Tim Lincecum is in his seventh year with the San Francisco Giants. It may very well be his last. A few years ago, that would have struck fear in the heart of Giants fans, the idea of Lincecum leaving the team as a free agent to sign elsewhere for gobs and gobs of money. Now the feelings are more complicated.
Lincecum isn’t the pitcher he once was, and it’s looking increasingly likely that he’ll never be that pitcher again. He may want a fresh start with a new team. The Giants may not want him back, at least not for the money Lincecum is likely to seek. It may be a little of both. Either way, Lincecum may very well pitch for a new team in 2014, and that has left Giants fans with mixed emotions about Lincecum’s time in San Francisco and his remaining starts in 2013.
Lincecum was a Seattle kid, with a laid back personality and a closet full of skateboarder’s clothes. He was the star pitcher with the unconventional delivery for the University of Washington when the Giants took him tenth in the 2006 amateur draft. After only six minor league starts, he debuted with the Giants on May 6, 2007, at home against the Phillies. Five runs on five hits, five walks, five strikeouts and two home runs in 4 1/3 innings, hardly a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Timmy the Kid, as he was sometimes called in his early years, put together a nice rookie season. His win-loss record was 7-5, not that it mattered (or ever matters), but not bad for a team that scored only 683 runs, and finished the season in last place in the National League West. But the funky delivery. And the 95-mph fastball. And the diving, darting change-up. And the strikeouts. Oh, the strikeouts. One hundred and fifty in all, in only 146 1/3 innings. A 9.23 strikeouts-per-nine rate, second in the National League.
On a team of aging veterans at the end of their careers, Lincecum was young and new and a little weird. Maybe a lot weird. Not to San Franciscans, but perhaps to others, and that made Lincecum a perfect match for the Giants. And he arrived at a perfect time for the franchise. Barry Bonds, the controversial megastar who drew thunderous crowds to AT&T Park, was in his last year with the team. Fans streamed through the turnstiles to watch Bonds pursue Hank Aaron’s career home run record. But Bonds would be gone after the 2007 season and the Giants needed someone, something to keep fans interested while the team rebuilt with younger talent. They signed Barry Zito for $126 million hoping he would be that guy. But it was Lincecum who stepped into the breach.
He dominated National League batters in 2008 and 2009, with his electric fastball, his nasty change up, and a wicked curve he developed just for fun. The strikeouts piled up; he led the majors in strikeouts in 2008 and fell eight short of Justin Verlander in 2009. The accolades piled up, too: consecutive seasons on the NL All-Star team, two NL Cy Young Awards, the cover of Sports Illustrated, the cover of MLB2K The Show, and more. To Giants fans, he was simply The Freak and The Franchise. And he was theirs.
The City’s love affair with Lincecum reached its peak in 2010, when he pitched the Giants to a World Series victory, the first for the franchise since it moved to San Francisco in 1958. Generations of San Francisco Giants fans who had longed for a championship had their prize, and they had Lincecum to thank. There were other heroes, of course, many others, but Lincecum, with his long, flowing hair and his funky delivery, had pitched the Giants to the top of the baseball world.
* * *
Last Sunday, Lincecum threw seven innings, gave up just two hits, three walks, and no runs, with seven strikeouts. The Giants won, beating the Braves 5-0. A typical Lincecum start — for 2010, perhaps. But it was one of the slight right-hander’s most dominant outings over the last two seasons, matched only by his June 27, 2011 performance against the Dodgers. What used to be the norm for Lincecum is now the rare jewel.
Age. Out-of-whack mechanics. Lost velocity. Poor fitness. Lack of focus. Somewhere in there is an explanation for Lincecum’s precipitous decline over the last two seasons. It may be bit of each, with some bad luck thrown in the stew. Whatever the causes, the results in 2012 and 2013 are startling: a walk rate over 10 percent, a home run-to-fly ball ratio over 15 percent, and a 4.62 ERA. The strikeouts are still there, but the mid-90s fastball is not. And even at 89 mph, Lincecum often can’t command his fastball. That leads to too many hitters’ counts and get-it-in pitches out over the plate.
As the 2012 season unfolded, emotions about Lincecum’s decline ranged from surprise to concern to frustration. Rumors swirled of his unwillingness to work with Buster Posey, the Giants’ young catching star, who was later named National League MVP. Whether the rumors were true or not, Giants manager Bruce Bochy often paired Lincecum with back-up catch Hector Sanchez, moving Posey to first base, or to the bench for an off day. Fans were in a tizzy. “Buster Posey is the best player on the team. How dare you keep him out of the lineup,” they tweeted and texted and tumblr’d. Lincecum was The Franchise no more, and was making things difficult for the player who was: Posey.
Despite Lincecum’s struggles, the Giants cruised to the NL West title last season. But when the postseason started, Lincecum found himself the odd man out — out of the rotation and into the bullpen. Just two years removed from his 2010 World Series glory, Lincecum looked to play a bit part in the Giants’ postseason run. He did much more, though, becoming an effective weapon out of the pen as San Francisco marched to its second World Series Championship in three years. Lincecum was not a hero, perhaps, but not a villain, either.
There was a time when AT&T Park buzzed with excitement from the moment Lincecum took the mound for his pre-game warm-ups until he threw his last pitch. Now there’s nervous anticipation, often followed by audible groans of disappointment. It’s hard to watch at times, and not just because Lincecum can’t find the strike zone. Lincecum’s fall from the top of the pitching mountain came so quickly, and at an age — he’ll be 29 in June — when many pitchers reach their peak. It happens, but not often so dramatically.
This emotional mix plays out during every Lincecum start now. Wishing the old Lincecum would reappear. Feeling the disappointment when he doesn’t. Rooting for a good start. Wondering what it will be like if Lincecum leaves the Giants at the end of the season. He was our Freak, our Franchise, and while he may not be either anymore, it will be weird to see him in any other uniform. Even if that what’s best for him and for the Giants.
* * *
Wendy Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Bay Area Sports Guy. She has also written for ESPN.com, Baseball Nation, and the Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.