Tim Lincecum had a brutal, those-numbers-can't-be-right 2012 season.
It was one of the most-dissected storylines of the year and for good reason. When you are two years removed from winning consecutive National League Cy Young Awards and post one of the worst earned run averages in baseball, people have a right to be confused. Especially when the two years in between the Cy Youngs and the abyss gave little indication that a massive regression was in the mail.
Yet massive regression is precisely what we got in '12.
More troubling, though, is that Big Time Timmy Jim's 2013 season has already echoed the worst elements of last year. Granted, it's only been three starts, and Lincecum's last outing gave reason for optimism.
The problem is that the rays of hope are so familiar to those that teased the Giants and their fans last season, only to deliver minimal return on that hope (excluding the whole "winning a second World Series in three years" deal).
Lincecum made 33 starts in '12. He authored a few gems and slogged through some garden-variety mediocre performances, but a slew of gruesome games proved to be his downfall.
Some of these were simply bad across the board, but his most frustrating work generally fell into one or two of three buckets. I've loosely defined these as "First-Inning Stinkers," in which he allowed three or more earned runs in the first, "Control Stinkers," in which he allowed four or more walks, and "Big-Inning Stinkers," in which he allowed three or more earned runs in a single inning of an otherwise clean appearance:
First-Inning Stinkers (three or more runs in the first)
Control Stinkers (four or more walks)
April 28 vs. Padres (start No. 5)
May 4 vs. Brewers (start No. 6)
June 22 vs. Athletics (start No. 15)
Sept.7 vs. Dodgers (start No. 29)
Sept. 12 vs. Rockies (start No. 30)
Sept. 25 vs. Diamondbacks (start No. 32)
Big-Inning Stinkers (three or more runs in otherwise clean start)
May 20 vs. Athletics (start No. 9)
May 25 vs. Marlins (start No. 10)
June 5 vs. Padres (start No. 12)
Sept.25 vs. Diamondbacks (start No. 32, though it's a stretch to call the rest of the start "clean")
As you can see, sometimes the walks coincided with the troublesome innings and helped send Timmy's train off its rails. More frequently, control issues were still the culprit, but they failed to manifest in walks.
In 2012, the Franchise only made two starts where he averaged 15 or fewer pitches an inning and one of those saw him average 15 pitches on the money. He had no games in which he averaged fewer than 14 pitches per inning and, for the year, Lincecum averaged 17.74 pitches per frame.
None of that is good.
A nice average sits between 12 and 15 offerings per inning since that lands you right around 100 pitches in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. Put another way, averaging 12-15 pitches gets you deep into the appearance before your pitch count starts to really work against you.
And Timmy made exactly two starts in that range, both of which skewed toward the upper extreme.
Consequently, his struggles should come as no great mystery in hindsight. High pitch counts typically mean lack of command, and lack of command for a pitcher is like rust to a boat.
Flash back to present time and check out Lincecum's three starts to date.
In his first start against the Dodgers, he pitched well enough to win, but threw 91 pitches in five innings and walked seven Bums. The Gents managed to win his second start as well, even though it was worse than No. 1—the right-hander tossed 104 pitches in six innings, issued four free passes and coughed up a five spot to the Rockies in the second inning.
As for start No. 3 (another bizarre SF win), Timmy got splattered for four runs in the first before settling down and cruising through the rest of his outing vs. the Chicago Cubs. Alas, the rough first took its toll and he was hooked from the game after five innings and 78 pitches.
In three 2013 starts, Lincecum has walked seven batters, then run into a big inning and then gotten trashed in the first frame. In two of the three starts, he's walked at least four and has yet to average fewer than 15 pitches an inning in any of the trio.
Again, none of that is good.
Obviously, none of the above means anything definitive about the Freak and his '13 season. He could just as easily build on the momentum from the Cubbies start and return to vintage form as he could spiral toward another 2012. To me, it looks like a mental issue where a drop in velocity and a lack of concentration conspires to cause overthrowing on occasion, thus command evaporates and the start turns into a charlie foxtrot.
That sort of thing could disappear as inexplicably as it appeared, but then, I'm no expert. It could also be a mechanical flaw or a nagging injury or a variety of things.
One thing is certain, though.
Tim Lincecum needs to smooth out the rough edges quickly because he's testing the Giants' patience. Nobody wants to see a reprisal of last year's quagmire, least of all Lincecum. Luckily for him, San Francisco doesn't have many attractive contingency plans, otherwise he might be even closer to figuring out exactly how much leash those two Cy Youngs have earned him.
And nobody in baseball should want a firm answer to that question, least of all the San Francisco Giants and their fans.