After a solid rookie season in 2007 in which he made 24 starts and posted a 4.00 ERA, the San Francisco Giants’ Tim Lincecum was one of the National League’s best pitchers from 2008 to 2011, making the All-Star team all four seasons and winning back-to-back NL Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. Over that four-season span, “The Freak” pitched over 875 innings, struck out 970 batters against 321 walks, posted an ERA of 2.83 and a nearly identical FIP of 2.82.
In 2012, however, things went south for Lincecum, as he struggled all season and finished with a 5.13 ERA in 33 starts. In those starts, he averaged just under five and two thirds innings per start, down more an inning from his average start over the previous four campaigns. Lincecum was still striking out batters — over a batter per inning — but his walk rate spiked to 4.4 BB/9, by far the highest mark of his career.
Linceum’s struggles continued over the next two seasons, yet he remained a member of the Giants rotation for most of 2013 and 2014 (65 games, 58 starts). Lincecum’s walk rate decreased after 2012, but was still higher than it was during his peak. The strikeouts were mostly there in 2012 (8.8 K/9), but were missing come 2013 (7.7 K/9). Despite Linceum’s small, wiry frame, he possessed plus velocity for the first few years of his career, but that too was mostly gone by the end of 2013:
Lincecum did, however, throw two no-hitters in that span, one in 2013 and one in 2014; both against the San Diego Padres.
Entering the final season of his two-year, $35 million contract in 2015, there were doubts about the hurler’s future with the San Francisco franchise beyond the season. Despite his long-time service to the club and his general popularity with the club’s fans, it was looking as if the club would have no choice, but to let him go in free agency. Lincecum started 15 games for the Giants, posting a 4.13 ERA and 4.29 FIP, striking out just 7.1 batters per nine innings and walking 4.5 per nine.
Lincecum’s once-lauded velocity had become a thing of the distant past, as he averaged less than 90 miles per hour on his fastball. On June 27, Lincecum was struck on the elbow with a line drive in the second inning of a game against the Colorado Rockies and exited the game. It would prove to be the last time he would ever take the mound in a Giants’ uniform.
A free agent for the first time in his nine-year career, heading into his age-32 season, things didn’t look great for Lincecum. In addition to his declining performance in increasing age, he had to spend most of the offseason rehabbing from a hip surgery to fix an issue that had been hampering him for most of his career.
No team decided to take a chance on the recovering righty in the offseason, instead opting to see what he could offer once he was healthy. Lincecum held a long-awaited and much-anticipated showcase on May 6, with representatives from multiple MLB teams in attendance. Lincecum looked sharp, throwing 41 pitches, sitting in the high-80s to low-90s with his fastball, topping out at 92. Reports also said that he showed three solid off-speed pitches in addition to the fastball. Two weeks after the Showcase, on May 20, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim gave Lincecum a $2.5 million contract for the 2016 season.
Lincecum’s 2016 pro debut came on June 2 against the Tacoma Rainiers, working five innings and allowing three runs on three hits and three walks along with five strikeouts. His next outing, against the Reno Aces, was a bit better, allowing four runs (two earned) on three hits, two walks, and six strikeouts over five innings. His last start came against the Fresno Grizzlies, and he put on his best performance of the spring with a seven inning, one-hit, one-walk, eight-strikeout shutout effort.
The next day, Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia confirmed to Alden Gonzalez of MLB.com that Lincecum would be joining the team for their weekend series against the Oakland Athletics. Gonzalez speculated (correctly) at the time that Lincecum’s Angels debut would come on Saturday at Oakland County Coliseum.
Linceum’s first inning went relatively smoothly, working around a two-out double by Steven Vogt, picking up a strikeout of Danny Valencia to end the inning. Lincecum featured mostly fastballs and splitters, with the fastball sitting in the high 80s and touching 90 occasionally. Lincecum seemed to command both pitches relatively well, working the fastball in the zone and keeping the splitter down consistently.
The second inning also went well for Lincecum, but he continued to rely mostly upon his fastball and splitter. After a fly out to begin the inning, Jed Lowrie singled to left field, but a pair of ground outs kept the A’s from getting anything going. The third inning, however, went far less smoothly. With two outs in the inning and Billy Burns on second base after a single and stolen base, Lincecum walked Vogt and Valencia singled up the middle to bring home the speedy Burns from second. After Khris Davis was hit by a pitch, Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher made a visit to the mound, but Lincecum induced a ground out to end the inning and avoid further damage.
After Mike Trout dismissed A’s spot starter Andrew Triggs from the game with a solo shot to lead off the second and Johnny Giavotella greeted reliever Ryan Dull to the contest with a solo shot of his own, Lincecum took the mound in the fourth with a lead for the first time of the afternoon. He responded well to the run support, setting down the bottom half of the Athletics lineup in order with a ground out, pop out, and fly out.
Lincecum put together another 1-2-3 inning in the fifth, inducing a groundout to open the frame and then a pair of fly outs to retire his sixth and seventh Athletics in a row. After five innings, he sat on 87 pitches: not a great total through five, but enough to make it plausible that he could at least begin the sixth inning considering that he had been cruising over his last two-plus innings of work.
After a leadoff walk to Valencia in the sixth, Lincecum sat at 92 pitches and the stirring in the Angels’ bullpen became more pronounced. Lincecum fell behind the next man 3-1, but a sharp ground ball to Yunel Escobar at third base turned into a 5-4-3 double play. On the first pitch to the next batter, left fielder Shane Robinson made a shoestring catch on a sinking liner to help Lincecum escape the sixth inning quickly despite throwing just three of eleven pitches in the inning for strikes.
After the inning, Lincecum got “the handshake” from his manager Mike Scioscia, indicating that his afternoon was done after six inning and 98 pitches. He allowed one run on four hits, two walks, and two strikeouts, leaving the game in line for the win in his first start as an Angel.
While Lincecum did end up with good results, the outing wasn’t as stellar as the numbers would indicate. First, it was against the Athletics, one of the weakest lineups he’ll face all year; certainly not as tough an assignment as the division-leading Rangers. He also struggled with his command at times, specifically in the third and sixth innings. He featured mainly two pitches, the fastball and splitter, but got more comfortable using his curveball as the game went on. Lastly, he did get some help from the defense, with a couple good plays in the outfield and a well-turned double play in the sixth helping him escape trouble.
Despite those concerns, giving anything close to one run over six innings would be a huge help to the Angels’ rotation every fifth day. Most importantly, getting off to a good start is a huge boost for Lincecum’s success moving forward. While he likely won’t be the boost the Angels need to make a run at the playoffs, he could become a popular player with the fans if he can help the Angels win a few extra games. Additionally, Lincecum hopes to use a good showing in 2016 to prove he still belongs in the majors and earn himself a more lucrative contract this offseason.
While he’ll never again be the pitcher he was in his early years with the Giants, Tim Lincecum showed today that he can still be an effective major league pitcher. With any luck, he will continue to build on a successful first start and put together a good season in order to earn himself some suitors in the upcoming offseason, which features a markedly weak market for starting pitchers.