Tim Lincecum's Symptoms Point to One Catastrophic Possibility

Ted SillanpaaAnalyst IJune 2, 2010

PHOENIX - MAY 20:  Starting pitcher Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants warms up before the Major League Baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on May 20, 2010 in Phoenix, Arizona.   The Diamondbacks defeated the Giants 8-7.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Tim Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Young Awards by the age of 25, so only a fool would isolate three consecutive sub-par starts to illustrate that the Giants superstar is in a career-threatening, downward spiral.

Lincecum's last few starts likely mean that he is in the first prolonged slump of his brief but glorious career.

It doesn't seem so much like the sky is falling when Lincecum's last five starts are analyzed in a manner not intended to lure fans to a tale of woe that leads to all sorts of pointless speculation.

Lincecum has had three bad starts. He didn't throw hard and he had no control.

On May 15, he pitched eight solid innings in a 2-1 win over the Astros.

The right-hander has walked five in each of his last four starts.

Going back five starts, Lincecum fanned eight and walked two in six innings against the Mets in New York on May 9.

Before that, everyone agreed that Lincecum was on top of his game.

There hasn't been a player in the history of baseball who virtually debuted as one of the best and maintained that status until the day he retired. This is Lincecum struggling, just like Roger Clemens, Juan Marichal, Bob Gibson, Pedro Martinez, Sandy Koufax, and any other great pitcher we can remember, struggled at some point.

If fans are drawn to media descriptions of the worst case scenarios, though, here goes.

All three of my sons were or are pitchers. One went to the doctor after he threw a pitch in a college game and felt a pop. Another suffered from an increasingly sore elbow on his throwing arm and also wound up seeking treatment. They each received care from noted Northern California sports surgeons.

Having listened in on two evaluations by two prominent surgeons, I learned that they all approached a potentially serious elbow problem the same way. Before they even checked the stability of the elboweven poked and prodded at the tendons and ligamentsthey asked two questions:

1) "Have you found that you've lost speed off of your fastball?"

2) "Have you found that you don't have the same control of your pitches that you did before? Are you walking more batters?"

My sons answered in the affirmative to both questions. The older of the two wound up pitching, four college starts actually, with torn tendons and a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow. He then had reconstructive "Tommy John Surgery."

The explanation of the type of injury that leads to "Tommy John Surgery" comes from "Baseball Prospectus":

" ...an incompetent or blown out, a damaged UCL will prevent a player from throwing at full velocity or with effective control."

There! You want to know about the worst physical injury Tim Lincecum could face? That's it. Right there. Even a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, let alone one that is torn, results specifically in a loss of velocity and command.

(Read the whole story about "Tommy John Surgery" here.)

Hinting at a drug problem or a personal problem makes media types seem far more in the know than they are. A harsh look at the physical injury most likely to steal a pitcher's velocity and control is common, but an elbow injury is serious.

My other son had what a Bay Area surgeon called a "compromised" ulnar collateral ligament. Rest and rehabilitation saved him from surgeryfor now. It doesn't really matter if the UCL is torn or just tired and overworked. If it's damaged, a pitcher goes all haywire.

Lincecum almost certainly doesn't have anything hinting at an elbow injurybeyond that he's not throwing as consistently hard as he once did and that he hasn't thrown strikes consistently in his last few starts. Word is, that Lincecum's human and that he is susceptible to a slump, just like everybody else.

Lincecum is nothing if not understanding of how to take care of his arm, especially given his particular body type. He would not hide a potential injury to his right elbow. He has too much invested in his career and the Giants have too much invested in him to keep pitching with a bum elbow. And, media psycho-babble aside, he most assuredly would seem confused and despondent if his unique pitching mechanics had gone out of whack, even a little.

If Lincecum or the Giants felt he had an elbow ailment, a set of x-rays and an MRI would unravel the mystery fairly quickly.

If the guy won back-to-back Cy Young Awards only to fall victim to personal demons at age 25, it would be a story for the ages. It would also be a much sexier story for the Bay Area media to promote during his slump than even what is known to be one of the worst possible pitching injuries. Pitchers come back from elbow injuries and elbow surgery all the time.

Of course, nobody wants to Tweet, "Lincecum in slump. Nothing more," or "MRI would solve mystery" and expect to attract fans to a website, TV show, or radio broadcast.

Oh, yeah... I figure I'm a "media type." Look at the headline on this story. The elbow injury that is detailed here could lead to surgery and would technically be "catastrophic" for Lincecum and Giants fans.

You won't find it written here that Lincecum has a bum elbowjust details of his slump, symptoms of a bum elbow, and the mention that he's most likely just in a slump.

One prominent sports columnist in the Bay Area is promoting the idea that Lincecum has a "dead arm." There's no physical description for a "dead arm" beyond that it can apply to a pitcher who loses effectiveness.

Guess who offered the columnist that particular "dead arm" diagnosis? A small group of big league scouts who obviously know a "dead arm" when they see one. So this columnist says he is convinced that Lincecum has a "dead arm" and needs plenty of rest.

Believe the columnists and the scouts or consider this from the aforementioned "Baseball Prospectus" story:

"...Some believe that Sandy Koufax 's 'dead arm' in 1966 was simply a case of a damaged UCL..."

It is doubtful that Lincecum has a "dead arm." It's likely a rush to judgment in a world where scouts make everything black or white.

Consider a story on a Tampa Bay Rays website from early 2009, discussing pitchers whose performance had fallen off:

"The one pitcher that concerned us the most was Matt Garza, who saw a 21.8 percent increase in the number of innings worked over the previous season and the large number of games in which he threw at least 110 pitches. Now we see what may be the first sign that Garza could suffer from a tired arm in 2009."

"Tired arm" or "dead arm," it turned out that Garza was simply off to a rough start in 2009. He pitched 203 innings in 2009, going 8-12 with a 3.95 ERA. He is 5-4 with a 3.08 ERA in 2010, having pitched 76 innings.

(Read the entire story about Garza here.)

Lincecum's almost certainly in the inevitable slump a guy is bound to have after winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards. There is, however, a medical history involving pitchers who lose command and velocity.


Ted Sillanpaa is a Northern California sports writer and columnist. Reach Ted at tsillanpaa1956@gmail.com



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