Lincecum’s Career Changeup

June 6

Tim Lincecum isn’t back yet. Not all the way. He’s getting there.

On Sunday in Pittsburgh, he was still not the old lights-out Lincecum, but he took a step forward. His trademark changeup, one of the best pitches in baseball when it’s working properly, made several appearances — including a critical strikeout of Garrett Jones in the 6th inning. His fastball was consistently 92-93 miles an hour. His command was better, although he walked Neal Walker twice and Walker scored twice.

On the flip side, Lincecum was hit hard several times. Jones launched a howitzer over the center field wall, Ryan Doumit smoked one down the right field line, Lastings Milledge ripped a game-tying RBI single to left on a hanging curve, and Akinori Iwamura belted a ground-rule double gapper. There were several long or loud outs.

Lincecum made it through seven innings this time. His line: 7 IP, 6 hits, three earned runs, two walks, six strikeouts, and the home run by Jones. He didn’t get the win because the Giants failed multiple times with runners in scoring position, most egregiously when Freddy Sanchez struck out looking with the bases loaded in the 8th.

It was definitely a quality start, but on the Lincecum Scale, ordinary. But right now, ordinary looks pretty good. He’s had five straight non-dominating outings but this one represented an improvement.

F.P. Santangelo told Ralph Barbieri on KNBR that Lincecum will never regain the velocity he had in his first couple of seasons, when he was consistently blowing fastballs at 95 to 97 miles an hour. He lives in the low 90’s now, when he’s right. F.P. said Lincecum might have to become a Greg Maddux-type pitcher as he gets older.

I wouldn’t go that far, but the times they are a-changin’. I’m going back to something I said last year about Lincecum: you’d better be careful. Pitchers who have had heavy workloads before age 25 do not historically maintain their performance. Unless.

“Unless” for Lincecum means learning to pitch more to spots instead of going for domination. It means learning how to keep hitters off balance a bit more. Lincecum, like Matt Cain, has had to learn how to be more economical.

I think we’re seeing a shift in the way Lincecum and the rest of the league interact. He might not ever have a 96 mile an hour fastball again, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Smart, talented pitchers can make adjustments in their game to remain effective. I still think Lincecum can light ’em up ( in a baseball sense ), but the lights might be CFL’s.

Nolan Ryan was the original Freak, but he wouldn’t have had such a long career if he didn’t learn to harness his control. Roger Clemens developed an unbelievable split-finger ( but also went to the needle — allegedly ). Frank Tanana came up as a fireballer and extended his career by learning to throw junk. Dennis Eckersley went to the bullpen and developed a great back-door slider.

The good news for Lincecum is that like Maddux, his best pitch is the changeup, and he throws harder than Maddux did.

Lincecum is still dealing with rhythm issues, but Sunday was encouraging in that his control was improved and he had some serious snap on the changeup on several occasions. That pitch will still be his ace in the hole. When it’s working, he can tell hitters the pitch is coming, and they still won’t be able to hit it. He has been trying to incorporate a curve into his repertoire, but that remains a work in progress.

The early days of the lights-out Lincecum may be ending. Consecutive Cy Youngs marked a spectacular start to his career, but as he approaches his 26th birthday he might be undergoing a transformation. That doesn’t mean the “old” Lincecum won’t pop up from time to time and he won’t continue to be a valuable pitcher.

Ralph is genuinely worried, and has some reason to be. I’m sure the Giants are duly concerned. But Lincecum’s metamorphasis should not cause mass defenestrations in the Bay Area. It’s going to be alright, people.

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