The Problem with Tim Lincecum

- By Joe DeFerrari

The majority of ballplayers never taste the sensation that is heroism. Maybe in one game, a journeyman will hit a clutch homerun or strikeout the side, or maybe even go on that kind of tear that seems to last forever. However, those who truly know of that magical feeling are the players who excel, not only day-in and day-out, but year-in and year-out; those who shatter the standards established by average men because they exceed the limits established by that label. Only these lucky few can be put up on that pedestal.

Tim Lincecum is one of the lucky few.

This season, though, he has fallen off of his pedestal, and many question if he can find ever his way back.

The statistics that the Giants ace has accumulated in his tenure in the majors speak for themselves: A 3.15 earned run average, a 71-46 win-loss record, and two Cy Young Awards. His young career is only six years old but he has already accomplished more than most pitchers ever will in their entire careers.

Currently, Tim Lincecum’s YTD earned run average is an astronomical 5.19 this season and he only has two quality starts after eleven games. A slump is two games, three games, or four games. A slump is not eleven games. There is a problem in San Francisco, and no one there seems to have a good solution.

The little sabermatricians in all of us want to look at his BABIP. Yes, his BABIP is .35 points higher this year than the number for his career, and yes, it is the highest of his career. This can be conceded but don’t make the excuse that this is the main problem. .35 points is a moderate jump while a three point ERA jump is severe. Maybe he has suffered from a little bad luck but not nearly enough to explain his dismal performance.

Besides, looking at it from another angle, which is that his line drive rate has significantly increased, one could make the case that he has actually experienced good luck, which is frightening.

Others point to his manager, Bruce Bochy, as the problem. Consider Lincecum’s loss against the Marlins in May. In the fifth inning, he let up two quick walks. With two outs, runners on second and third, and Jose Reyes (an excellent contact hitter) at the plate, he somehow managed to get out of the inning unscathed.

If your pitcher is struggling, and was fortunate enough to have escaped certain doom once, it is wise not to tempt fate. Bochy, however, chose to let his star remain in the arena. Sure enough, he was unable to escape the frame, allowing five runs alongside only two outs in the sixth.

This piece is not trying to make excuses for Lincecum. Bochy can receive some of the blame but certainly not all of it. He chooses to stand behind his players to let them know he is on their side. He feels that part of this is letting his pitchers fight on, when some managers would pull the cord. Sometimes the pitcher will do well, sometimes he won’t.

The most common thing people have looked at is the velocity of his fastball. In past years, he has thrown a fastball in the 92 MPH range. This year, he’s throwing it at 90 MPH, obviously making him more hittable. 2 MPH is a drop worth noting, but it’s still not significant enough to warrant as drastic of a nosedive as he has experienced.

Stemming from this is the idea that he has been forced to overpitched in his young career. In his first full season, and each since then, Lincecum has thrown a surplus of 200 innings. Given his tiny frame and his youth, it is possible to think that he has been overworked. This theory could also explain why he declined a bit at the end of last season.

Tim Lincecum
May 20, 2012; San Francisco, CA, USA: San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) prepares to deliver a pitch against the Oakland Athletics in the first inning at AT&T Park. Photo courtesy by: Cary Edmondson-US PRESSWIRE.

To truly see why The Freak has performed how he has performed, one must look a little bit beyond the numbers; for the origins of the Lincecum dilemma all start with his control.

The complexities of the mechanics behind a pitch are often underestimated. Something as simple as a misplaced foot, incorrect posture, or a flick of the wrist that’s not quite right, could make a perfect pitch miss the target completely. This is what fans are seeing from Tim Lincecum right now: a lack of control mixed with a drop of velocity. Together, it’s a lethal mix.

He’s leaving pitches up in the strike zone. He’s throwing more balls. Pitches that are supposed to hit the corners are drifting over the heart of the plate.

His control is not only leading to more walks- over five per nine innings- he needs more pitches to get batters out. It’s getting to the point that he’s spent by the fifth inning.

This is where the velocity becomes an issue. If Lincecum is hitting his targets, a slower fastball can be worked around. However, if he isn’t hitting the corners, a 90MPH fastball won’t be sufficient. He is living proof that it won’t.

So, let’s recap: velocity issues, control issues leading to an inability to pitch deep into games, and a manager who has yet to recognize this. The only question yet to be addressed is, will he recover?

The answer is complex.

The control issue will be sorted out. He’s started to allow fewer walks, and subsequently, has been able to pitch deeper into games. The excellent pitching staff in San Francisco understands how to work through adversity like this. His control should be back to where it was in his Cy Young seasons soon enough.

The thing that remains a concern to me is his velocity. It’s not that the drop is terrible; it’s just that there is no explanation. It’s troubling that it remains an enigma after all these weeks. The velocity might return, but it might not.

Considering all factors, his chances of rebounding are high. Very high, in fact. The Freak will once again be the Freak, and the Giants will have their hero back. With the reemergence of the Dodgers, an underperforming Giants bullpen, and more incentive than ever to avoid the Wild Card, they’ll need him.

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