If I didn’t know better, if the guy on the mound had been someone other than Tim Lincecum, I would have just dismissed him as another struggling major league starter.
Tim Lincecum doesn’t labor. Tim Lincecum doesn’t top out at 92 mph and sit at 89-90. Tim Lincecum doesn’t throw 108 pitches in five innings and need a spectacular 4-6-3 double play after his final pitch to prevent the total from going even higher.
Lincecum, 27, did all of that Monday in a 6-1 victory over the Mets, and the only reason that Giants fans should not truly worry is because he has experienced similar frustration before.
Specifically, he experienced it in a span of four starts from Aug. 10 to Aug. 27, 2010, allowing 19 runs in 19 innings. Perhaps you remember how Lincecum snapped out of it — with a brilliant September and even better October, helping the Giants win their first World Series since their move to the West Coast.
Lincecum’s first four starts this season have not been much better — he allowed only one run Monday, and his ERA is still 8.20. But if Lincecum rebounded once — actually twice, considering that he also endured a rough three-start stretch last June — why can’t he do it again?
To Lincecum, April 2012 is August 2010 revisited.
“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “Your head’s spinning. You don’t know what’s going on. You’re going through 50 different answers to try to get one. Sometimes, it’s easy to simplify it and think simple, stupid. Just throw.”
That’s what he did Monday, but it was, in Lincecum’s own words, “the definition of battling.” Oh, Lincecum struck out eight, four swinging, on 89-90 mph fastballs. He actually threw 66 percent fastballs, the most he could remember throwing in a game.
As for his lower velocities, Lincecum said he is fine pitching that way as long as he gets results, reasoning, “The hitters will tell you. Some guys throw 88 and it looks like 95. Some guys throw 95 and it doesn’t look as hard.”
True enough, but can you imagine the old Tim Lincecum saying that?
The old Tim Lincecum averaged 94 mph with his fastball in 2008, according to Fangraphs.com, declined to 92.4 and 91.2 in ’09 and ’10, then rebounded to 92.2 last season.
The current Tim Lincecum still possesses excellent breaking stuff, but one rival executive said the pitcher’s changeup and curveball lose effectiveness when they are thrown at speeds closer to his fastball.
“The secondary pitches, he still has ’em,” the executive said. “But they’re not as good now because he doesn’t have 95. There was a big gap between his fastball and changeup. Now, there is not much separation. It all kind of looks the same.”
Lincecum, though, said he could worry only so much. He had allowed four runs in the first inning of his previous start against the Phillies, then one run over the next five. He tried to build on that game in his start Monday, which was delayed one day by a postponement.
I’m not sure he succeeded, but Lincecum thought he did.
He called his performance “a big step forward” after he walked five in five innings but allowed the anemic Mets only four hits. He even repeated an old baseball adage that he said he heard on TV: It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon.
“We get caught up in negatives so much and so easily, especially with so many games,” Lincecum said. “You start forgetting about the positives.
“I’ve been just trying to focus on those lately. Take the five innings I had in my last outing and bring ’em into this. Regardless of going five, I just want to give my team a chance to win and keep building positives.”
No question, he gave his team a chance. Still, whenever Lincecum falters, talk immediately turns to the incredible torque he generates with his 5-foot-11, 175-pound frame, the potential for injury that caused him to drop to the Giants with the 10th pick of the 2006 draft.
Scouts are buzzing about a possible problem with Lincecum’s right hip, but the pitcher told me on Sunday, “None of that is true.” He said his only physical change is that he is “working with a different template” after dropping 20 to 25 pounds during the winter in an effort to become more athletic, the way he was during his Cy Young years in 2008 and ’09.
“I feel good. I feel fine,” he told reporters earlier. “It’s a matter of repeating my mechanics, having confidence in my pitches. Not turning into a pitcher who is trying to throw darts, but turning into a pitcher who is a thrower, but a smart thrower.”
For Lincecum, Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said, fastball command is even more important than it is for other pitchers. When Lincecum lacks that command, Righetti said, hitters sit on his changeup and curveball, knowing he can throw those pitches for strikes at any time. Playing defense actually becomes more difficult for the Giants; hitters take awkward swings and spray the ball all over the field.
Lincecum certainly didn’t have great command Monday — “He wasn’t quite as sharp as I know he’d like to be,” manager Bruce Bochy said — but he had the right mindset. Rather than fret over this and that, he drew from his previous start, said, “Screw the rest,” and just pitched.
He remembers August 2010 — the first time he had struggled in his career. He survived it once. He can survive it again. But watching him Monday, I could see why Lincecum’s head has been spinning.
He’s trying to find the old Tim Lincecum, and that pitcher is somewhere else, with no guarantee to surface anytime soon.