Bruce Bochy

Quietly, Tim Lincecum is better than ever

Sports Illustrated recently called Zack Greinke the best pitcher in the game. Johan Santana’s dominance is again paying dividends. Teammate Matt Cain has a better record and a lower ERA.

It seems insane to say the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner is flying under the radar, but that’s the case two months into the 2009 season for Tim Lincecum. Even though he’s on a videogame cover, has some of the most ridiculous hair of any pitcher this side of Bronson Arroyo, and can already be called the best pitcher in San Francisco Giants history not named Juan Marichal (who never won a Cy Young himself), it’s almost as if Lincecum is old news.

The Giants are 1 game under .500, but anyone disappointed about how this season has gone is living in a world where Eddie Debartolo still runs the Niners. The hitting was destined to be awful, but the only true disaster would be if Lincecum became a normal 25-year-old starting pitcher or, even worse, showed signs of stress due to the reckless We-Gotta-Get-Lincecum-A-Complete-Game kick Larry Baer and Co. went on last September.

(That’s right, I’m not blaming Bruce Bochy for Lincecum suddenly going from a fixed pitch count to throwing 264 pitches over 2 consecutive games, I’m blaming the Giants brass. The front office desperately wanted Lincecum to win the Cy Young, so they could build their 2009 marketing campaign around Lincecum 5-packs, bobbleheads, “Let’s Play” commercials and countless other Lincecum-related promotions, and the fact of the matter was that Lincecum’s lack of a shutout or even a complete game was holding him back from becoming the Cy Young favorite. Not that any of the Lincecum-related promotions are unwelcome, but the Giants are lucky that their abrupt change in pitch-count philosophy hasn’t led to any injury issues to this point…knock-on-wood.)

Even after an awful start on Opening Day (relatively speaking), it’s arguable that Lincecum’s been even better this April and May than his first two months last year.

April/May 2009 (10 starts, 65.1 IP): 4-1, 3.03 ERA, 84 K, 19 BB, 59 H, 1.19 WHIP

April/May 2008 (10 starts/11 games, 69.2 IP): 7-1, 2.33 ERA, 76 K, 28 BB, 61 H, 1.28 WHIP

The win/loss record and ERA aren’t as good as they were last year at this time, but Lincecum has more strikeouts, has surrendered fewer walks and baserunners and has gone further into games in the first two months of this season than in the first two months of 2008 (Lincecum’s gone 8 innings three times so far this year, whereas he didn’t reach 8 innings for the third time last year until August 6).

Lincecum started the year even lighter than he ended last season, after a prolonged illness during Spring Training caused him to lose weight and strength. (Here’s some proof of that, in the form of a FanGraphs velocity chart posted on McCovey Chronicles. A couple interesting things here: Lincecum’s average velocity has gone up in his last two starts, but he hasn’t humped up and thrown 97-99 mph all year after doing it several times in 2007 and 2008. Is he getting tired, or is he getting smarter? I’m going with the latter, although I wouldn’t be surprised if he reaches back at some point this season and hits 98 on the gun somewhere.)

It stands to reason that Lincecum’s springtime illness was why he started 2009 with two straight subpar starts, but since then his ERA has been 2.36 and his pitches per inning have gone from 21.2 in those first two outings to 15.7 pitches per inning in his last eight starts.

It’s numbers like those that show what any close observer of Lincecum can notice just by watching him. Now that his strength is back to where it was last year, he’s a better pitcher than ever before. He isn’t letting fluke hits bother him or getting into as many prolonged battles with hitters as before. Somehow, Lincecum has been able to strike out even more batters than ever while expending less effort. He’s even a better hitter, a guy who won’t hit as many homers as Cain but can pull off a mean butcher-boy and bunt as well as any pitcher in the league.

Everyone laughed when that guy asked Tim Lincecum about his hair and the Beatles at that MLB 2K9 event in Novato I got to attend a few months ago, but that ridiculous Q&A session brings up an analogy, one that explains why Lincecum isn’t getting as much play nationally as he did last year.

Last season Lincecum was like one of the Beatles (for our purposes here, let’s pick John Lennon) when the mop-tops first got huge — young, clean-cut and a favorite of young girls everywhere. As Lennon grew up he also grew his hair out (like Lincecum, although I’m pretty sure Timmy can’t grow a beard), and while he lost his teeny-bopper appeal to a certain extent, Lennon and the Beatles grew musically and artistically. They went from being one of the top pop acts of all time to one of the best bands ever.

We all hope Lincecum doesn’t experiment too much with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or any other such substances that Lennon and the Beatles got into during the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” era. But there’s no denying he’s morphed from a brash youngster whose gameplan consisted of trying to overpower everyone with high heat and changeups out of the zone to a more polished pitcher whose career arc is starting to look a lot like Greg Maddux’s (only with more strikeouts).

Lincecum picked up a changeup far too easily last season, so it stands to reason that as his command keeps improving he might start experimenting with a new pitch or two as well (hopefully it’s a screwball…the Majors needs more guys who can throw a good screwball). We don’t know if that will occur, but what we do know is that right now Lincecum and Cain have been the best starting pitcher duo of any team in baseball this season.

With Lincecum improving by the game, as evidenced by his surgical dismantling of the ultra-aggressive Atlanta Braves last night, Lincecum should catch up to Cain in terms of wins and ERA soon enough. Don’t be surprised if he keeps right on going and catches up to Santana and Greinke as well. Lincecum may or may not win a second straight Cy Young, but by year’s end he surely won’t be flying under the radar.

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