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Is Lincecum 'good enough' to lose 20?


Remember those T-shirts you would see for sale along the Embarcadero a few years ago as you walked toward AT&T Park? "Let Tim Smoke" was the humorous, if slightly subversive, message on them.

Well, it's time for a new message: Let Tim Pitch.

Although no doubt there are readers who've had it with the ongoing melodrama and armchair psychoanalysis of Tim Lincecum's fall from grace (or at least his fall from having mastered a freakish amount of big-league pitching talent), the topic has subtly shifted from "What's wrong with Lincecum?" to "What do the Giants do with Lincecum?" This shift has occurred because there seems to be a growing number of fans and sportswriters (and perhaps Giants brass) that wants Lincecum out of the starting rotation. They use his weak and embarrassing statistics (Saturday night's excellent performance notwithstanding) to back up their position. Some have suggested he be demoted to the minors if his descent continues.

The feeling here is: Let Lincecum pitch — not matter what.

Why? Well, for any number of reasons that surely have been explored, ad nauseam, by the media and fans who like to hear themselves on talk radio: he needs to work through his problems; he needs to rediscover his confidence; he still shows occasional signs of regaining the form that made him one of baseball's dominant, and singularly entertaining, performers, etc.

But there is an additional reason the Giants should let Lincecum pitch.

He's got a shot at becoming a 20-game loser, and as old-school fans know, there is a wonderfully counter-intuitive baseball truism that states you've got to be a really good pitcher to lose 20 games in a season.

Maybe you laugh at that. Maybe you think this is a weird joke. Well, Hall of Famers Phil Niekro, Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Red Ruffing, Walter Johnson, Rube Marquard, Amos Rusie and Cy Young all were 20-game losers. That's right, it's the same Cy Young for whom the Cy Young Award is named, given each year to a pitcher considered the best in each league, the award Lincecum has won twice.

Niekro and Johnson were two-time 20-game losers, and Young lost 20 or more three times. Rusie lost 20 or more games five times, including a whopping 34 in 1890.

Other pitchers with distinguished careers who were 20-game losers were Wilbur Wood (twice), Luis Tiant, Denny McLain, Mel Stottlemyre and Roger Craig (two years in a row).

Tiant lost 20 immediately following a season in which he won 20, then went on to have a long career that included victories in two World Series games and three more 20-win seasons, a career that should have landed him in the Hall of Fame but hasn't.

Stottlemyre lost 20 immediately following a 20-win season, then went on to have two more 20-win seasons.

Craig followed his consecutive 20-loss seasons by striking out eight in four innings at Yankee Stadium in a pivotal 1964 World Series victory for St. Louis.

Let Lincecum pitch so he at least has an outside shot at joining this elite group.

Oh, sure, statistical nerds will point out that Niekro was also a 21-game winner in one of his 20-loss seasons; or that Wood was a 24-game winner in one of his; or that Johnson was a 25-game winner, with a 1.90 ERA, in one of his 20-loss seasons; or that Denton True (Cy) Young won 26 games in 1894, a season in which he lost 21 games; or that Rusie was nearly a 30-game winner (29) when he lost 34.

But all that nit-picking misses the point. The point being: Great pitchers, excellent pitchers, have had 20-loss seasons; Tim Lincecum is a great pitcher who has a shot at losing 20. The Giants should give him that shot.

Look, this business about Lincecum losing so many games can be a win-win situation. If he continues to lose, and reaches 20, he's in the same category with those Hall of Famers and other distinguished pitchers in whose company there is no shame, only comfort.

If, instead, he wins, if he turns his season around, well, you're not going to hear any complaints from Lincecum, the Giants or Giants fans.

And if he does both — if he wins some, loses some — well, at least he was given an opportunity, which is only what any world-class competitor seeks.

Robert Rubino can be reached at robert.rubino@pressdemocrat.com. His Old School blog is at http://oldschool.blogs.pressdemocrat.com