Tim Lincecum has taken fans on a roller-coaster ride during the last three years, and it's finally reached its peak.
Sure, it was a lot more riveting watching Lincecum dazzle fans with eight brilliant innings in Game 5 of the 2010 World Series. But since Lincecum's miserable 2012 campaign left the Giants wondering what he would do for the rest of his career, Giants fans have never been more excited about the former ace.
Lincecum boasts a phenomenal 0.30 ERA in his last four starts, and his ERA for the season is down to a respectable 3.66. Giants fans want to believe he is officially back, but they've been fooled by Lincecum before.
After his deplorable first half in 2012, when he lost 10 games and posted a horrid 6.42 ERA, he tossed two straight gems. He posted a 1.20 ERA in that span and completed seven or more innings both times.
But then he gave up five runs and failed to make it out of the fifth inning in his next start. He finished the year with a 5.18 ERA.
Lincecum started the 2013 year poorly, but he rebounded for one great start on July 13: He no-hit the San Diego Padres in a thrilling, 148-pitch affair, lowering his ERA to a slightly below-average 4.26.
The Giants started to expect great things from Lincecum. But then he gave up eight runs in his next start. He finished 2013 with a 4.37 ERA and left Giants fans wondering which Lincecum would show up in 2014.
Until his second no-hitter, it was the mediocre Lincecum of 2012 and 2013. But now his numbers are not laughable. He's been dominant lately, and the Giants are 13-6 in his starts this year.
Excluding his two worst starts of the year (in which he gave up 15 combined runs in 8.1 innings), he has a 2.67 ERA.
He has six quality starts in his last seven outings, and he's given up three runs or fewer in 14 of his 19 outings (and four runs or fewer in 17 of them).
For a frame of reference, ace Madison Bumgarner has given up more than three runs in eight of his 20 starts. Lincecum has finally pitched well this season, and the Giants finally have legitimate hope.
But is this sample size too small?
Lincecum is still the same guy who had a 4.79 ERA spanning from the start of 2012 until the start before his most recent no-hitter. So there would have to be concrete evidence to determine whether this recent mastery is sustainable.
The fact that he's striking out fewer batters seems to speak for this stupendous stretch being a coincidence, but it actually shows a change in pitching style. It shows efficiency from Lincecum.
Before his second no-hitter, he was averaging 17.64 pitches per inning, which was why he was averaging about 5.5 innings per start. However, since then he has averaged 14.24 pitches per inning.
Considering that Lincecum averages 94.2 pitches per start this year, he could finish an average of 6.61 innings per start at his recent pace. By also limiting walks (he's walked just nine in his last four starts), he can be much more effective.
However, there are some more complicated metrics that also paint a clear picture. According to Brooks Baseball, Lincecum threw his fastball 417 times, or 28.58 percent of the time, in his first 15 starts of 2014.
It didn't benefit him much.
Opponents hit .326 against Lincecum's fastball, and since then he has thrown his fastball just 20.8 percent of the time. Opponents are hitting a mere .063 off of it, which could indicate improvement with the pitch.
But it could also mean that Lincecum has become less predictable by gaining confidence in all of the pitches in his arsenal.
His slider has been sharp, as he has yielded a measly .200 slugging percentage (in his last four starts) with the pitch. This is in contrast to four home runs and four doubles in 80 at-bats before.
His ability to throw strikes, last into the late innings and throw the ball well despite a plummet in strikeouts is phenomenal.
It goes without saying that the freak of nature, who blew scouts and hitters away with a 97 mph fastball as a rookie, is gone. But a doppelganger with a different style could attain similar success.
Lincecum has the same devastating off-speed stuff that has carried him to success before, but he also has a successful approach. He's throwing strikes and using all of his pitches in all counts, which is bad news for hitters.
Obviously, it's harder to dominate without a blazing fastball to allow a pitcher to get away with mistakes. So expecting another Cy Young Award for Lincecum is, well, foolish.
But expecting Lincecum to be a consistent pitcher, who puts up above-average numbers in the middle of the rotation, is not wild.
In fact, when the Giants handed out what seemed to be a ludicrous $35 million deal to the quirky hurler, this is, most likely, exactly what they were hoping for.
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