Lincecum is no speed Freak
He meant the fastball. Where was the fastball?
Dave Righetti would assure him the mechanics looked good. The hitters didn’t seem to be noticing. He’d tell him to go get strike one, work from there, that the plan does not change.
Then Righetti would look into the eyes of The Freak and say, “You’re human. There’s no guarantee.”
Often enough, Lincecum would take his good fastball – not the 99 mph heater with the big rep, but the 92 mph two-seamer with the predictable tail – and work it off the changeup, and throw a scoreless inning, and win a ballgame, and start thinking about the next one.
“Everybody thinks 99 because that was his first pitch in the big leagues,” Righetti said.
Lincecum is coming up on three years since he announced his San Francisco Giants debut with three 100 mph fastballs in that first inning at AT&T Park. He was not a year off the University of Washington campus, and was a great curiosity. He came with startling velocity from his wispy frame, reasonable command from his extreme mechanics, and a fun, grungy-go-lucky vibe that was more X Games than ballgames.
Now 25, he’s the same guy, pretty much. Same mechanics. Same fearlessness. Same helpless hitters. Maybe, because of the offseason marijuana bust, he’s cranked up the grunge factor some. So, same Timmy.
But, then, a couple Cy Young awards, a guarantee of millions in the bank, and a different fastball.
His second season (Cy I), according to Righetti’s charts, Lincecum pitched consistently at 93 mph. His third season (Cy II), at 91 or 92. Occasionally, in a home game with some buzz, Righetti said, Lincecum would add a couple ticks on the fastball in the early innings, then come back to level.
The guns don’t lie. Lincecum’s top-end velocity has fallen. And maybe that’s why he took the Giants’ two-year, $23 million offer rather than go to an arbitration hearing and have three suits choose his $13 million or the Giants’ $8 million for 2010. But that’s behind them now. Righetti wants only the best out of his ace.
“We’re not stupid,” he said. “I’m definitely going to keep an eye on it.”
The numbers – and the hitters – don’t lie, either. The man is the best pitcher in the National League and has been for two years running, no matter how his fastball was running.
But these are the things scouts and coaches and fans and, yeah, even Lincecum, ruminate over. Though his body is thicker than you might think it is, it’s still a good 40 pounds and five inches short of power-pitcher stature. Like Pedro Martinez(notes) once, Lincecum could pitch for another decade and still fail to convince people he’s not a hard inning from coming apart. Additionally, after fewer than three major league seasons he’s already thrown nearly 600 innings and is going on 10,000 pitches.
In ’09, however, despite leading the league in strikeouts for a second consecutive season, he trimmed about a pitch per inning from ’08, from 16.2 to 15.3.
“We’ll find out,” Righetti said. “You know what I’d really like? I mean, I’d like to see him do great. He’s special. But, more, I want him to get his 15 years in, win a couple titles. I guarantee you he’ll be successful if he’s throwing 90.”
At 6 a.m. on a spring morning, more than a dozen fans milled around behind a green fence at the Giants’ little ballpark, like they used to when Barry Bonds(notes) was here. It’s misty and unpleasantly chilly, but they don’t know when Timmy will come by and they don’t want to miss him.
Hours later, in the Giants’ clubhouse, the chair in front of Lincecum’s locker cannot hold him.
He’s on it, then off it. He’s sitting on the seat, then the backrest, then on the seat again, sideways.
His feet are on the floor, then tucked under him, then he’s going Indian style, then he’s alternating, one knee up, then the other, then back to the first.
And just when there can’t possibly be another way to work this folding chair in the absence of a whip and a sedated lion, he leans it backward, the front legs come off the ground, and he starts all over again, this time at a 20-degree angle.
He’s smiling and friendly, clearly happy to be back after an offseason in which he made good news (Cy II), bad news (pot possession) and economic news (the contract), and handled it all with his usual earnest cool. Righetti calls him an old soul, and he is, if you can picture an old anything inside what looks like a 15-year-old.
He admits he’s still molding his life to his career, the latter at times having run well ahead, causing some recalibration.
“Obviously,” he said, “I learned the hard way in the offseason. But it’s been quick getting here. My whole track was fast.”
It’s not a complaint.
“I count my blessings all the time,” he said. “I make sure to keep track of what I have. This is great. This is where I want to be.”
At his foundation, Lincecum said, “I’m just another guy,” and it is clear he tries to conduct himself and dress himself and groom himself as such. Regular guys generally don’t throw a baseball 99 mph, though, and maybe that’s Lincecum’s point. Neither, anymore, or for the moment, does he.
“I’m aware my velocity wasn’t where it was,” he said. “I don’t feel like it’s anything to be scared about. I’ll just learn how to pitch better.”
Whether he’s pitching at 91, 94 or 98, he said, “I’m not sure it’s a choice. You go out there with what you have. I’m still going out there with the same kind of confidence.”
He learned a changeup two years ago, in about two bullpen sessions, and before long it was his best pitch. He does not duck his weaknesses. He commands the fastball he has, no matter its velocity. In 89 starts (and one relief appearance) over about 2 2/3 seasons, he is – “Surprisingly and luckily,” he said – 40-17 with an ERA of 2.90.
He wins, it sometimes seems, because he wants to so desperately, and because he understands precisely how – he gets hitters out, the same ones, over and over. And next time he’s wondering about that fastball, about where it is, he should consider that it’s probably right where he left it: in the heads of National League hitters.