|Tim Lincecum had a 2.74 ERA, but got the worst run support (2.94) in the NL. (Getty Images)|
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Tim Lincecum, on the cusp of middle-age.
Can it be already? So freaky.
He's settled in at 27. Two Cy Young Awards, one World Series ring. One two-year, $40.5 million deal that takes him through 2013 when, as of now, he will splash down in the free-agent pool. Imagine that contract.
He's five years into a career that already has him on a Hall of Fame trajectory. He led the National League in strikeouts in each season from 2008-2010, joining Randy Johnson (1999-2002) and Warren Spahn (1949-1952) as the only NL pitchers to do that since World War II.
Lifetime, when the Giants support him with at least three runs, he is an astounding 54-4 (.931).
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Primed for a bounce-back season. Go ahead and call the 2011 Giants a disappointment. Likes, dislikes >>
Which, alas, leads us to, well ... you know.
Not only did Lincecum, at 2.94 runs per game, receive the worst run support in the NL last season, it was the third-worst run support of any starting pitcher in the majors since 2000. Only Ted Lilly (2.88 in 2010) and Greg Smith (2.88 in 2008) received less. He could have pressed criminal charges for negligence, it was so bad.
Yes, as he prepares for his sixth season with the Giants, you bet he is older and he is wiser. And while every day is a learning experience, he has never learned more than he did from the struggles of 2011.
Starting with, what, exactly?
"That I'm not invincible," Lincecum said during a late-morning conversation one day as the Giants try to regain their mojo this spring. "I think that's one thing a lot of people have when they're younger. I used to be one of those guys. I was stuck in my ways. I was more stubborn than I am now.
"I was like, 'I'm going to stick to it and I don't want to look outside my little box, my little world.' Then you get put into something like this, you're making relationships with people you wouldn't necessarily have them with outside of this world.
"So it's like you're living two different worlds. I got my world outside of baseball, and I have this one. They're both equally awesome. They're just different."
Though he finished with the first losing record of his career in 2011, the fact that Lincecum went 13-14 was a near miracle. He received zero runs -- zero! -- in 10 of his 33 starts. He got one run or fewer in 16 of 33.
Through an excruciatingly difficult season, Lincecum never backed down.
Through an extraordinary dry period, Lincecum never once lashed out.
Instead, he watched one Giant after another return from the plate and understood that, hey, hitting ain't easy, either.
"The thing I'm most proud of is bouncing back from the long year [in 2010] when I didn't know how my body would feel," said the man who once led the league in projections that he would fade away more quickly than a shooting star because of a violent torque and lithe frame (5-11, 165). "The year prior, pitching deep into October, and being able to hold up.
"I wasn't thinking, by any means, that I was going to injure myself. You just don't know what things are going to happen, how they're going to pan out."
How they panned out were 217 innings pitched -- five more than in 2010, and eighth in the NL.
But with little support, the Cy Young voters who once showered Lincecum with love instead looked at the Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, who won, and the Phillies' Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, who finished two-three. Hard to argue there.
Yet, like buried treasure, there were plenty of hidden nuggets in Lincecum's season that were utterly impressive. Here's another: With two out and runners in scoring position, he handcuffed opponents with a .115 batting average. Only Atlanta's Tommy Hanson (.075) was lower.
"It's easy to overlook numbers when you win a World Series," he said. "But when you're not, and all you have to look at is going into a long offseason, for me it was nice to be able to hold up and throw the amount of innings out there and improve upon some areas that weren't good the year before.
"Outside of that, it's harder for me to focus on the positive when the negative stands out, especially in all of our eyes when we're perfectionists. So, like, things like walks, stolen bases, one-run ballgames where you feel it's not because the team didn't score, it's almost like you feel like you gave in. If I could have held out longer, maybe the 10th inning we score a run, or in the 10th inning we score five runs, and then that one-run ballgame doesn't look so close."
Lincecum produced a sub-3.00 ERA for the third time in five seasons (his 2.74 ranked fifth in the NL) and he reached both 200 strikeouts and 200 innings pitched for the fourth consecutive season.
He also walked a career-high 86 batters, second in the NL behind Colorado's Jhoulys Chacin (87). That pushed his average pitches per inning to 16.6, also a career high and the eighth-highest per-inning pitch count in the NL.
Yes, you can look for him to address that this summer.
| Sleeper ... Angel Pagan, OF: Pagan has been a very good line drive hitter over the last three seasons and his gap-hitting approach enabled him to hit .306 in 2009 and .290 in 2010. He continued to lace the ball in 2011 but his batting average on line drives was curiously low at .645 (last season, the major league average was .722). Despite a sizeable reduction in his strikeout rate Pagan hit just .262 overall in 2011. If he can maintain the improvement in his contact skills, a .300 batting average could be a fait accompli. Pagan stole 32 bases last season despite a diminished batting average and missed time due to an oblique injury. With the potential for 40-plus steals and a high average in 2012, Pagan could return to being the top 25 outfielder he was two seasons ago. |
Bust ... Melky Cabrera, OF: After seemingly everyone had given up on Cabrera as a bona fide starting outfielder, the Royals gave him a shot as their center fielder last year. Cabrera seized the opportuntity and gave the Royals his best season by far, hitting .305 with 18 homers and 20 steals. What really stood out were his 44 doubles, which blew away his previous career high of 28. A .309 batting average on grounders helped Cabrera boost his doubles total, but that batting average bested his marks from the previous two seasons by more than 80 points. That's a trend that has regression written all over it and a lower overall batting average will mean fewer runs and stolen bases as well. Though Cabrera was a top 10 outfielder last season, this year he is likely to perform more like a low-end No. 3 outfielder. -- Al Melchior
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"I just feel that over the last few years, after adding more pitches and becoming more confident, you obviously want to be confident in pitches when you're using them," he said. "But I think I might have been overconfident in some of my pitches.
"When it comes down to it, most pitches work off your fastball. That's what I'm trying to get back to this year: Work off your fastball. And then, changeups, curveballs, breaking balls. You see how much success guys like Justin Verlander and Kershaw have with their fastball. Their fastballs are probably a little more live than my fastball, obviously, but they're just proving the point, it's where you throw it, it's not how hard you throw it."
There's another sign of impending middle age, at least, as measured by this unforgiving game. Once, Lincecum was the guy who blew high 90s on the radar gun and left onlookers slack-jawed. Now that his fastball more 92 than 97, even he is watching Verlander and Kershaw.
"I used to be a guy who could bring it out there, and then I was like, 'How did that guy hit it?'" he said. "And then you look at the film and it was 97 at the waist as opposed to 93 at the knees and away. It's those kinds of things that you perfect and you notice and you try to ride."
What he noticed when the ride was interrupted last year was that his changeup began working so well over the past few years that it seemed to change his thinking.
"I think I kind of got away from the fastball over the last few years because the changeup has been so effective for me," Lincecum said. "I think I relied on it.
"There's nothing wrong with that. But I want to get through innings faster, I want to get into games deeper, I want to lower my pitch count per game, those kinds of things. And those are only going to come with throwing more strikes."
He brushes off the run support questions with a sort of There-But-For-the-Grace-of-God-Go-I demeanor.
"Obviously, you look at the pitching when you look at that," he said. "But it's not just that. It's the resiliency of the team. It's like knowing when we need a one-run game. It's easy to look at the negatives, look at the games when we gave up that one run to lose the game instead of scored that one run to win the game.
"We know we're going to play a lot of close games. We're just looking to be on the upside of the close ones."
The gained maturity and wisdom manifests itself in other ways, too.
"I used to live and die with every game," he said. "I wore my heart on my sleeve. I had a chip on my shoulder all the time. Coming up and getting to where we're at now, I'm not playing for those reasons anymore. I'm actually playing for myself, but I'm playing for my teammates. I'm playing for a bigger cause.
"It's less selfish. I feel a lot better about myself. I think it's one of those things people just go through when they grow up when they're around something like this that you care about as much as we do."
One very noticeable difference in Lincecum this year as opposed to every other season during his career is that contract, the one with the eye-popping numbers. Until now, he has always gone year to year. There has been no multi-year deal.
"It gives me a little bit peace of mind, knowing there isn't a huge contract that needs to be fulfilled," Lincecum said. "There's pressures that come with that. For me, it was always like I didn't want to commit to anything too far ahead that I might not be able to handle. It's crazy how much people grow up in a matter of a year. I want to see where my head's at during that time.
"So for me to get that two-year deal, and it works perfectly with the alignment of free agency, I feel like that was ideal. It's where we found the common ground in the negotiations, so why not get it done?"
A Seattle native, Lincecum famously was chosen by the Giants 10th overall in the 2006 draft out of the University of Washington ... after his hometown Mariners picked Brandon Morrow fifth (Kershaw, incidentally, also was chosen ahead of Lincecum at No. 7).
With free agency two years away, if he and the Giants don't figure something out, it's probably worth mentioning that, yes, he can still envision himself playing for the Mariners one day.
"And my reasoning behind that is, because I'm from there," Lincecum said. "I grew up envisioning myself playing for the Mariners. Wearing Little League uniforms and playing for teams that were called Mariners. All these small little things that are just coincidences, why couldn't it work out?
"But I'm completely content here. I wouldn't change it for anything in the world. I don't know what my future holds. I have the next two years and we'll go from there. I love wearing the black and orange. I love playing in San Francisco. This is as close to a hometown feel without being in my home town as I can get."
Which is why he also can envision himself as a one-organization pitcher over his entire career.
"Oh yeah," he said. "For sure. I think most guys would say it would be ideal to play for the same organization. It's tough when that organization is not doing so well, but we're up and coming. I have a lot of comfort here and I have great friends.
"So, why would I want to leave it?"
Especially if the Giants, you know, actually start crossing the plate when he's pitching.