Sunday, March 13, 2011


Giants Pitching Preview 2011: The Greatest Story Ever Told

 Tim Lincecum 16-10 1.27 WHIP 231 K's 212 IP

The Tim Lincecum-is-Jesus Watch Continues in 2011
One bad month. One unfathomably awful span of five starts in August of 2010. That's all it took to send one rabid fanbase into a hysterical, and possibly homicidal, mess. From the day he set foot on a major league mound, Giants fans everywhere have fretted about how long it would take for Lincecum's lithe frame to cave under the rigors of a full season's workload in the bigs. Pitch count nazis and armchair pitching coaches remained at the ready every time Lincecum took the mound, just waiting for that seemingly inevitable day when Timmy's arm would finally give out. It seemed like it was just a matter of time.

As August 1st dawned last season, it looked like that day might have come. For the month, Lincecum put up an unsightly 7.82 ERA. He gave up more home runs than in any other month, he was a mechanical mess, and his crummy performance had Giants fans everywhere wondering just what in blazes had happened to their ace. With every ensuing bad start, the panic in Giants-land rose to a fever pitch, with frantic KNBR callers sweatily predicting the coming of endtimes and insisting that Lincecum should have been traded for Alex Rios after all.

What was the cause of Lincecum's foray into replacement-level hell? Theories abound. Was it his dicking around with a new windup? Was it bad conditioning? Was he refamilarizing himself a little too much with Dr. Dre's discography? We'll probably never know. Sometimes pitchers just have bad months, and Lincecum's August was sure a stinking doozy. As it turned out, it didn't matter. Not one bit.

When the calendar turned to the ninth month, our long regional nightmare had at long last ended. With his first start in September, Lincecum's Cy Young stuff of old returned, and he ripped off a streak of dominance that didn't end until he tore through the Rangers lineup in the World Series-clinching Game Five. As he inexplicably followed up his worst month as a major leaguer with one of his very best, Lincecum's September ERA was a miniscule 1.94, with 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings. He didn't slow down once the playoffs hit, either, striking out 14 Braves in a complete game shutout in his postseason debut.

Despite the August struggles, Lincecum led the National League in strikeouts for the third straight season and cruised in with a 3.43 ERA, solid for anybody, if not up to Lincecum's usual standards. The whole season was yet another reminder of the immortal words of Ford Prefect. There will always be concerns about Lincecum's workload and his velocity, because heck, pitchers are very unpredictable beings, and we don't want to see one of the best pitchers in Giants history break down because of overwork. Fortunately, Lincecum has made it nicely into his late-20's having avoided the injuries that tend to befall a lot of young pitchers, and his workload has been managed very well, in my opinion.

Refining his nasty offspeed stuff and adding a new slder were apparently the keys to his late-season reawakening. He no longer throws i the upper-90's, as he did when he first came up, but if his changeup is as deadly as it was in the postseason, what does that even matter? Few pitchers can make opposing hitters look foolish like Timmy can, and he's a joy to watch when he's on. Despite his one-month blip last year, there's no reason to expect anything but ace-caliber pitching from Lincecum in 2011.

Now that Timmy is entering his fifth season in the bigs, and with two Cy Youngs and a World Series ring already on his mantle (sheesh), it's fair to ask where he ranks on the all-time list of Giants pitchers. Beside me is a copy of Rob Neyer's essential Big Book of Baseball Lineups (maybe my favorite baseball reference book of all time), and I'm ready to use it. Neyer has Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jim Barr and Jack Sanford listed as the San Francisco Giants' four best pitchers of all time, in that order (the book was published in 2002, so maybe Jason Schmidt deserves a place there now, but we'll go with Neyer's list).

How does Lincecum match up, just based on four seasons? Behind Marichal and Perry obviously, since those two were no doubt Hall of Famers. However, the only argument Barr can make to be ahead of Timmy would be based on longevity as a Giant, not on pure quality. He was good (and was kind enough to let me interview him for a few articles I wrote as the Sac State baseball team beat writer), but he never put up a season as good as Lincecum's last three and he didn't strike anybody out. Sanford has a couple of brilliant seasons, but was more of an innings-eater than an ace (though he was ace-like in the '62 World Series).

So Lincecum can make a clear claim for the title of third-best pitcher in the history of the San Francisco Giants. Not bad for a guy who hasn't even reached his age-27 season, which many analysts regard as a player's peak. Not only is he historically good, but he's so danged likeable. He doesn't scowl and annoy media members like Randy Johnson. He doesn't denigrate franchise legends like Pedro Martinez. He's a goofy guy with a laid back demeanor who isn't above yelling the occasional profanity on national TV. How could you ask for a better guy to be your star pitcher?

Now excuse me while I enjoy another season watching a once-in-a-generation ace on the mound for the Orange and Black.

Predicted Lincecum line: 21-6, 2.89 ERA, 240 K's. Better run support leads to his first 20-win season and more Cy Young love after a year hiatus.

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