I planned to write a column about Tim Lincecum on Saturday night, one way or another. I was planning to assess his trade value with scouting notes from his latest start. After he no-hit the Padres, it’s doubtful that Lincecum is going anywhere, whether it be to the bullpen or another team.
On Saturday night, I saw a guy with a plus-plus changeup, an outstanding curveball, and a good slider he can use to steal called strikes with. The fastball was just 88-91 mph, but he still has enough velocity to keep hitters honest.
His 14-strikeout, two-hit masterpiece that night helped propel the Giants to an eventual World Series title.
His 13-strikeout, no-hit performance against the Padres was during a meaningless July game between two teams battling for last place. Hopefully, Lincecum’s latest brilliance inspires the rest of the squad to get back into the race.
Lincecum’s no-hitter was a seminal moment in what’s been a brilliant career. I had a good feeling about his start before the game. Before the game, I tweeted, “Happy Timmy Day. Might be running out of these; isn’t what he used to be, but what he once was, was the best pitcher on the planet.”
Lincecum reached back into his incredible past and summoned the ability to be the best pitcher on the planet again, even if it was only for one night. After the game, I wrote a column heavy on advanced statistics arguing that Lincecum was never as bad as his ERA indicated, and that he’s actually been one of the better pitchers in baseball this year. Writing on deadline in the aftermath of a no-hitter leads to some irrational exuberance, I suppose.
The reality is that while the sabermetrics argued Lincecum’s walk, strikeout, and home run rates indicated he was better than his runs allowed total suggested, and that bad luck, bad defense, and poor sequencing of events were a big part of the problem, Lincecum was in large part responsible for his struggles nonetheless. He was the one who couldn’t pitch successfully out of the stretch to get out of jams that were created by his bouts of wildness. He was the one making fat location mistakes right out over the plate. He could still miss bats because he had three swing-and-miss secondary pitches, but he had no pitch-to-pitch—and thus no start-to-start—consistency.
As Christina Karl of ESPN wrote, we have no idea what’s going to come next for Lincecum. After his 148-pitch no-hitter, he might be in for some fatigue. Or, he might use the no-hitter to propel himself towards a big second half, and a run at a nice free-agent contract. He might mix good starts with poor, confounding ones throughout the rest of the season, and continue to perplex us all.
I’ve run the gamut with Lincecum this year. Before spring training, I thought he’d bounce back. I thought he’d make corrections in the delivery that would allow him to have better command and control. Then, I watched most of his spring starts and his first few starts of 2013, and became convinced that he was irreparably broken as a starter, but could have an excellent second act as a reliever. Even the Giants came to that conclusion, with one club source telling Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area that they would have moved Lincecum to the bullpen “in a heartbeat” had they been able to find another starter.
Lincecum may still have to go to the bullpen in the end. His no-hitter counts as just one incredible performance in a career filled with greatness. It doesn’t mean he’s an ace again; it doesn’t even guarantee he’s a mid-rotation starter going forward. It was one great start for a pitcher who’s had an up and down two years. Three of Lincecum’s four months this year have been good, but he was so bad in May (6.37 ERA) that it’s impossible to make any conclusions about him.
Here’s what we can say: when Lincecum has all three of his offspeed pitches working combined with fastball command to the corners, he’s a nightmare to face. When Lincecum doesn’t have fastball command, he’s a much easier at-bat. He’s not consistent enough to be considered the ace he once was, but he still misses more bats than most starters. He’s still good enough to be a starter, but it’s unclear how good of a starter he can be for the rest of this season and thereafter.
Beyond that, he’s absolutely adored by the Giants’ fanbase and teammates alike. There’s been a lot of buzz about Lincecum’s strained relationship with catcher Buster Posey, but Posey’s come-from-behind bear hug of Lincecum after the final out on Saturday night seemed to squelch those rumors for the bullshit they were. Two Golden Spikes Award winners with Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, and MVP Awards, and two World Series rings, celebrating a no-hitter that they combined on in a season that has gone so horribly wrong will be the lasting image from Saturday night.
To paraphrase Dickens: Is Lincecum back? Who can say. Are the Giants back? They’ve been buried alive for the last two months. But what Lincecum did last night was a far better thing than he’s ever done before. If the end has already come for this era of Giants baseball in which he played so big of a role, Saturday night in San Diego was the cherry on top of a career that no one had any right to expect. Lincecum far exceeded anyone’s expectations during his tenure in San Francisco, and the Giants were rewarded with two championships that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Lincecum may never be great again, but he’ll always be the short, skinny freak of nature that turned an entire organization around. He was the best pitcher on the planet once, and he summoned that ability one more time, perhaps for the last time. In Giants lore, he’s already achieved immortality. It doesn’t matter what comes next.
Tim Lincecum was and always will be the best.