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How Tim Lincecum reinvented himself to stay ahead of the game

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports
MLB: San Francisco Giants-Photo Day
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Tim Lincecum finished the 2013 season 10-14 with a 4.37 ERA. (USA Today)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Slowly, the tuft of hair on Tim Lincecum's top lip is beginning to resemble a proper mustache. A couple wisps jut to the left and a few more to the right, like a GPS sent them the wrong way. This is understandable. Never has Lincecum allowed his facial hair to progress much past stubble, because never, he figured, was it capable of doing so.

"I'm gonna stick with it," he says. "It's never a plan. It's not like a girl planning a study-abroad trip. I'm just gonna see where it takes me. I could see myself in one of those old vans with a ladder on the back and a bubble window."

He chuckles, aware that the line between dreadful porn 'stache and legitimate, honest moustache – the O gives it legitimacy and honesty, you know – is indeed fine. Time and grooming have pushed it into the acceptable territory, like an old-timey '70s rocker look, which Lincecum pulls off with style because he's Tim Lincecum and ever since he arrived in the major leagues seven years ago, he radiated panache. It didn't just define him; it carried him to two Cy Young awards, two World Series titles and, for a time, the title of the world's greatest pitcher.

No longer is Lincecum that pitcher. His fastball lost the zip that once propelled it at 97 mph, and it took with it the ability to blow away hitters with pure force. It is the natural evolution of a pitcher, Father Time exacting his pound of flesh. And it forces a binary choice, grow or fail, that weeds out the stubborn and rewards the humble.

For two years, Lincecum resisted what deep down he understood: He needed to evolve. This offseason, coming off his second consecutive substandard year, Lincecum started that transformation. The mustache is merely a physical representation of something much bigger, much deeper.

If he no longer could be the pitcher he once was, he no longer could be the person he once was, either.

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The reconstruction of Tim Lincecum began in an empty warehouse off the 405 in Kirkland, Wash. It was him and tall ceilings and support beams and a strip of green turf and a portable carbon-fiber mound and a net and a bag of major league baseballs bought at an athletic-supply store in Redmond. And it was the silence in which he could remind himself of who he wanted to be instead of who he used to be.

Five days a week, Lincecum would drive the 20 minutes from his home near the University of Washington and throw the balls into the net. Sometimes friends would accompany him. Sometimes he went at it alone. In past years, he worked out at Dempsey Indoor Center on the UW campus, inviting stares, the sort of which he preferred to avoid, especially in such an imperative offseason.

"I just tried to eliminate other factors," Lincecum says. "I wanted to escape."

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Tim Lincecum pitches to the Royals during a spring training game on Friday. (AP)

Leaving behind his past took nerve. Pitching is a lonely pursuit. Even though eight players surround him, the pitcher lives inside a bubble atop the 10-inch mound. He sees each plate appearance as him against a hitter, a one-on-one game set up for him to master. He regulates the tempo, dictates the pace, controls the action. When a pitcher can throw like Lincecum, with a sizzling fastball and disappearing changeup and wipeout slider, the advantage grows exponentially. All of the things those without such gifts ask themselves – Did I prepare enough? Did I put myself in the best position to win? Did I execute with the necessary precision? – are immaterial.

"That was never a question back in the day because I never had to answer it," Lincecum says. "I could answer it with athleticism. Now, I'm not trying to get the 10 punchies. I want to get my outs and get through the game, and that's just as gratifying to me as the days I would dominate. It's a different kind of domination to me.

"Don't get me wrong. There's times when I still feel I pitch with a primitive kind of mindset: I'm still a man. I can get balls by guys. But then they hit one off the fence, and you're like, 'Maybe I should just go back to my game plan.' I used to be able to get away with that."

After posting a 5.18 ERA in 2012, nearly double his previous season's, Lincecum explained away his troubles as anomalous. It was understandable. More than anybody in the major leagues, he was self-made, a product of hard work and ingenuity. He crafted a delivery to compensate for a 5-foot-11, 170-pound frame that had no business generating the sort of velocity he managed.

So much of Lincecum's success sprouted from the non-believers. It wasn't that he wanted to prove them wrong as much as he did himself right. He was a high school sensation in Seattle. He set records at UW. He zoomed through the minor leagues. He knew only success. And wrapped around his 148-pitch no-hitter on the eve of the 2013 All-Star break was more inconsistency, more doubt, the sort of which crept into his mind like a virus. The unfamiliarity of such feelings vexed Lincecum. He could quantify the physical changes by what radar guns told him. Doubt was a far more powerful beast, one that the rigors of a season did not allow him to confront.

"I'm always hesitant to do things because it's been my way for a long time," Lincecum says. "I needed something to validate everything I was changing. That's hard to do sometimes in a season."

It mattered not that his peripheral numbers weren't altogether different from his best seasons. He was still striking out nearly a batter an inning. His walk rate dipped to his career-average level last season. Lincecum could have validated himself with those numbers alone. He understood the folly in that. He was different. Radar readings told him so. His arm agreed.

And so he harkened back to conversations with Chad Gaudin, the veteran who pitched for the Giants last season. Gaudin likened pitching to a rigged test. Pitchers step onto the mound with all the answers. The question is whether they write them down properly. As long as Lincecum carried himself like the guy throwing 97, he was frittering away his leg up.

Before he fixed himself, Lincecum needed stability. He was a free agent, and some officials believed he could thrive in a different city or a different role. Lincecum never wanted that. He started 220 games for the Giants in a city that loves baseball like few others, and he refused to leave following two sour seasons. Peace came in the form of a two-year, $35 million deal.

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Tim Lincecum looks on in the dugout during a spring training game. (USA Today)

"I wanted to know I was wanted," Lincecum says. "They did a great job of showing me that. All I had to do was reciprocate that back. That was a big part of my devotion to this offseason."

So he spent those days in Kirkland honing mind as much as body. Lincecum realizes he must throw more strikes. He's never going to be Greg Maddux, a corner-painting artiste. He can be a different version of himself, though, Tim Lincecum 2.0, The Freak reborn as the pitcher.

"The mindset is something I come to a lot," he says. "I've spun out of control so many times in the last couple years. It's more been a mental thing than a physical thing. I tried to get to a place where I'm happy again. It's not just beating myself up over the critical things in the game. It's accepting the process by which things happen, the way things go.

"I used to always want the immediate result, the immediate get-back. And I'm like, 'Oops. That didn't work. [Expletive] that.' Now, I've bought in. I take the good with the bad."

* * * * * * *

Tim Lincecum turns 30 in June. There's a tendency to assign changes to round numbers, though it's not something Lincecum wants. That he happens to have grown into who he must be on the cusp of a symbolic birthday – the age at which a player leaves behind his prime years and grows into his wizened self – is a happy, if not surprising, coincidence.

To reach the heights few others have took an immense amout of belief, and breaking himself of that is the hardest thing he's ever done. Even if his arm abandoned him, every pitcher faces great difficulty abandoning the idea of his arm, of what once existed. It's a relationship that the strongest-willed people have trouble admitting grows dysfunctional.

"Everyone wants to believe they're invincible up to some point," Lincecum says. "I did. It's not like physically invincible. I've always had something there to motivate me from the standpoint of being too small or them saying I couldn't do it. Now, it's like I've proven that I can. So it's hard."

What motivates him now is proving he can – again. And because the physical gifts no longer exist in such obvious fashion, it puts the onus on Lincecum's mental acuity. If his fastball sits at 89 or 91 or wherever, he will choose growth over failure, because he must. The alternative haunts him. He lived it the last two years, and it taught him important lessons.

"Be open. Be vulnerable. Be OK to talk about it," Lincecum says. "That's how it starts. Just think about it. People in AA: the first step is admitting your stuff. That's the hardest thing to do. Someone calling you out is not necessarily going to make you own your [expletive]. Intervention scares people away."

It's why, when asked who helped him get to this point, Lincecum answers: "Me." His father, the architect of his delivery, couldn't fix what his arm wouldn't let him fix. His manager and coaches and teammates couldn't expect a pearl of wisdom to repair the irreparable.

The old Tim Lincecum had to go, and the new one is growing before our very eyes, filling in, legitimate and honest as it can.

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