One year, one hip surgery, six-and-a-half months on the open market and three minor league starts since the last time he toed a major league mound, Tim Lincecum sent a message Saturday:
The Freak lives.
The Los Angeles Angels signed Lincecum last month hoping the veteran right-hander could be a pick-me-up for their injury-battered starting rotation. He was just that in his debut Saturday afternoon at the Oakland Coliseum. The former San Francisco Giants ace spear-headed a 7-1 win over the A's with six innings of one-run ball, in which he allowed only four hits with two walks and two strikeouts.
After so many years of watching Lincecum in orange and black on the other side of the bay, it was a bit weird to see him mowing down hitters while garbed all in red. Unless you ask him, of course.
"I don't think it looks weird," said the 32-year-old of his new threads after the game, via Alex Pavlovic of CSN Bay Area. "I think it looks pretty good."
At any rate, maybe the best thing to be said about Lincecum's debut is it was often easy to forget he was even pitching. Whereas the A's cycled through seven pitchers in the process of giving up seven runs—one of which came on a long home run off the bat of Mike Trout—Lincecum put in a quiet, workman-like performance light on drama.
At the least, this is a good first impression for a guy the Angels are hoping can be a $2 million steal. At best, it's the start of a renaissance in which Lincecum will more closely resemble his 2008-2011 self than his 2012-2015 self.
In case anyone needs a refresher on how the two compare, here are the numbers:
|Lincecum vs. Lincecum: 2008-2011 vs. 2012-2015|
The first four full seasons of Lincecum's career netted him two National League Cy Youngs and cemented him as one of the best pitchers in baseball. After that, he turned into one of the worst pitchers in baseball.
The primary culprit for Lincecum's collapse is the velocity he lost. After sitting in the low- to mid-90s with his fastball earlier in his career, he sat around 90 between 2012 and 2014 and then in the high 80s last season. By the time he made his last start for the Giants on June 27 last year, there wasn't much hope his velocity would bounce back.
Which brings us to the good news.
There were reports of Lincecum showing improved velocity when he held a showcase for prospective buyers in early May. It turns out that wasn't a one-time thing. According to Brooks Baseball, Lincecum's release speed with his four-seamer and sinker sat in the 89-90 range Saturday. That's up from the 88-89 range he occupied last season. He also sprinkled in some 90s and 91s to boot.
That may not be vintage velocity, but at least it's better velocity. It's also velocity he's comfortable with.
"I'm not going to be the guy throwing 93, 94, 95 [mph] anymore," he said ahead of Saturday's start, via Mark Chiarelli of MLB.com. "I have to spot my fastball and trust the movement. I think that's where I'm at, trusting I can get outs with 88-92."
To the naked eye, Lincecum's fastball command wasn't terrible Saturday. He did an especially good job of staying out of the sweet spot against Oakland's left-handed batters, and his mistakes were mostly good (read: non-hittable) mistakes.
Meanwhile, Lincecum's money pitch did its job. No pitch has done more damage in his career than his changeup, and ESPN Stats and Information can vouch it was out in force against the A's:
Lest anyone get too excited, however, Lincecum's debut offers some nits to pick.
Although his fastball command wasn't terrible, it's hard to say it was good. Fastballs that hit their marks and fastballs that missed their marks were probably in equal supply, particularly in a third inning in which he allowed two hits, walked a guy and hit another guy.
In light of this, it's not surprising only 60.2 percent (59 of 98) of Lincecum's pitches went for strikes. In relation to his average of 61.8 percent between 2012 and 2015, that's not a great sign.
It didn't help that Lincecum got swings and misses on only seven of 98 pitches. That's 7.1 percent, well below his career rate of 11.0. Between that and his spotty command, he wasn't harder to hit than his two strikeouts would indicate.
As such, there's no escaping the notion that Lincecum's effectiveness Saturday might have had something to do with the opposition. He was facing an A's team that entered the day ranked 13th in the American League in runs and OPS. Overcoming them isn't the best litmus test.
Still, the Angels' 30-38 record puts them in a position to take whatever positive signs they can get. Lincecum's improved velocity and good-as-ever changeup will do nicely. And even if his fastball command doesn't get better, he might get by as long as he continues to avoid making bad mistakes.
If Lincecum continues to pitch well, the interesting question is how it will benefit the Angels. If everything comes together just right, he may help them mount a charge up the AL West standings. If that fails, though, he could be a useful piece of trade bait come late July.
This remains to be seen. All we know for now is that we've seen Lincecum's first start in an Angels uniform, and it was good enough to warrant more. Maybe he's no longer the Freak of old, but he's not done yet simply being the Freak.