As we approach the 2021 MLB season, we will be looking at some fun features ahead every Monday as a complement to our regular MLB Monday analyses. Today, we’re going to examine something that has nagged at us for awhile: The premature career declines of three San Francisco Giants pitchers who earned fame and notoriety for helping their team to three World Series titles from 2010 and 2014.
Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner formed an impressive trio atop the Giants rotation, but their career peaks didn’t coincide much at all. In fact, the one year all three pitchers were at “full strength” was 2011, and San Francisco didn’t even make the postseason as the defending champions that year.
Cain’s career spanned 2005-2017, with a clear peak from 2009-2012, but he was washed up and done by 2013. Lincecum’s career ran from 2007-2016, with a clear apogee in 2008-2011, and he was finished by 2012 as an effective, reliable starter. Bumgarner is still pitching in 2021, for the Arizona Diamondbacks, but after debuting in 2010, his career has been pretty much on the scrap heap since 2017, with a distinct prime from 2011-2016.
The average age these guys saw their careers take a dive: 27.67 years old. That is when players should just be entering their primes, but all three Giants pitchers were all but done by age 28. Considering the organizational history, it begs the question why all three guys flamed out so early in their careers.
Lincecum shown the brightest of the three, winning Cy Young awards in both 2008 and 2009—although we question whether he was truly deserving of those distinctions considering San Francisco wasn’t truly a legitimately competing ball club in either season. But that is a question for another day; his decline began in 2010 and was complete by 2012. He was just 28 years old, but Lincecum was all but finished. With just career 19.6 WAR, Lincecum ranks as the 439th most-valuable pitcher in MLB history.
Cain was the least-celebrated member of this trio—and rightfully so. His losing record (104-118) is terrible, considering he owns three World Series rings. The only positive category he ever topped the NL in was complete games (4) in 2009. Cain never finished higher than sixth on a Cy Young ballot, and by 2013, he was all but done as an effective starter in MLB. He, too, was just 28 years old. With 29.1 career WAR, Cain slots out as No. 282 on the all-time value list for starting pitchers in MLB history.
As for MadBum, we’ve covered this before in a few different ways: His effectiveness was gone by the time he turned 27, and like Cain, he only led the NL in one positive category ever in his career (4 CG in 2015). He never finished in the Top 3 for a Cy Young Award, and while Bumgarner’s postseason exploits are famous, his career amounts to just 36.5 WAR right now after a -0.3 WAR effort in 2020. That puts him 216th in line for SP value in MLB history.
None of these guys should sniff the Hall of Fame without a ticket, and they were all washed up by the time they should have been entering their primes like normally trending pitchers. The argument of postseason wear-and-tear issues doesn’t fly here, either, as Cain only pitched 51 1/3 October innings in his career, while Lincecum tallied 56 1/3 innings himself. Maybe MadBum suffered from his 102 1/3 innings in October, particularly the 52 2/3 IP he tossed in 2014 alone.
However, it’s not like these guys were out there in consecutive postseasons ever. They had plenty of time to recover in Octobers when the Giants missed the playoffs (2011, 2013, 2015). Also, Lincecum was washed up even before the 2012 playoffs, and neither Cain nor Lincecum really pitched in the 2014 postseason: Cain was hurt, and Lincecum faced just 5 batters total that October, which is why MadBum tossed so many innings that year.
In the end, it is very suspicious in a post-Barry Bonds era that the Giants weren’t more careful with their star pitchers, as all three of them suffered early career flameouts that run counter to expected performance arcs based on historical analysis of statistical performance. Two of them—Lincecum and Bumgarner, specifically—achieved incredibly strange heights at young ages that they could not sustain into their statistically expected primes, due to physical breakdowns certainly not caused by overuse.
None of these guys ever led the NL in innings pitched for a single season, although Cain and Lincecum each topped the NL once in starts, and Bumgarner did the same twice. So, if the Giants were careful with their regular-season usage, why did the players break down physically well before their expected primes? And since Cain and Lincecum especially did not get overused in the postseason, why did they break down physically well before their expected primes?
It would be highly improbable that all three of them just were flawed physical specimens, of course. Lincecum is a small man, and there were always concerns about how his violent delivery might eventually cause some harm to his arm, but Cain and Bumgarner were strong workhorses from the South that never should have had the physical problems they did. All three players were first-round draft picks that should have had much longer and more effective careers, considering how they started out.
This does make us think about the coaching staff in San Francisco, of course, and its mythos being so off and wrong when actually contrasted with facts and reality. It also makes us think of the choices of the Giants organization in the 2000s and its lack of ethics. The breakdown of these three pitchers before their expected primes is too coincidental and unlikely for us to consider much more than the obvious, unspoken probabilities.