Barry Zito

Tim Lincecum afraid Giants fans will turn on him

Tim Lincecum threw his fastball 93 and 94 mph at times last night, and for brief glimpses he looked like his old self in Miami. Then things fell apart in one inning as they have so many times this season, leaving everyone to figure out why. Lincecum provides so many visual cues on the mound that he provides a bouquet of possible choices for people trying to discern what’s wrong with him.

— Walks and breaking balls left in the zone mean poor mechanics.

— 89 mph fastballs are symbols of lost mechanics, a hidden injury or an arm that isn’t what it once was.

— Body language is often a clue that his confidence level is extremely low for a man with his resume.

— Acts of neglect, like failing to hold a runner or back up a base, show a lack of concentration.

— Damp, stringy hair, a darker “SF” on his cap and a wet jersey are signs that Lincecum is either out of shape, tired or running on empty.

Sometimes it’s not what a player looks like or even how he performs, but what he says.

Mechanics, focus, weight, strength … after Andrew Baggarly’s piece about Lincecum went live today, it’s going to be hard to choose any reason for Lincecum’s struggles other than “it’s mental.” Baggarly had a “lengthy, informal and candid conversation with Lincecum today,” and among several other interesting tidbits their chat included this:

He said he honestly cares about what the fans think and he doesn’t want to let them down. He doesn’t want them to reach the point where they expect him to fail or to boo him off the mound. Even after all he’s accomplished in his career, he isn’t taking any fan support for granted. “I don’t want them to start to hate me,” he said.

If one ever needed evidence that professional baseball is a grueling exercise for one’s brain, you’re welcome. (Actually, you should probably thank Baggs.) 18 months ago Lincecum was the king, not just of San Francisco but all of Northern California — an athlete who looked brilliant and bulletproof in the World Series clincher. Now, he’s worried about “Salty Balty in Clovis” turning on him.

Is there any wonder why players go into slumps that make no sense? Why Chris Coghlan, who surprised the world by homering yesterday, is so bad in 2012 after winning NL Rookie of the Year in 2009? Why Brandon Belt doesn’t hit home runs anymore? Why Aubrey Huff bailed on the team in New York? Why so many players turn to performance enhancing drugs?

The grasp any player has on outright dominance is tenuous at best. Just a couple months ago Lincecum was on a magazine cover holding Clayton Kershaw in a headlock.

Lincecum was once the dominant superhero who people looked at and marveled, “He’s too small to be so great, I don’t know how he does it.” Now those doubts about his body, durability and strength are growing loud enough for Lincecum to finally start listening. Yes, he’s guaranteed to make over $60MM in his career even if he never strikes out another hitter, but he put pressure on himself with his decision to leave his options open in 2014.

After watching his teammate, Barry Zito, go from the coolest guy in the room to a pariah once the money came and the velocity vanished, Lincecum sounds like he’s trying like hell to escape the same fate.

Not many athletes feel comfortable letting the public know they read what’s written and hear the heckling. That they get off not just on winning, individual success or money, but adoration. Lincecum let Baggarly know, and since Baggarly wouldn’t run with anything from a conversation that was off the record, Lincecum probably wanted the fans to know. Except the fans here could never hate Lincecum. Vitriol is saved for pitchers who arrive from other teams with giant paydays and are lousy, especially when they act as if they either don’t care or won’t recognize that there’s a problem. The fans (at least those plugged-in enough to stay on top of the team) will undoubtedly shower him with encouragement during Lincecum’s next home start. It probably won’t be enough, because this is more about Lincecum’s command and confidence than what the fans say. His fear of being ostracized is just a manifestation of his other insecurities.

Lincecum is incredibly self-aware and passionate about his career, and he’s extremely worried right about losing everything. Sure, the guy seems like he could be happy ordering delivery and playing FIFA for the rest of his life, but he had a good thing going, being Tim Lincecum. Who can blame him for wanting to hold onto that feeling?

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