The euphoria of a dominant Giants performance in the All-Star game has settled, and it's time to get back to baseball. Perhaps no one in San Francisco is more eager for a return to normality than one Timothy Leroy Lincecum, former ace and current question mark.
Before his start on Saturday, Tim Lincecum was suffering through a dreadful 2012. By now we've memorized the numbers churned out whenever The Freak is mentioned: 6.42 ERA (good for highest in the majors) with a 3-10 record behind it.
We've heard he's not hurt, that it's a mechanical thing or a mental thing with mechanical repercussions; the analyses have been more far-flung than a crooked mechanic's initial diagnosis.
Then came July 14.
Lincecum was sharp, pitching eight innings of five-hit ball with 11 strikeouts peppered throughout. Lincecum didn't win the game, thanks to a Not-top-10 type moment from young catcher Hector Sanchez, but he won something far more important: his next start.
Now with the clock ticking until Lincecum suits up for a showdown with the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, the time has come to evaluate what exactly is necessary to ensure Big Time Timmy Jim is back for the latter half of 2012.
Tim Lincecum needs to forget the first half of the season in a hurry. There's wisdom in pitching with a chip on your shoulder—it seems to do wonders for rotation mate Ryan Vogelsong—but at the same time Lincecum must have a mindset that the season started on July 14.
Get weighed down with a "here we go again" mentality could be fatal. If Tim doesn't believe his troubles are behind him, then they probably aren't. By ignoring (to a large extent) the extensive troubles he endured in April, May and June, Lincecum can focus solely on the slate of games ahead of him, each one vitally important to the Giants' postseason hopes.
This doesn't mean Lincecum shouldn't watch some tape, talk with pitching coach Dave Righetti and otherwise embrace his failings. He definitely needs to make peace with the season he's had so far.
Still, winning the next game is far more important than sulking about the last, and so Lincecum will be well-served to forget what's happened to him so far in 2012 and focus instead on what he'll do with the rest of the season.
In analyzing Lincecum's performance against the Astros, the early fastball command clearly played a huge role. The Freak acknowledged as much while talking to reporters (h/t Sacramento Bee) after the game.
"I think the big thing was just being aggressive," he said. "Just trying to command the zone from the beginning with my fastball, and working off that as the game went on."
Lincecum has been hurt a lot by forgoing an inconsistent fastball for weak secondary pitches. Without the threat of the fastball, batters have taken to sitting on changeups, with noticeably negative results.
Lincecum is a strikeout pitcher, which places immense value on his fastball being in command and sharp at the start of games. Once the fastball is going, Lincecum has the freedom to open up his arsenal.
Against the Astros, perhaps the weakest-hitting team in the MLB, fastball command was easier to establish. When Lincecum faces Vance Worley and the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday, he'll need to do the same against a menacing lineup of mashers.
If he can get his fastball across in the early innings, he'll stand a much better chance of taking down a potent Philly team.
The San Francisco Giants are currently sitting at 71 errors on the season, good for worst in the National League. This number bodes ill for a pitcher in need of all the help he can get.
And yet, when the errors happen, and they will, Lincecum will need to brush them aside.
When nothing you do seems to work, it can quickly seem like everything is going against you. So it goes in the majors, where luck can follow a player to the highest highs and lowest lows. Lincecum's only concern can be pitching as well as possible.
If the Giants amass four errors behind him in the course of a start, it doesn't matter. As long as Lincecum is giving everything he can (and not committing any errors himself), he must relinquish taking personally what is entirely outside of his control.
In the same camp as the previous slide, Lincecum will also have to forgo caring about his record.
2012 will not be a 20-win season for The Freak, and whatever the final numbers are, they won't be great. Now, Lincecum should want the win, and want it badly. But, if doesn't go to him, as was the case last Saturday, he has to be able to put into perspective its irrelevancy to his pitching performance.
When Hector Sanchez cost Lincecum the chance for his fourth win of the season, it was a bit of a heartbreaker. Here Lincecum had come out strong, dominated a weak team and put his team in position for a W. But shaky pitching from closer Santiago Casilla and an ugly throw from Sanchez took a win for Lincecum out of the equation.
"That's a tough play to make," Lincecum told the Sacramento Bee. "You feel like the guy's faster than he is. … You've got to give credit to (Sanchez) for bouncing on it and still making the throw, but you can't really control what's going to happen after that."
Let's hope this is actually his mindset, and not just what he felt like he had to say.
The San Francisco Giants bullpen has been far from perfect, but it doesn't matter. They've picked up Tim Lincecum before, and he'll have to trust they can do it again. I write this as Santiago Casilla has just blown what feels like his millionth save in a row (it's actually five), but there's simply no alternative.
With Tim Lincecum known for his poor performances in the triple-digit weather, there will be more games this season in which five strong innings will be all Bruce Bochy gives him. With that in mind, he'll have to separate his own performance from what happens in the later innings.
Sensing a theme?
Much of what Tim Lincecum needs to succeed for the remainder of this year rests on delivering excellent personal performances. What happens around him, while important to us as fans and the team as a playoff contender, are irrelevant to what he needs to return to form.
But if Casilla wants to stop completely blowing every game he enters, that'd be fine too.
(Not pictured: Santiago Casilla, because I'm mad at him.)
Big innings ate Tim Lincecum alive earlier this year.
He'd string together two or three rather solid frames, but they'd always come after a five-run first or ahead of a four-run fifth. It's hard to pin the implosion Lincecum endured on switching to the stretch, because at times he pitched from the stretch with no one on.
One has to reason it was the pressure, something Cy Young Lincecum thrived on, but a situation the 2012 model has found much more confounding.
Allowing a runner, or even a home run, are everyday facets of the game. But when that first runner or home run begets another, things get dicey in a hurry. It might behoove Lincecum to take more time when he finds himself in higher-pressure situations.
Likewise, Linecum's penchant for not holding runners on will be improved if he breaks things up by throwing over to the runner more often.
However he chooses to deal with the threat of "big innings," Lincecum must see them before they occur and fight to minimize the damage.
If the San Francisco Giants beat reporters were like those dolls with strings that say four different things, the first one you'd hear if you yanked the cord would be "Are you considering skipping Tim Lincecum's next start?"
To be fair, it was a question worth asking. With no discernible answer to what was causing Lincecum's struggles, some time to reevaluate didn't seem like a terrible solution.
Bruce Bochy and Brian Sabean disagreed. At least, for a while. As the All-Star break concluded, the sentiment regarding Lincecum began to change.
Suddenly it was a must-win for Timmy, an audition to remain in the rotation. Neither Bochy nor Sabean phrased it that way, but both implied it in radio call-ins and media sessions. Then Lincecum did his job, and the whole matter was tabled.
I bring this up to emphasize the point that Lincecum will almost definitely have another awful outing. I don't want him to, but the law of averages tells us he's going to have some more hiccups along the way.
If Lincecum gets blown up for seven runs, or knocked-out of a game in the fourth inning, he can't start getting sweaty palms about his job security. Bad games happen to the best pitchers, and as long as poor performances become the outliers, not the expected, they can remain on the mound.
You'd have to eat Lou Seal in a big bowl of clam chowder to get the San Francisco crowds to turn on you. The AT&T faithful still love Tim Lincecum, and the support they give him in each start he makes should be fuel for his success.
You can't quantify the role of a crowd, but you can certainly see the results.
Just ask Matt Cain if the fans did anything for him on June 13.
For better or for worse (and I'd vote worse), the Giants offense can get dejected in a hurry.
Games in which they find themselves in substantial deficits early always seem to bring out the worst habits of the San Francisco hitters. Suffice to say, in several of the games in which Tim Lincecum got going with his shovel from the get-go, the Giants did nothing to help him out of the hole.
So even if Timmy is destined to give up four or five runs in a given start, getting through the lineup first is key. With a couple runs behind you, not only is a pitcher's confidence raised, but it also lessens the impact of allowing runs on your end.
This may be kindergarten math, but the results are major league.
Not to rely too heavily on the most atypical start a pitcher can make, but one can see what a difference a large lead made in Cain's perfect game bid.
Most importantly, Lincecum shouldn't wilt early, because hitters feed off weakness. Which brings us to the most important thing Timmy must do before we consider him "back"...
In his Cy Young years, Lincecum got half his outs before the batter ever swung. He was known, and more than known, he was feared. Hitters knew they were facing someone formidable when they stood to face The Freak. Lincecum needs to reestablish himself as the kind of pitcher you don't want to be in the box against.
It won't come easy. Even three or four more quality starts will only start to change the general consensus on Lincecum. Building the kind of reputation Timmy had prior to his plunge in the latter-half of last season is something few ever achieve. It takes consistency, dominance, and a bit of cold-blood. But as Giants fans, we know Lincecum has all these things. If he can put them together again, reassemble them into the deadly combination that made a Lincecum start a local holiday in the Bay Area, then it will be time again for batters to be scared.