Timmy and Zack: Two Young Studs

As a nice little warm-up to the 2010 Major League season, I want to look at two young pitchers with bright careers ahead of them, the 2009 Cy Young Award winners. The Royals’ Zack Greinke and Giants’ Tim Lincecum each turned in stellar performances last year on the mound, and each will be 26 years old by season’s end.  So if you can’t have both, which one do you want on your team?

Lincecum would seem to the be the conventional choice, turning in back-to-back Cy Young seasons with at least 225 innings pitched in each. However, over that same time period Greinke pitched  two lights-out seasons himself with at least 200 innings (for a crappy ball club, no less)…all this after returning to baseball in 2007 from bouts with Social Anxiety Disorder and Depression. If we look at the combined 2008 and 2009 statistics for each, we see a lot of similarities.

Greinke: 431.7 Innings, 0.7 HR/9 innings, 8.9 K/9, 2.2 BB/9, and 7 grounders for every 10 fly balls (GB/FB)

Timmy: 452.3 Innings, 0.4 HR/9, 10.5 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and 8.3 GB per FB.

Lincecum has proven he can keep the ball down in the zone more effectively than Greinke, and this has likely helped him to record a lower home run rate. But despite more strikeouts, Timmy also gives up more free passes and thus has a lower K/BB ratio: 3.46 versus Greinke’s 3.97. Keeping batters off the base paths is obviously a key ingredient to good pitching, and Greinke has exhibited Maddux-like rates in that department.

Other things to take into account: The “Royal” defense that played behind Greinke was simply awful in 2009. The Fangraphs UZR defensive rating system put the Royals at dead last in fielding that season, whereas the Giants came in fourth, undoubtedly saving Lincecum a couple runs here and there. In 2008 things were a little fairer for the two pitchers, with the Giants defense being rated a mere 6 runs better than the Royals’ over the course of the whole 162 games, a marginal advantage to Lincecum.

And finally, Lincecum gets a huge advantage pitching in the National league. Why? Because he gets to see the pitcher 2 to 3 times per start. For guys like Greinke and Lincecum, pitchers are easy outs, and often easy strikeouts. In 2009, pitchers in the national league recorded a collective 0.355 OPS and struck out 33% of the time, aiding a higher overall strikeout rate in the National League (18.4% for all batters versus 17.5% in the American League). P.S. Whiff extraordinaire Adam Dunn doesn’t strike out that much, and rally killer Yuniesky Betancourt’s career OPS is nearly twice that of the NL pitchers. Basically, pitchers are awful hitters, and Lincecum gets to face them much more often than Greinke. So with all these factors to take into account, what’s the final word?

In 2009 alone, the Cy Youngers’ projected ERAs were very close. Greinke’s 3.23 ERA* was 1.2 runs better than the AL average, while Lincecum’s 3.07 was 1.1 runs better than the NL average. Hard to definitively say that either was better than the other.

Going back two seasons, Greinke’s 3.5 ERA and Lincecum’s 3.25 ERA matchup almost exactly when the league context, AL or NL, is taken into account. Each improved between 2008 and 2009, and at 26 years old, there’s no reason to believe they will stop growing and improving. I think they were the two best pitchers in baseball last season, and will likely continue to dominate the sport for years to come.

Projected Stat lines:

Lincecum: 235 IP,   270Ks, 1.12 WHIP, 2.95 ERA, 16 W

Greinke: 210 IP, 220Ks, 1.08 WHIP, 3.20 ERA, 13 W

*ERA projections based on linear combination of HRs, BBs, Ks, and Hit by Pitches.

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