There was once a day where San Francisco pitcher Tim Lincecum was one of the brightest stars in the Major Leagues, using his unorthodox windup to throw mid-90s fastballs and knee-buckling off-speed pitches past unsuspecting hitters. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound straggly-haired hurler was must see television every time he toed the slab with everyone watching to see if the two-time Cy Young Award winner was going to strikeout 10-plus batters.
But now, a Lincecum start resembles a blind date, never knowing if the person you are meeting could be your future mate or a complete and utter disaster. His latest spring start was a microcosm of this.
Lincecum, who was making just his fifth appearance of spring after missing 10 days with a stiff neck, got the start against the Oakland Athletics during the Giants 6-4 loss. He produced a solid outing that flashed some brilliance, working five innings while allowing four runs (three earned) on four hits while striking out seven. He walked two and hit a batter as well.
The defeat dropped San Francisco to 6-19 in Cactus League action.
The former Cy Young Award winner began his start strong, getting A’s leadoff hitter Sam Fuld to groundout to second. Craig Gentry followed with a flare to center that dropped in front of Angel Pagan, but Lincecum worked out of the inning by striking out Ben Zobrist and getting Billy Butler to fly out to right.
The first inning resembled a positive blind date as Lincecum displayed solid command of his pitches with his secondary offerings looking especially sharp. His curveball and change-up had good action and appeared difficult for Oakland hitters to pick up. Lincecum also showcased good fastball command in the first inning, which is something vital if he hopes to have a bounce-back 2015 season. He located his fastball on both sides of the plate while sitting between 88-89 MPH.
When the second inning arrived, Lincecum started to look like the blind date that starts off well but turns into a nightmare.
He immediately struggled with his command, walking Ike Davis to start the frame. Lincecum was able to pick up his second strikeout of the game by sneaking an 88 MPH fastball past Brett Lawrie, but the next batter, Josh Phegley, lined a hanging off-speed pitch to left-center for a one-out RBI double. Mark Canha followed the Phegley double with a single and Oakland had runners on first and third with one out.
Initially the third inning saw Lincecum on the verge of disaster. For the second straight inning, Lincecum walked the lead-off hitter, this time Gentry. Zobrist, who the Giants tried to acquire in several off-season deals, hit a weak come-backer to the pitcher, but Lincecum double-clutched and airmailed the throw into center, allowing Gentry to reach third. Pagan compounded the error by throwing to third base, which allowed Zobrist to advance to second.
Facing a difficult situation, Lincecum was victimized by poor pitch location as Butler roped a double to left field, scoring both Gentry and Zobrist. A throwing error by shortstop Brandon Crawford almost allowed Butler to advance to third.
All the sudden, though, Lincecum appeared ready to right the ship, recording back-to-back strikeouts of Davis and Lawrie. He did hit Phegley with an up-and-in fastball before closing out the frame by getting Canha to pop out to Crawford.
“It was good to get a feel for what it will be like during the season and get some situational stuff in there as well,” said Lincecum during an in-game interview.
The third inning saw Lincecum’s fastball velocity sit between 87-89 MPH, but the pitch was up in the zone and was hittable. It appeared that he lost the ability to finish his pitches off, falling away drastically towards the first base line at times. It could be assumed that it was the result of him still recovering from the neck soreness that troubled him earlier in camp, something Lincecum denied.
“The neck was feeling pretty good today,” he said, adding that he has been continuously getting treatment. “The training staff has done a good job of getting me where I need to be.”
After ending the third inning, it appeared that Lincecum would be finished for the night as Giants’ Manager Bruce Bochy previously said that he was expecting a pitch-count limit of approximately 60 pitches for Lincecum. But in a surprise development, he not only pitched the fourth inning, but the fifth inning as well.
“When I finished the fourth, I told [Dave Righetti] that I wanted the fifth inning just so I could get my work in,” Lincecum said, adding that Righetti asked him if he was feeling OK. “I told him I was good and he let me have it.”
Over his final two innings of work, Lincecum was able to hold the Athletics scoreless, allowing no hits while striking out three. While the fourth and fifth innings are positives because of the results, it is hard to ignore Lincecum’s declining velocity throughout the evening.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion about the drop in Lincecum’s velocity. When he first emerged on the scene, he would routinely throw in the mid-90s. Now, he sits mostly between 89-91 while touching 92 sometimes. While velocity is not the sole defining factor of a quality pitcher, it can help when trying to get big-league hitters out. During his outing against the Athletics, Lincecum was in the 88-89 MPH range during the first inning, but by the fifth inning his pitches were sitting mostly between 86-87 with an occasional 88 MPH fastball. While there shouldn’t be a huge uptick in velocity as spring training continues, Lincecum should see the 89-91 range by the start of the regular season after he makes up for the 10 days he missed previously, which is one reason he wanted to go five innings against Oakland.
“It was important I go out there, get some work in. Get my pitch count up, and work on some arm strength issues,” he said.
Lincecum’s velocity will probably continue to be a topic of discussion throughout the course of the season, but the most important thing for the starter may be better location, something he has been working hard on since the conclusion of the 2014 season and echoed during an in-game interview.
“I know I get erratic and get some chest-high pitches from my front shoulder leaking out,” he said, adding that keeping his arm from leaking out is something he has worked hard on during spring training. “I want to keep things tight and not open up like a gate.”
For the most part, Lincecum’s outing against Oakland can be considered a good one. Would he have liked to not give up any runs? Sure. But, he was able to go out, increase his pitch count and continue to show the ability to put hitters away this spring. He now has 14 strikeouts in 13 innings of work. If this trend continues, Lincecum’s outings could once again be a must-see event for all, not just Giant fans.