Barry Zito

Tim Lincecum’s mission: become Greg Maddux

I’m hardly the first person to compare the Giants’ starting rotation to the 1990’s Braves. But at this point, it’s too obvious to ignore.

Forgive me, because I’m going to perform the sports equivalent of going into “Sex And The City” mode (can you believe that corporate fashion infomercial they’re calling a sequel is 146 minutes long???). Barry Zito, whose Giants tenure came full circle tonight as he finally slayed Billy Beane and his band of nondescript players (besides Dallas Braden, of course), is totally the Tom Glavine. Matt Cain is sooooo John Smoltz. Jonathan Sanchez is so Steve Avery it’s actually a little worrisome — a lefty who at times looks like the best of the bunch, but will never reach his… (OK, not going to finish that sentence, because Sanchez’s no-hitter proves he’s better than Avery was.)

Tim Lincecum is the Greg Maddux of the crew, and he’s taking it literally. People used to talk about this so much that it became cliche, but since it’s been a while since Maddux has pitched I guess I’m not piling on: Maddux (who, while decidedly doughier as his career went on, stands about as tall as Lincecum) started his career with nuclear stuff, and once the fastball started going, he had to figure out how to pitch. He went from a 2.78 BB/9 in his six years with the Cubs to less than half that (1.36) in 13 seasons with the Braves, proving that great control is a skill that can be learned. You don’t necessarily have to be born with it.

Of course, for most pitchers that’s complete fallacy. You can either paint the corners or you can’t. Sure, pitchers usually get slightly better in terms of command as they get older, but that’s only because the ones who don’t usually don’t stay employed that long. To become twice as good at throwing baseballs exactly where you want them to go is a feat that can only be accomplished by someone with unreal skills and coordination.

We all know Lincecum’s nuclear stuff has faded. Sure, he can commit to a long-toss program and join Brian Wilson and Barry Zito in their games of catch across some canyon in SoCal (brah), but at the most Lincecum will average a 93 mph fastball throughout the remaining years of his career. The days of 97 mph heaters from a guy who looks like he could be a guitarist for The Strokes are over.

But Lincecum isn’t just Maddux because he’s the alpha dog in the Giants’ rotation. Like Maddux, Lincecum is an incredible all-around athlete. He has to be. To be a great starting pitcher, you usually need to be a large human being with incredibly strong legs and arm tendons/ligaments. If you’re a regular-sized human, to win Cy Youngs you need to be a jack of all trades who can adjust to whatever his body blesses him with that outing.

Good or great smallish pitchers are almost always above-average at all phases of the game, meaning they don’t embarrass themselves at the plate and they field their position well. Guys like Billy Swift, Maddux, Roy Oswalt, Pedro Martinez (who probably would have become a halfway decent hitter had he stayed in the National League) and Lincecum all fit the bill here, and I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch of other (short) guys like this. Sure, Lincecum might not even know yet that he’s supposed to look at runners to hold them on, but that’s because he’s still in with-my-stuff-I-can-strike-everybody-out mode. Don’t be surprised if he ends up with one of the best pickoff moves in baseball within the next two years.

Lincecum could have been a soccer star, a gymnast, a golfer, a tennis or hockey player or even a point guard if he wanted to. Which is why there should be little doubt that like Maddux (who won 43 Gold Gloves and was reportedly a scratch golfer during his playing days), he can remake himself as a control artist.

Lincecum’s been deathly afraid of leaving the ranks of MLB flamethrowers, and it surely killed him when Ubaldo Jimenez out-dueled him a couple weeks ago with the kind of electric stuff that made Lincecum look like John Burkett. But despite the “Dazed and Confused” look and persona, Lincecum has shown to be incredibly smart and cunning his entire career, and will surely realize that if he wants to win another Cy Young in his career, he can’t just have the best changeup in baseball — he also needs to have the best control of any starter in the National League. Like Maddux.

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