For Giants fans who've been calling Tim Lincecum "the Franchise" since grainy video of his superhuman abilities at the University of Washington surfaced shortly after San Francisco drafted him in 2006, the young pitcher's early success comes as no surprise.
However for anyone who's only heard rumors of the blazing fastball, hard curve, and stellar minor league ERA, the rookie phenom's quick ascent is sure to be an eye-opener.
As a Giants fan, I've got more than a little irrational exuberance for the savior some folks call "Tim the Enchanter"...but I also have some concerns, especially when I think about another unbelievable first-year pitcher who, if it weren't for the worst trade of the millennium, might have been pitching in the same rotation as Lincecum this season.
Thing is, this particular pitcher isn't pitching anywhere this year, because he's following up a stellar 2006 campaign by rehabilitating from Tommy John surgery in 2007.
I'm talking, of course, about Francisco Liriano.
The young talent who electrified the American League with his dead-on impression of rotation-mate Johan Santana now lives in that limbo known to so many once-great prospects—all of whom flamed out thanks to overthrowing, overuse, and overblown expectations.
Liriano's story isn't the only cautionary tale out there—the sad career arcs of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior also serve to remind fans and managers to be guarded in their expectations of young pitchers.
The harder you throw, it seems, the greater the dangers may be. And make no mistake: Lincecum throws hard.
Hard enough, in fact, to hit triple digits on the gun...with a knee-buckling curve to boot. Just ask future Hall-of-Famer Craig Biggio, who Timmy Franchise made to look wholly amateurish with three easy strikeouts in his most recent start.
But there's another side to throwing hard: The more successful you are doing in so, the harder it is for your manager to take you out of the game.
Lincecum has been clocked at 97 MPH late in the game in each of his last two starts. Surely, that factored into Bruce Bochy's decision to leave his rookie pitcher in for the seventh inning of a May 11th game against Colorado.
Lincecum, who was on a strict pitch count of 100 per game even before he was called up from Triple-A Fresno, sat at 89 pitches at the end of the sixth inning. With the game close and the rookie still throwing heat, Bochy sent him out in the bottom of the seventh.
After throwing fifteen pitches and giving up a single in the first two at-bats of the inning, Lincecum eclipsed his team-mandated limit—and he should have been pulled.
But Bochy, sensing the youngster was still pitching well and hoping to avoid a double switch, let the kid finish the inning.
And it turned out okay. Lincecum gave up another single before striking out Troy Tulowitzki to end the inning, and the Giants came back to win the game and get the rookie his first W.
Total pitches: 112. Long-term damage: too early to tell.
Of course, Timmy came back in his next start to strike out ten in seven dominant innings against Houston, so maybe my worries are exaggerated. But exceeding a 100-pitch limit in just his second major league outing feels like a bad omen for a player with so much riding on his arm.
Much has been made of Lincecum's small body type—particularly by the nine teams drafting ahead of the Giants in 2006, who opted to pass on the accomplished righty.
Lincecum's ability to get so much from so little has earned him the nickname Seabiscuit. He has a highly unique delivery and a seemingly rubber arm—he claims he never gets sore, and doesn't ice between starts. He also does backflips and walks on his hands. In college, he routinely pitched both games of a double-header—for both teams.
Okay, so I made the last one up. But the others, unbelievable as they might seem, are true.
And that's what scares me about Timmy Lincecum.
Giants fans have been so conditioned to believe the unbelievable with Tim the Enchanter that we're unprepared to face up to the stark realities that haunt young pitchers.
It could be said that the same problem applies to San Francisco's coaches and management.
In 16 starts last year, Francisco Liriano exceeded 100 pitches five times. He threw more than 110 once, on July 18. Three starts later, he went on the DL with shoulder pain. His first start upon returning lasted all of two innings and 27 pitches, when elbow pain and subsequent Tommy John surgery shut him down indefinitely.
So here's hoping that Lincecum follows a different path...and goes on to enjoy the 300-win, Hall-of-Fame career we all have him penciled in for. But for God sakes—let's keep his pitch counts under 100 this season from here on out.