Tim Lincecum's star has risen as fast as any major league prospect in recent memory. Acquired by the San Francisco Giants in the first round of the 2006 Amateur Draft, after having been drafted twice before by major league teams (before he was ready to become professional)-- from the start, his potential and promise has signified greatness all the way.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Tim Lincecum - Fragile Phenom ?
His high school, college, and brief minor league careers were all marked by precocious dominance, and that promise was fulfilled when he won the Cy Young in only his second year in the bigs, posting an 18-5 record (which could have been even better, had his team given him more runs in a few games), with 265 strike-outs.
Blessed with a high-90's fastball, and a complete arsenal of three other pitches--a wicked sharp-breaking curve, a deadly slider, and a change-up to die for. Hitters comment that his stuff is the best some of them have ever seen.
What is Lincecum's ultimate destiny?
The Giants have had phenoms before, whose careers blossomed early, only to fade fast. Think of Ron Bryant, John 'the Count' Montefusco, Atlee Hammaker, Scott Garrelts, Kelly Downs, Trevor Wilson, Osvaldo Fernandez, Noah Lowry, but especially Shawn Estes, another fire-balling left-hander, winning 19 games in his first full season (1997) while striking out 181. In the years since, Estes is 79-80, with six losing seasons for various clubs, and this year he's down on the Dodgers' Triple A farm club.
Short, thin left-handers don't wear well in the majors. A Ron Guidry, or a Sandy Koufax may have marvelous years, but their careers are often cut short by injury or exhaustion. Lincecum has a big, flailing delivery which some have compared to Juan Marichal, whose marvelous, high leg-kick wind-up may have helped him generate velocity, but also made it hard for hitters to pick up his delivery, and it was a thing of beauty to watch. Watching Lincecum unwind a torrid fastball, you wonder how long he'll be able to sustain that much momentum on his relatively modest frame. Are left-handers more prone to arm stress and injury than righties? I have no idea, but I presume someone has--baseball is, after all, a numbers game--produced statistics to mark that comparison.
Longevity in the bigs is a combination, usually, of superior physical skill, guile, and adjusting your style as you get older. The old fireballer--like Nolan Ryan, hard-thrower into his forties--is quite the exception. Even with modern "sports"-medicine, and delicate surgical procedures, a fragile arm will usually spell the early end to a promising career.
My guess is that Lincecum will probably have about 3-5 years of impressive dominance, averaging 15-18 wins a season, averaging 230 strikeouts, but that it's unlikely he'll still be vying for Cy Youngs into his thirties. His body is just too small to sustain the beating it's likely to get over that period, piling up 200+ innings per year. The quintessential durable pitcher is someone like Jack Morris, who averaged 212 innings per year over an 18 year career (and probably belongs in the Hall of Fame). Who is more valuable, in the long run, to a contending club--the 3 year phenom who wins 50 games but quickly disappears, or the workhorse who can give you 15 wins a year for 10 years?
Here's hoping Lincecum's durability matches his raw talent, and stays around for a while. We Giant fans could sure use him!