Free Agent Faceoff: Tim Lincecum vs. Ubaldo Jimenez

For today's installment of MLBTR's Free Agent Faceoff series, we'll look at a couple of former aces, both 29-year-old righties, whose careers have followed a similar trajectory over the last few years: Tim Lincecum and Ubaldo Jimenez.

These guys were once expected to headline this year's free agent class. Over the 2009-10 seasons, Lincecum (11.7 fWAR) and Jimenez (12.1 fWAR) were among the ten most productive pitchers in the game. In 2011, they took a step back but were still solid: looking past their divergent ERA figures (2.74 for Lincecum; 4.68 for Jimenez), both posted fWAR tallies in the mid-3's. Last year, the wheels fell off. The two combined for just one win above replacement. 

The 2013 season has seen partial resurrections for both pitchers. Certainly, neither will hit the market as an ace. But both bring high strikeout rates and durability to the table. Since 2008, neither hurler has failed to make at least thirty starts. Of course, that statistic also implies mileage: Lincecum has logged over 1400, and Jimenez just shy of 1300, career innings. But these one-time stars should generate a lot of interest in a pitching market largely bereft of top-level talent. Let's take a closer look:

At first glance, Lincecum's 2013 season looks like a marginal improvement on 2012, and in some ways it is: he is carrying just a 4.44 ERA in 190 2/3 innings, and his strikeouts are down (though so are his walks). On the other hand, Lincecum's year looks much better in the eyes of advanced metrics: his FIP (3.77), xFIP (3.57), and SIERA (3.75) are all better than his 2013 ERA as well as his 2012 marks. Broadly, Lincecum seems to have figured out how to be successful — albeit not dominant — with less overwhelming stuff. As Andrew Baggarly of writes, Lincecum is a more mature pitcher now.

Though Lincecum's fastball velocity dipped in 2010, it took a more remarkable downturn between 2011 (92.2 MPH) and 2012 (90.4 MPH). Not coincidentally, perhaps, his offspeed offerings (slider, curve, change up) all registered negative pitch values last year. Lincecum's change, in particular, went from being his best pitch to his worst, as he was seemingly unable or unwilling to pound the zone low-and-away with the offering. He has apparently re-learned how to use his slow ball in 2013, to improved results. Though Lincecum no longer looks like a top-tier pitcher, he proved this season that he can still dial it up at times (as in his no-hitter) and, perhaps more importantly, that he should be a reliable rotation piece. 

Likewise, Jimenez entered the year with real questions about whether or not he would continue to be a guy that a team felt comfortable trotting out every fifth day. As with Lincecum, he has in large part answered those questions. MLBTR's Steve Adams just profiled Jimenez, who is likely to exercise his right to void the $8MM club option that the Indians hold on him for 2014. As Adams noted, Jimenez has produced excellent results at the right time: he sports a 2.72 ERA and 2.31 K:BB ratio over his last 145 2/3 innings, and has restored his ground-ball rate to his career levels. Though advanced metrics do not quite support his cumulative 3.39 ERA on the year, neither do they undermine his usefulness: Jimenez sports a 3.62 FIP, 3.77 xFIP, and 3.88 SIERA. 

Even moreso than Lincecum, Jimenez has dealt with a drastic velocity decline. His fastball, which once sat at 96, dropped to a 93.9 MPH average in 2011 and then fell off a table last year to 92.5 MPH. In reponse to his poor results in 2012, Jimenez made adjustments to his repertoire. He has continued to increase the usage of his change-up ever since his speed started to dip, and now throws it 20.2% of the time. More importantly, perhaps, Jimenez has largely abandoned his curve (3.7%) for his slider (22.3%), a big swing from his previous pitch mix. While I cannot make a full case for causation, the slider has the highest pitch value of any of Jimenez's offerings in 2013. Whatever the reason, Jimenez has restored his ability to generate swings and misses (8.8% SwStr% in 2013 vs. 7.0% in 2012), reduced his home run tendencies (0.85 vs. 1.27 HR/9), and restored his K:BB ratio to his prime levels (2.29 vs. 1.51 K:BB) while carrying a career-best 9.23 K/9.

Lincecum and Jimenez both have approximately the same age and arm mileage, and have posted similar underlying skill metrics in 2013. The Giants star has had greater highs and less-pronounced lows in his career than his counterpart in Cleveland, but in 2013 Jimenez actually increased his strikeout capabilities and outpaced Lincecum in fWAR (2.6 vs. 1.5). So, which one would you prefer your team target? 

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