There's a pitcher in trouble in San Francisco, and his name isn't Barry Zito.
No, Zito is pitching great, with a 5-2 record to back his .298 ERA. In fact, everyone in the rotation has delivered, with one exception: Tim Lincecum. Despite two Cy Youngs, a World Series ring and the infinite adoration of his fans, Lincecum has struggled mightily in 2012.
Giants fans know win-loss records must be taken with a hearty dose of salt. After all, if one judged Matt Cain on his career record, the $112.5 million he'll be paid for the next five seasons might seem somewhat excessive. Still, Lincecum's 2-6 record speaks to an ace out-of-sync.
A closer look at The Freak's numbers reveal the troubles are not to be blamed on the Giant's offense. Tim has a ghastly 5.82 ERA. He's allowed 34 walks, and 9.1 hits per nine innings pitched. Something is definitely off, even if prophets of doom predicting the end of Lineceum's career are clearly exaggerating.
Luckily, there is reason to be optimistic. With the 2012 season not even halfway over, Big Time Timmy Jim will have the chance to turn his year around. Here are ten steps for Tim Lincecum to shift from awful to good.
10. Have Confidence in Your Offense
Pitching in San Francisco has often been considered a thankless task. This is due to the Giants' infamously weak offense. But bats are coming alive in the city by the bay.
First there's Melky Cabrera, swinging his way towards a spot on the All-Star squad. Also in play is rising star Gregor Blanco and pleasant surprise Angel Pagan. Couple them with the always potent Buster Posey and the soon-to-return Pablo Sandoval and the line-up is looking more formidable than it has in eons.
The Giants's offense ranks twelfth in the NL with 3.9 runs per game and is also averaging 8.8 hits per nine innings. These numbers are decent, but certainly not a cure-all. However, if Lincecum can go forward pitching like he did against Arizona last Wednesday, there is every reason think the offense will be able to start netting him some much-needed W's.
9. Rely on the Bullpen
The Giant's bullpen has had its fair share of hiccups in 2012. Brian Wilson's season ended before it could begin, Jeremy Affeldt sustained another freak injury and the rest of the arms struggled to find a rhythm.
But as the old cliche goes, baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. Santiago Casilla stepped up and has done an admirable job as a makeshift closer. Affeldt, Lopez and Romo have all shaken off some early season cobwebs and begun racking-up outs. Essentially, the bullpen is ready to preserve the win if Lincecum can deliver it.
In conjunction with No.7, Lincecum's ability to reclaim his form will be just as much about counting on his teammates as the changes he makes in his own game.
8. Avoid Big Innings
Perhaps this is stating the obvious, but big innings have killed Tim Lincecum.
There's a certain ability that ace pitchers posses, which is how they douse the fires of big innings before the flames get to high. Madison Bumgarner is quite adept at this skill, and it's something Lincecum needs to become much stronger at.
Giving up a leadoff double cannot lead to rallies. Pitching outside of context can be dangerous, especially for a pitcher that gets run on a lot like Timmy, but to a certain extent, it's an important asset. Lincecum's mindset with runners on must be to methodically pursue outs, not attempt heroics or deflate on the mound.
7. Don't Overstay Your Welcome
Starters never want to admit they're finished. Sometimes it's easier for armchair managers to tell when a guy is gassed, but on the mound, drive and adrenaline can be pretty efficient blinders.
In more than one start this season, a tired, very vulnerable Lincecum stayed in past his expiration date and let himself get blown out. Now sure, it's Bruce Bochy's job to take pitchers out, and no one expects Tim Lincecum to keep a white flag in his back pocket when the late innings start to wear on him.
Rather, Tim needs to feel comfortable with five and six-inning outings. The road to recovery involves humility, and in one facet, this means being okay with shorter starts. It may be the case that Lincecum's best chance of earning wins in the near future revolves around pitching strong into the fifth or sixth and then relying on his teammates to seal the deal.
6. Trust the Defense
How can Tim Lincecum trust a defense that ranks last in the majors in errors (51)?
He simply doesn't have a choice.
The weakest links in the defense lie in the middle infield, where the patchwork combination of Emmanuel Burriss, Ryan Theriot and Brandon Crawford have struggled to perform. In recent games, Ryan Theriot has started to sharpen his play at second, and even the much maligned Brandon Crawford has shown some signs of life. All told, things are starting to stabilize on the defensive front.
For a pitcher like Lincecum, who relies on the strikeout, even a modest improvement should be cause to trust his pitches and the guys behind him. Inevitably, there will be future disappointments, bungled opportunities and unearned runs attached to Lincecum's name. It doesn't matter. Tim will have to embrace the gloves at his back if he hopes to take down the foes at the plate.
5. Walk Paul Goldschmidt
Some batters get the best of you. Paul Goldschmidt has owned Tim Lincecum, hitting four home runs off him in 13 career at-bats. It isn't Goldschmidt specifically that Lincecum needs to handle with care, but the batters of his ilk.
When you have the hardware to prove you're a pitching stud, you don't kindly to suggestions that you might want to pitch around a certain guy. Well the hardware's sheen has faded, and as Lincecum progress in 2012, he'll need to pitch to limit the damage, not make headlines.
This means walking Goldschmidt, as tantalizing as going for the K might be. It also means giving subpar batters in a clutch situations the respect they deserve. Just because Chris Coghlan is slumping hard doesn't mean he won't belt a 3-run shot off you if you let him. Lincecum needs to accept his diminished status and work for every out.
4. Borrow Zito's Good Luck Charm
When something's working, you stick with it.
That's part of the reason Hector Sanchez has taken the squat for each of Barry Zito's starts this season. It surely doesn't hurt that Sanchez can hit the ball well, and that Buster Posey needs some rest every now and again, but the fact of the matter is that Zito is meshing with Sanchez.
Might it be worth it to let young Hector catch Lincecum?
Tim has stated to reporters that Buster has nothing to do with his ailments on the mound, and I believe him. But there's also nothing to be lost by switching things up and seeing if Sanchez does Lincecum any good. Perhaps the move comes off as a slight to Posey, but baseball is a big boys sport and sometimes you do what's necessary when one of your team's biggest players is scuffling.
3. Hide Your Frustration
It's like clockwork: Lincecum gives up a big hit, he lets his shoulders droop and mopes like Charlie Brown walking past Snoopy's doghouse.
Lincecum admitted as much to Andrew Baggarly. In an interview with Tim, Baggarly noted, "He knows that when his shoulders slump, his opponents feed off that 'like sharks that smell blood.'”
Good to know that he's aware of the problem, because it's got to stop. Nothing feels worse for a fan than watching a batter take it to your ace and then seeing your ace viscerally react like he's been defeated. Plenty of pitchers give up painful hits, but how you take it on the mound and approach the next batter speaks volumes to your emotional control and stamina.
No more pouting.
2. Outs Over Strikes
The consensus among analysts, and Fangraphs aficionados, is that Tim Lincecum's fastball velocity is down. Significantly down. With two mph off his fastball, Lincecum has found himself much more hittable. Furthermore, his lack of faith in the fastball has forced an over-reliance on the rest of his pitches, with compounds his difficulties.
The velocity may be gone, but Lincecum has enough talent and experience to continue his incredible career for many years to come. The essential ingredient to his transformation revolves around pitching to outs instead of going after strikes.
Of course, strikes are important, and Lincecum is capable of fooling his fair share of batters. But whereas earlier in his career certain situations could've been approached as a strikeout opportunity, Lincecum will now need to work on inducing fly balls and grounders. It's a gradual, major adjustment, but by limiting the strikeout stuff to when it's most vital, he's sure to put batters in a tougher spot and by extension get himself deeper into games with lower pitch totals.
1. Don't Buy the (Anti) Hype
Overall, Tim Lincecum has to believe he's still Tim Lincecum.
However he molds his game, works with trainers, and adjusts on the mound, Lincecum has to find the fire inside himself that scared batters rather badly during his first years in the majors. We all know the Lincecum look when he's locked-in, staring so hard through the hitter that it seemed possible he could see through the stadium and out into the street.
We call him The Freak because he is one: a short, lanky kid with little muscle who works voodoo on a baseball.
Lincecum's had tough stretches before, but never such a prolonged period of inefficiency as the one he's enduring now. Maybe he's one gem away from shaking his funk, maybe the whole season will be a jigsaw puzzle of good starts coupled with spurts of regression. The only thing to be certain about is that the Giants organization has no intentions of abandoning Big Time Timmy Jim.
And as long as he has another game to start, we'll all be waiting for Tim Lincecum to return.