The former Giants' first-round draft selection in 2006 exploded onto the scene in his first full season with San Francisco in 2008 and became a national sensation nearly overnight.
Given monikers like "The Freak" and "The Franchise," Lincecum lived up to his reputation. His small stature combined with a violent and torque-heavy delivery amounted to him becoming one of the most dynamic starting pitchers in the league, earning him two consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009.
Lincecum was also a key figure in bringing the Giants their first World Series championship in San Francisco in 2010.
Heralded for his wins in Games 1 and 5, both against perennial All-Star Cliff Lee, the Giants beat the Texas Rangers in five games. The championship further added to the young pitcher's reputation as an elite starter.
The year after, Lincecum had some setbacks.
Posting a 13-14 record, Lincecum seemed to lose his edge.
Yet, the Giants were struggling to score runs in 2011, and Lincecum still posted a tremendous 2.74 ERA with 220 strikeouts (baseball-reference.com). In spite of the losing record, there was little concern that Lincecum was going to encounter any serious problems.
Then came 2012.
Yes, the Giants won the World Series again that year.
However, Lincecum was nowhere near the same pitcher that propelled San Francisco to their first championship. In 2012, Lincecum suffered his worst career year to date, posting a 10-15 record and an inflated 5.18 ERA. The total innings pitched were also at 186, down from 217 the year before.
Subsequently, his strikeouts were also at their lowest over a full season: 190 compared to 220 the year prior (baseball-reference.com).
In addition to his lack of execution, there were concerns about his velocity. Lincecum's fastball, which once had a velocity in the mid-90s and above, was peaking around 90 miles per hour.
True, Lincecum had started using more of his off-speed pitches, which had an effect, but the lack of velocity was significant (espn.go.com).
Command was also an issue.
His walks issued per year had steadily been on the rise since 2008.
Lincecum's ineffectiveness had implications on his role as the Giants entered the postseason. Giants manager Bruce Bochy moved Lincecum to the bullpen, electing to go with his other starters Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito.
Lincecum actually thrived in the new role, appearing in six playoff games and not allowing a single run during two World Series relief appearances (baseball-reference.com).
While the championship was a tremendous moment for the Giants, Lincecum had mixed feelings about the role he played. He stated:
I took it for what it was. It wasn’t a position that I was necessarily 100 percent familiar with, but I just wanted to help the team. Right now, my perspective isn’t to be in the bullpen. My perspective is, I want to be a starter and I want to get back to that elite status that I was at. (via cbssports.com)
Indeed, Lincecum's use should be out of the rotation.
Last season notwithstanding, Lincecum has been a dominant ace, and there is little reason to assume he cannot reach that point again. He recognized that he needed to change his approach and regimen going into 2013.
During the offseason, Lincecum worked out with two personal trainers who pushed him beyond the limits he once utilized in prior offseasons. Lincecum's work gained him an extra 10 pounds and forced him to focus more on his mechanics, which were so key to his unique windup (timeheraldonline.com).
In addition to the added weight, Lincecum also chopped off the signature locks of hair that defined him for the last few seasons.
As the Giants move forward into spring training, Lincecum has not quite shown that the offseason work has been effective. His recent start against the Padres on March 13 resulted in only 2 1/3 innings pitched while allowing 3 runs on four hits (miamiherald.com). His previous start provided similar results.
True, Lincecum has been dealing with a blister on his pitching hand. He also is not known for being dominant during spring outings, usually finding his rhythm at the beginning of the regular season.
Instead, Lincecum was optimistic about the outing.
After the game, Lincecum critiqued his start:
Getting that time off and then going out there for another inning, being able to get up and down was probably the biggest issue. I had some changeups at times, but every pitch really could have been better. I'm pleased all around with the way things went besides the result. (via miamiherald.com)
San Francisco, so reliant on its starting pitching, wants him to return to the "elite" status he once claimed before 2012. However, the Giants also boast other top-tier starters.
Both Lincecum and San Francisco are going to be paying close attention to how he performs in 2013, and not just because both parties want to win.
Lincecum is set to be a free agent after the 2013 season.
He is making $22 million this year, and if his 2012 struggles repeat themselves, the Giants may very well be inclined to spend that money somewhere else. They have to consider contracts for MVP Buster Posey and fan-favorite Pablo Sandoval in the near future as well.
Fortunately for Lincecum and the Giants, all signs point to Lincecum taking 2013 very seriously and professionally. He has a new look, a tougher workout regimen and a renewed confidence:
I feel every year transitions into its own year. I’m taking every year differently and approaching this one with a fresh slate. Last year, I had a lot of questions. I was trying to change a lot things at once. Getting my mind back to a stable point where I know what I’m doing and I know why I’m doing it, I feel like my confidence is back. (via cbslocal.com)
Those are great words indeed. Yet Lincecum needs to be able to translate those words and feelings into his performance on the mound. If he can, both Lincecum and the Giants' prospects for returning to the World Series are that much better.
If not, fans may see him wearing another uniform.