Giants babying Lincecum? Good plan

One of the biggest manufactured stories in the Bay Area has been the concern over pitch counts in games started by “I swear it was the flu” Lincecum.

In a transparent attempt to move up a certain blogger’s KNBR show rankings list, Ralph Barbieri made the removal of Lincecum from a game after 111 pitches and 13 strikeouts against the Diamondbacks, a game the Giants ended up losing 5-3 after Lincecum was in line to get the win.

“Lincecum isn’t made of porcelain,” screamed Barbieri from behind the Giants dugout.

Fast forward to two days ago, and Lincecum had the exact same start: 7 innings, 114 pitches, 11 strikeouts and a no-decision (at least this time the Giants won 3-2 in the tenth).

After thinking about the tendency of Major League teams to baby starting pitchers (especially the younger, better ones), it’s easy to argue with the Giants replacing their best pitcher in the eighth inning before any signs of trouble, when it’s inevitable that whoever replaces Lincecum will be certainly possess less talent and charisma.

Old timers point to a 25-year-old Juan Marichal throwing 16 scoreless innings to defeat a 42-year-old Warren Spahn (who gave up a homer to Willie Mays with one out in the bottom of the 16th), or countless other pitchers who went far beyond today’s unwritten threshold for starters (which stands at 115-125 pitches in a single game).

Back when 40 starts was expected from any pitcher who didn’t go to war mid-season, throwing 300 innings in a year or 150 pitches in a game were as commonplace in baseball as greenies, racism or a cheek stuffed with an ungodly amount of Red Man chewing tobacco. But that didn’t mean the moundsmen of yesteryear benefited from all those complete games and marathon pitching performances.

Juan Marichal’s last winning season was at age 33. Bob Gibson never had more than 35 starts after age 29, in an era long before five-man rotations became the standard. Many pitchers had career-ending injuries in their twenties but never accomplished enough while healthy to be remembered. But the best example of what a devil-may-care attitude towards pitching endurance can cause may be the best pitcher of the 1960’s, Sandy Koufax.

Koufax pitched over 300 innings in 1963, 1965 and 1966, highlighting a four-year stretch where he went 97-27 with 89 complete games and 31 shutouts over 1,192 innings. After reading the outstanding “Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy” by Jane Leavy, one gets an look at the ugly side of ignoring pitch counts every four days. Koufax’s elbow would routinely swell up to the size of a softball after pitching. His game-day regimen became cortisone before starts, codeine and anti-inflammatories to keep his mind off the pain while pitching, and soaking his elbow in ice water afterwards. All this lead Koufax to retire “on top” at age 30. In actuality, he feared losing the use of his left arm.

Giants Recent “Plans,” in their own words
The worst crime the San Francisco Giants have committed over the past three years has been acting like an undeclared sophomore in college: rolling without a discernible plan, or plans that have been far too easy to change:

(2006) OK, Barry Bonds is still good, let’s find some guys we can stick around him who don’t cost as much as he does. Even better, we could just trade Edgardo Alfonso for Steve Finley (the infamous “Stevegardo Alfonley” trade, which was like an NBA trade in that both players were incredibly overpaid and making the same amount of money), and hope the first outfield with an average age over 40 is the answer.

(2007) Or, maybe we won’t sign Bonds this year? Er, we better sign Bonds because we didn’t/couldn’t sign anybody else … How about Barry Zito to show the fans we care? Great idea, but who’s gonna hit? Duh, Bengie Molina, Dave Roberts and Ryan Klesko!

(2008) We can’t sign Barry again this year can we? Can we? Look at us, we’re finally going young! Except on nights when Ray Durham, Rich Aurilia, Randy Winn and/or Dave Roberts need to play. Or when we want to see how horrible Jose Castillo is as a second baseman. Let’s play Eugenio Velez at second base! Let’s send that jerk Velez down to Fresno! Is Mark Sweeney still playing?

But with Lincecum, they actually seem to have a plan. When he seemed tired at the end of last season, they shut him down. When he even sniffs 120 pitches in an outing, Bruce Bochy takes the ball away from him and hands it to one of the Giants mediocre setup men.

Lincecum isn’t already a huge star solely due to statistics. It’s part of his legend; people love hearing about a guy who doesn’t ice or warm up. For a group of Giants fans spoiled — not by winning but historic individual performances — watching Lincecum test the boundaries of pitching achievement and modern medicine would almost be enough to forget the pain of a season marred by a powerless offense and an organization that can’t decide day-to-day whether to play their young players (for the record, Roberts, Aurilia and Omar Vizquel all started in today’s 4-1 loss to the Padres).

The Giants have had a tough time making smart decisions lately, but at least they’re sticking with the plan on Lincecum. Would going the distance and throwing 142 pitches to win 2-1 against the Padres have made this season any better? For those who see each year as a group of moments intertwined, perhaps, but how much importance does a singular moment in a 95-loss campaign possess if your best player needs rotator cuff surgery in a year or two?

I’ll be the first to admit that pitch counts aren’t any fun. Whenever Dave Flemming or Jon Miller mentions a 30-pitch first or second inning with the tone a traffic reporter takes when alerting commuters to a dog in the road that could cause a 20-minute delay to their evening commute, it lends a sense of mortality to the starting pitcher (for one night, anyway). After that it’s like, “Well, there’s no way he can get a complete game now. Even eight innings would be tough. How’s he going to get out of this inning? C’mon, triple play!”

One could get upset at Flemming or Miller, but that would just be shooting the messenger. A lot of money has gone into studying the injuries of pitchers — at the same time the most unpredictable yet inevitable calamities in sports. Those studies have shown that pitching overhand hurts human elbows and shoulders, and pitching more hurts those body parts faster than pitching less does (usually).

Sure, Nolan Ryan pitched forever and was fine (although it speaks volumes that his biggest sponsor was Advil). And it does seem like the Major Leagues have become more like Little League, where kids can often only pitch twice a week for no longer than six innings. However, the Giants aren’t good enough to ask players to sacrifice their own health to win in 2008, let alone their first transcendent talent after the forced exit of Mr. Bonds. If the Giants (who didn’t exactly come out of the steroid era smelling like roses) stick to their principles on one thing, shouldn’t it be protecting Lincecum?

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