The Giants had a terrific July, rising up from fourth place to within a game and a half of the division leading Padres. They accomplished this, despite not enjoying the best contribution from their vaunted "Ace" Tim Lincecum, winner of the previous two Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. This last weekend, the Giants dropped two of three to the boys from San Diego, whose pitching corps--both starting and relieving--rivals that of any other team in the Bigs. Signally, Lincecum had another poor start on Sunday, giving up 8 hits, 3 walks and yielding 6 runs (5 of them earned). Timmy's last 10 starts have resulted in a ho-hum 4.91 ERA, during which span he was only 3-5, giving up 69 hits in 58 2/3's innings, 8 of them home runs. His ratio of strike-outs to batters faced is still respectable, but he's clearly not the same pitcher he was last year, or even at the beginning of this year.
His velocity is down, hovering around 90, instead of above 95. He apparently is having trouble controlling his pitches, so he's experimenting with pitching from the stretch full-time. He throws a lot of pitches in the dirt, which would suggest his release point is off.
All of this couldn't have happened at a worse time. The last two years, when the Giants clearly didn't have the talent to contend in their division, Lincecum's performance was a bright spot on the roster. With a power team, he might have won 24 games, and ended up pitching in the Series. The team's recent success has put them right into the thick of things, and this is the point in any given year, that the ultimate success of any team in the standings will be decided.
But there's a deeper question here, one that has bothered me going all the way back to his rookie year. He's listed at 5'11" weight 170 lbs., but somehow he's always seemed fragile. His arm motion, a rather extreme whipping action, would appear to put great stress on his shoulder, if not his elbow too. His velocity has usually been high, for his size. The contemporary wisdom on handling him has been to give him five days of rest between starts, and take him out by the 5th inning if things aren't looking up. Could it be that after two full years, and one-half of another, he's beginning to get worn out?
I speculated in a previous post that his career might be abbreviated by a lack of strength or stamina. Ron Guidry, a pitcher with about the exact build of Lincecum, had a good career, which didn't start until he was 26 in 1977 (Lincecum is only 26 now, and already has two Cy Youngs under his belt). Guidry got a CY in his 27th year, going 25-3 with 248 strike-outs and a 1.74 ERA--impressive stats for any pitcher in the history of the game. Yet Guidry's career was at an end less than 10 years later, at only 36-37. Don Gullett, another lefty of about the same build, had a very short career, which ended at only 27 after only nine years. Koufax, only a bit bigger in stature, and perhaps, for a brief period, the greatest left-handed hurler, for those wonderful four years at his prime, in history, ended his career at age 30 after three Cy Youngs.
The common thread here is the fragility of the body. Very hard throwing left-handers, especially those of slighter build, with big wind-mill pitching motions, generally don't wear well. I speculated before that Lincecum might only be good for 4-5 seasons, while a more balanced hurler, like Matt Cain, might expect to pitch until he's 40, giving you 230 innings, winning 13-17 games, year in, year out. Which kind of pitcher is worth more to a team, I inquired previously in rhetorical fashion? Obviously, on a winning team, every player is crucial to its success. Championship teams rarely have underperformers at any position. Continuity may be important at being regularly competitive, but it means nothing in any given year, unless everything comes together. That's a definition of mediocrity. Teams which always "contend" but never win pennants or championships (like the Giants) are frustrating for their fans, who would rather see a winner once in a while, than route for losers or also-rans year after year, decade after decade. Since coming to San Francisco in 1958, the Giants have never won it all.
What's most frustrating of all is that the Giants have actually made up important ground this year--in improving their power and team average--and they had what on paper looked like one of the solidest starting staffs in either league, and a great closer in Brian Wilson. After very good starts early, Cain and Zito have declined, though Zito still looks the best he has since coming over from the Athletics in 2007. Sanchez continues to be a puzzle, sometimes pitching like an Ace, at other times sinking into mediocrity in the middle innings, as if he were losing his grip or his concentration (all the tools, but no steering wheel).
At this critical juncture in the season, the starting corps needs to become more dependable. It's unlikely, even with their improved offensive potential (particularly Buster Posey, who may become the next Johnny Bench), it's unrealistic to expect them to score more than 4.5 runs regularly. With a team ERA of about 3.5, there isn't much room for error. If the Panda were to go on a tear, and Huff and Uribe started hitting better in the clutch, it just might work. Potentially, this is a great line-up: Rowand and Sanchez are having sub-par years, but either one might catch fire. Huff and Burrell seem revitalized in their new surroundings. Imagine how good this line-up could be, if it all came together at the same time:
Torres .310 with 100 runs scored
Sanchez .320 with 80 runs scord
Huff .300 with 30 homers
Posey .325 with 20 homers and 115 RBI's
Sandoval .320 with 100 RBI's
Burrell .280 with 20 homers
Rowand .275 with 20 homers
Uribe .280 with 20 homers and 85 RBI's
Ishikawa and Schierholtz coming off the bench.
But this is the stuff of dreams. Before the champagne must come the sweat and concentration.
Our immediate concern is Lincecum, and what seems to be happening to him. Is this just a temporary setback, a little wrinkle on the road to Cooperstown, or the beginning of a rapid decline in an abbreviated career marked by injuries to a dangerously fragile body? There are no public reports of medical issues...yet. But it wouldn't surprise me if Lincecum didn't finish the year out. If that happens, we can kiss a division crown, or a wild-card spot goodbye.
At the least, they've been "competitive" so far this year. But after 53 years, it's beginning to seem like next year will never come.