevates his chances is his youth. Only Clemens, McLain and Saberhagen have won at least two Cy Youngs by age 25. If he remains healthy, that burdensome caveat that hangs over all players' careers and their potential legacies, Lincecum seems to have an excellent chance to win a third. If he does that, engravers can start working on his Hall of Fame plaque, crooked smile, flowing hair and all. Perhaps as soon as next year? That isn't ridiculous either.
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