Friday, July 13, 2012

The Lincecum Conundrum

Sometimes you wish you could be wrong. Your intelligence says one thing, while your heart tries to pull away, refusing to acknowledge the obvious. It's painful to witness failure, especially when you suspected, secretly, that failure was a very real possibility.

Watching Tim Lincecum pitch early in his big league career, I always had the distinct feeling of fragility.

When my son Randy was a pitcher in the local little league, I used to have that same feeling. Randy was a juvenile diabetic, who had to be given two injections of insulin a day, and his metabolism was subject to wide mood-swings, sudden crushing fluctuations in energy and focus. He was a fine little pitcher, but it was always a nail-biting affair, watching him in tight situations.

Lincecum has always seemed to be that same kind of player. He seemed too young, almost child-like, and physically small, delicate, vulnerable. It wasn't clear how he could generate so much arm-speed, and seeing him stretch out, flailing his arms around and catapulting the ball, or "whipping" it towards the plate at 98 mph, was breathtaking. It seemed a very improbable phenomenon. Opposing batters frequently shook their heads, leaving the batter's-box after striking out, as if they couldn't believe what had just happened. It defied common sense.

Like all magical things, a small pitcher who lives on speed and challenge, is a kind of contradiction, liable, at any moment, to fall apart. A finely tuned machine, but delicate, and subject to failure at any time.

Back in September of 2011 [Season Wrap-Up--Giants Drop out of Contention] I posited the idea that the real ace of the Giants pitching staff, the man with the biggest future, was not Lincecum, but Madison Bumgarner. In that speculative piece, I said:

"It's been obvious to students of the game that Tim Lincecum's mechanics constitute a recipe for physical problems. The windmill motion, and the stress on his slight frame. Traditionally, smaller pitchers who rely on a fastball to conquer opposing batters, usually have short careers. The most famous example is Sandy Koufax, whose Hall of Fame career ended at age 30. Generally speaking, successful long careers aren't built on flame-throwing. Exceptions, of course, are well-known--Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson--but they're as often as not taller men, with efficient, economical wind-ups. Long careers usually are characterized by great control combined with an easy motion (which puts minimal stress on the arm)--Warren Spahn comes to mind (5243.2 career innings pitched!). Up through age 42, Spahn averaged over 25 complete games a year; Lincecum has only thrown 8 in his whole career. So the tendency is to see Lincecum as a short-career star, whose best years may well be already behind him.

"In terms of wins, there is no question that on almost any other team in the league, Lincecum would have had at least 2, maybe 3 twenty-win seasons by now. His run support has been historically low, and he's routinely opposed by the other squad's ace starter. But there have been disturbing signs. His velocity has decreased steadily. He rarely throws a fastball over 92 mph these days, and hitters are beginning to figure him out in early innings. In 2008 and 2009, Lincecum seemed capable of a no-hitter on any given day, and frequently would go for 5 or more innings before anyone broke through. His strike-out to walk ratio is declining, and despite having added what has been referred to as a "deadly" change-up, he has a great deal more trouble finishing batters off after two strikes. What does the future hold for Timmy?

"Bumgarner, on the other hand, displays the kind of stuff, and mental concentration, normally seen only in veterans. He has an easy sweeping delivery, using all of his 6'5" height (the way Randy Johnson could). He seems not to tire in late innings, and his potential, assuming no unforeseen occurrence, looks to be unlimited. If Lincecum could be washed up at 34, Bumgarner might pitch for 20 more years."

Way back in May 2009, I commented on Lincecum's fragility [Tim Lincecum - Fragile Phenom ?], and wondered about his longevity, given the delicate balance of his physical skills and build:

"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.

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?"

As events have unfolded, my predictions and precautions have, unfortunately, been born out. Lincecum's career, which had displayed a steady decline in performance over the period between his last Cy Young years (2009), and the current year (2012), now appears to all intents and purposes, to be on the verge of a total collapse. Aside from his strike-out total, which seems to be his most reliable method of getting anyone out, his numbers are at rock bottom at the All Star break:

3-10, with a 6.42 ERA, 69 earned runs, 11 home runs, 50 walks, and 10 wild pitches--in just 96.2 innings. In 18 first half starts, the team is 4-14. These are numbers you expect to see of a pitcher whose career is teetering on the edge of oblivion.

And that seems very much to be the mood of the team's management and coaching staff. For a team in close contention, with other hurlers performing at the top of their potential, the only thing standing between Tim and the bench is his past, and the success of his fellow-teammates. How long can a team in the middle of a pennant race keep running out a pitcher who gives up 5-8 runs in a game?

Obviously, I don't have a solution for Lincecum's problems. There are clear causes to his demise, duly noted in the press and by the radio announcers: Slowing fast-ball, loss of control, especially in clutch situations, a tendency to throw fat pitches over the plate at crucial times. When everything was going well, Lincecum, ever the cheerful, gregarious fellow, never said much about how he'd done what he'd done; it was a "gift" which he neither questioned, nor apparently gave much thought to.

There have been pitchers, like Lincecum, who began their careers with lots of power and then, having lost it to injury or age, "adjusted" by developing other kinds of pitches, fine-tuning their control, or moving from starting to relieving roles. I have no doubt that experts around the league have offered their advice, and there's no question that they know better than any fan like me, what the problem is, and what might be done to remedy it.

It might take a complete revamping of his approach to delivery. It might be some kind of strength conditioning, which enabled him to generate more leg push, or more leverage in his pitching shoulder. Pitchers who rely on speed typically have very strong legs.

On the other hand, there may indeed be some kind of injury, which Tim is concealing from everyone, or perhaps he isn't even quite aware of it. It often turns out that a sudden loss of ability is due to a physical condition, which is not revealed until somewhat later, after a player has finally capitulated to necessity and sought medical advice or treatment. In a way, I'm almost hoping that this is the case with Lincecum, since it would be easier, in a way, to deal with, than some kind of mental weakness, or inexplicable physical decline, like an insidious neurological or muscle disease.


Footnote to post, 7/16/12:

On Saturday, July 14th, Lincecum started against the Houston Astros, a team over which he has an historical dominance. Timmy's performance was statistically impressive, striking out 11, allowing no runs and 5 hits, and walking just 1, in 8 innings. His fastball velocity was in the 87-92 range, and several balls were struck briskly by the Astros that ended up as outs. Removed after 8 innings, his team lost the lead in the 9th, though eventually triumphing in bottom of the 12th inning. The contact which hitters have been making against him continued in this start, a trend that continues to be an issue. When hitters make good contact, luck may result in those balls being caught, but if they aren't, disaster may result. In this sense, the outcome was not completely satisfying. Lincecum is a strike-out pitcher, not a junk guy who lives on ground-ball or fly-ball outs. As his career develops, he may find more and more that tricking hitters into making outs is a more reliable strategy than trying to whiff everyone. It's perfectly possible to be a great strike-out pitcher--such as Nolan Ryan was--but to give up a lot of walks, a lot of runs, and to lose a lot of games. Obviously LIncecum doesn't have Ryan's stamina and overpowering speed, but living on the strike-out is a risky approach to success against major league hitters. Great pitchers who don't live on strike-outs, but lull opposing batters into a "comfort zone" of weak outs, or ineffective productivity (winning without piling up strike-outs), can be a career-prolonging recipe. A pitcher who can win 20 games with an ERA of 4.00 and fewer than 160 strike-outs in a season is probably doing more for his team, than a pitcher who wins 14 but strikes out 250. High strike-out ratios rarely can be sustained for more than three or four years in a single career.

Lincecum's last start was a relief, but the problems will persist as long as he continues to rely on strike-outs as his primary weapon. 2012 is cautionary. If he can break even in wins and losses this year, say, going 15-15, that would be great: The Giants could probably easily win the division, given the effectiveness of the other starters so far. But the team needs him to step up. Also, a little luck would be nice. Pitching in PacBell Park certainly helps, with its wide-open spaces in right and right-center field. Unfortunately, half a pitcher's starts are generally on the road.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I always thought Pedro Martinez looked frail on the mound, even when he was blazing away at 95+ and dominating games. While he had a great career, his velocity DID drop substantially as it progressed. It did so much earlier than some other power pitchers. Lincecum could still have some great seasons.