Tim Lincecum won on Wednesday, but it wasn't pretty.
In five innings, he walked seven and threw only 46 of his 91 pitches for strikes. To be fair, catcher Hector Sanchez probably cost him at least five strikes with his inability to frame pitches properly. Then again, Lincecum's lack of control makes him exceedingly difficult to frame.
Lincecum only allowed three hits, which helped limit the damage to two runs despite all those walks. One of those hits was a fly ball hit by A.J. Ellis that Hunter Pence should have caught on the warning track. Pence slowed down at the end of his route as he was moving towards center fielder Angel Pagan, and had the ball clank off of his glove as a result.
To Lincecum's credit, he was able to pitch around that misplay by striking out Skip Schumaker and then getting Matt Kemp to fly out with the bases loaded to get out of the second inning jam.
Last year, the wheels typically fell off the bus in those situations, as Lincecum allowed batters to hit .286/.400/.487 with runners in scoring position.
In Lincecum's first start of this season, he was able to pitch through the messes created by his lack of control and by the Giants' sloppy defense. The Dodgers were just 1-for-9 with four walks and a sacrifice fly against Lincecum with runners in scoring position.
Both of the Dodgers' runs off of Lincecum were unearned. One run scored as the result of a Sanchez' passed ball and another run was because of an error by Buster Posey at first base.
Lincecum put 11 men on base (including the Posey error), but stranded nine of them. Stranding runners was a big problem for The Freak last year—his 67.8 percent strand rate was the sixth worst in baseball in 2012.
The improved ability to strand runners and pitch effectively with runners in scoring position were positive signs for Lincecum on Wednesday. However, his lack of control and inability to hold his velocity were troubling trends that carried over from last season into his first start of 2013.
Lincecum had the fourth worst walk rate in the league last season, and his seven walks in just five innings of work was not an encouraging development.
Lincecum came out of the gate throwing his fastball between 91-93 miles per hour in the first inning according to the radar gun on the Comcast television broadcast. However, he never hit 93 again after the first. By the end of the night, his fastball was sitting between 88-90 MPH.
Lincecum's inability to maintain his velocity beyond the opening frame is a big reason why he would flourish more in a relief role as he did in the postseason last year. If he only had to go through a lineup one time, his velocity would likely play up in those shorter stints. Instead of throwing 88-93, perhaps his velocity would shoot back up into the 93-96 as it has for converted relievers like Glenn Perkins and Wade Davis, to name two examples.
Perkins' average fastball velocity was 89.7 MPH in his final year as a starter in 2009. Last year, his average fastball was 94.9 MPH coming out of the bullpen. Davis' average fastball velocity jumped from 91.4 to 93.5 MPH with the conversion to relief last year with the Rays, though Kansas City has decided to move him back to the rotation.
Alas, the Giants aren't in any hurry to convert their highest paid player into a long reliever.
Yet, despite Lincecum's ability to pitch out of jams on Wednesday, it's still unclear that he can be an effective starter this season. If he continues to walk the park, the odds are high that it will eventually catch up to him as it did last year.
Six walks for Lincecum so far, yet no earned runs. Hard to see that trend continuing. #sfgiants.— Henry Schulman (@hankschulman) April 4, 2013
If he can't maintain his velocity, he'll have to start showing better control to compensate for his diminished stuff. Reduced velocity combined with declining control is obviously not a winning combination.
Tim Lincecum got a win and only allowed two unearned runs on Wednesday. The Giants can feel positive about that for a few days. However, no one should go into Lincecum's next start feeling overly optimistic. He still has a long way to go before getting back to being the ace he once was.