It has been over a year since Tim Lincecum pitched in a major league baseball game. That’s not for lack of trying, as Lincecum held a pitching showcase last Thursday for more than 14 MLB teams. How does a back-to-back Cy Young winner go from pitching in the World Series to unemployed two years later at the age of 33? That’s a very good question.
I’m going to say something inflammatory to… pretty much everyone. Tim Lincecum’s career numbers at his peak are very close to those of Hall of Fame Pitcher and GOAT Sandy Koufax.
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Stop screaming. Hear me out.
Tim Lincecum and Sandy Koufax have very close career numbers if you invert one set of numbers.
Don’t believe me? Take a look.
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Sandy Koufax 1966-1958
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The old REVERSE Koufax! HOT DIGGITY DOG! And they said it couldn’t be done!
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Why is this important? I honestly don’t know. I really just think it’s interesting to look at. However, what I find interesting is the sharp decline in Lincecum’s performance after 2011. In order to understand what happened there we need to go back to 2008.
The Freak came onto the scene in 2007, in a short stint with the San Francisco Giants. To say that Lincecum rocketed through the Giants farm system would be false, he traveled at lightspeed through it. Once in San Francisco, the Freak put up solid numbers, going 7-4 through 24 starts, posting an ERA of 4.00 and a WHIP of 1.278. Not terrible. Add that to his 150 Ks in this in first 24 games, that’s a solid first go in the Bigs.
No one expected him to win the Cy Young the next year.
No one expected him to do it again the following year.
In 2008 and 2009, Lincecum struck out over 260 hitters and won 15+ games. Lincecum was so dominant within the zone that his K/9 ratio was 10.4 in 08 and 10.5 in 2009. His ERA dropped from 4.00 the year before to 2.62 and 2.48 in 09. It’s no surprise that Lincecum won the Cy Young both years, especially with his WAR topping out at 7.9 and 7.5.
With those numbers right out of the gate, it’s no wonder The Freak saw a decline over the next few years. To give you an idea of where 2008 Lincecum stood, if he put up those numbers in 2017 he would have been 4th in the MLB and 2nd for all pitchers in WAR. His ERA would find him somewhere between 3rd and 4th, right behind guys like Kershaw and Scherzer. His K/9 would be somewhere around 7th, around the likes Jacob deGrom and Luis Severino, so till in the upper echelon of MLB Starters.
From there Lincecum’s decline, as I said before, became evident. Normally in this situation, a pitcher would turn to his pitching coach to create a contingency plan, to create a method of maintaining consistency. Lincecum turned away from his coach, his father, and he began to slide.
This is an interesting bit of the story. Tim Lincecum and his dad Chris have been working on his pitching motion sing he was a child. Chris had developed and pieced together Lincecum’s mechanics. The body stays low, the stride is long, and his release point is the exact same for every pitch. At one point, Chris even said he could diagnose Tim’s mechanical issues just by listening to him pitch on the radio.
One of my favorite stories about the development of Lincecum’s pitching motion is the dollar bill story.
“To create this sustained momentum, Chris invented a drill in which he placed a dollar bill on the ground to the left and in front of the landing spot of Tim’s left foot. Tim would have to pick up the dollar in the same motion after releasing the ball.
“My dad’s always stressing, ‘Pick up the frickin’ dollar! If I put down a hundred-dollar bill, you’d pick it up every time!'” Tim says. “If I get out there and get myself over [the front leg], my follow-through should be the tail end of when you whiplash a whip. That’s what it is for me. Like Tiger Woods finishing his swing.”
Says Chris, “When he finishes his follow-through, his back leg, knee to hip, is parallel to the ground, on the same plane as his back. His back foot is above his head. Like a ballerina’s.” – Sports Illustrated
Dave Righetti, the Giants Pitching Coach during Lincecum’s time in San Fran, felt differently. “His dad obviously did a very good job with Timmy,” said Righetti. “I treat Timmy differently from most pitchers: I leave him alone.”
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Around this time when Lincecum had won his two Cy Youngs, he distanced himself from his father.
“I’ve always worn two hats with Tim,” Chris said in a recent interview with The Ringer. “I’m his dad, and I’m his mechanics guy. The father-son relationship never wavered. But the baseball relationship did. He’d won two Cy Youngs. And even after two Cy Youngs, I was still on him about his mechanics. So at one point he came to me and said, ‘I want to do this on my own. I need to do this on my own.’ It was like a rite of passage, the sort of thing any son in his 20s goes through in his relationship with his father.” – The Ringer
After this point in time, The Freak came back down to earth. In his ’08 and ’09 seasons, Lincecum was worth 15.4 WAR. The following 7 seasons? 5.9… total.
The main problem people will point to is the sharp drop in his velocity. During his peak, Lincecum averaged 93.3 MPH on his fastball, the pitch he used more than 50% of the time. On the flip side, his curveball, a pitch thrown 7% to 17% of the time, stayed around 78 MPH.
After Tim’s father disappears from the picture, the fastball velocity drops below 90 MPH and below 50% usage. Instead, you see a rise in his usage of a Slider and Changeup and a drop in his Curveball. This for me is Righetti’s fault. When you have a hard-throwing young pitcher, the first thing you want to do is teach him a changeup. Look at Pedro Martinez, a hard thrower with a nasty circle-changeup, who becomes a multi-pitch threat.
The Giants tried to fix what wasn’t broken and overcorrected Lincecum for 5 years. Those years just so happen to be the ones where he declined.
There were, of course, other issues within the Giants organization. Aside from the aforementioned issues with Righetti and the staff, the roster proved difficult for Lincecum to find his footing. He was always going to be somewhere in the rotation, but it would appear that Bruce Bochy favors the hot hand. The biggest competition for Lincecum was never Madison Bumgarner, mainly because it’s MadBum’s world and we just live in it, but also because he’s no threat. He’s the Syndergaard to Lincecum’s deGrom, the Lester to his Arrieta.
The guy who really messed up Lincecum on the roster was Matt Cain. That’s right, Matt Cain, who voluntarily retired from the Giants after following a similar fate to Lincecum of a sharp decline after years of solid play. The only thing that Matt Cain got that Lincecum didn’t? A 5-year/$115 million dollar extension in 2012. Well, Lincecum turned his down, reportedly, opting instead for a 2-year/$40.5 million dollar deal.
However, when Cain began to soar and Bumgarner found his ability to mow down everyone, The Freak got left in the dust. The guy who was once the Ace of the staff now found himself in a similar position to then-teammate Tim Hudson; just fighting for his career and spot on the team.
And at the end of the Even Year Championships for the Giants, Lincecum saw his role diminish with each trip to the Series. Finally, after the 2014 season, he made 1 appearance in the postseason. The Freak was benched.
With his position on the Giants in increasing jeopardy, Lincecum reenlisted his father before the 2015 season to ask for help rebuilding his mechanics. Even after tossing two no-hitters in back to back seasons, Lincecum needed help. So he called a familiar face. He called his dad.
“That was tough. It’s like a kid going home with a bad report card and saying, ‘I tried to do it on my own.’ I had to apologize.” – Tim Lincecum
Since that time he’s pitched one 26 games and took an entire year off in 2017. That is until last Thursday when more than 15 MLB teams sent scouts to his showcase in Seattle.
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I am rooting for a Tim Lincecum comeback, and frankly, you should be too. Why? Because it would be amazing and I want to follow that storyline.
What could be better than The Freak’s return to form? The darkest of horses for this MLB season. The power pitchers of today seem to be a fleeting bunch, and now that we’ve seen guys like Syndergaard, Kluber and Scherzer master secondary pitches rather than just muscling their way through lineups with fastballs, perhaps this is the perfect time for Lincecum to make his return as a finesse pitcher.
At Thursday’s showcase, Lincecum reportedly touched 93 MPH, which isn’t too bad especially after taking a year off. It’s also not too bad considering he averaged 93 MPH in his Cy Young years. However, what I think he needs to compete in today’s game are strong secondary pitches. The most intriguing part of Lincecum’s motion to me is his release point. He’s the opposite of Dontrelle Willis (That’s right. Tim Lincecum is a Reverse Koufax and the opposite of Dontrelle Willis. Welcome to The Turf.)
What Dontrelle Willis brought to the game and to the Marlins was a multitude of arm slots for different pitches. Tracking a curveball from one inning to the next was hell for the opposing team. On the flip side, Lincecum’s same release point for every pitch could play to his benefit in a league that is dominated by hard-throwing pitchers. All he has to do is stay consistent and he’ll be the steal of the century. Believe me.
The Freak might be one of the biggest disappointments in recent history, but it’s not like the guy isn’t out there trying to rebound. When guys like Johan Santana and Eric Gagné keep making a run at pitching in the Majors, media outlets love to speculate as to how well they’d do facing the new and more powerful MLB. With Lincecum, there’s much less speculation.The Freak can pitch. He ain’t done.
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