There was a time when Tim Lincecum was the best pitcher in baseball. In his first four seasons, he won two Cy Young awards and a World Series. Watching Lincecum on the mound in 2013, however, is like watching a grandparent with Alzheimer's. He has completely forgotten how to pitch effectively on a consistent basis and it has become extremely sad at this point.
After posting an 18-5 record and a 2.62 ERA and a 15-7 record and a 2.48 ERA in 2008 and 2009 respectively, he has posted a combined 43-46 record with an average of a 3.96 ERA. And 2012 and 2013 have been by far his worst seasons to date. So, Lincecum has taken a steep nose-dive into mediocrity, but how could someone who shot up into stardom so swiftly fall from grace just as fast?
First, the herky jerky windup that we have all marveled over for years definitely has to accept some responsibility for his struggles.
I know that he has used the same mechanics his entire life, but when a windup is so complicated like his is, it can cause problems because there is so much room for error. The whole movement towards the plate could be thrown off if one component of the windup is butchered. With so many intricate movements in Lincecum's mechanics, that means that it is more likely to happen to him. No pitcher will ever be able to perfect his mechanics, and the same goes for Lincecum, even if he has used the same ones his entire life.
Also, when a pitcher has such a unique windup, that generally means that they put a lot of thought into their mechanics and sometimes can over-think on the mound. A manager's worst nightmare is watching his pitcher trying to self-medicate his windup while he is on the mound. And when pitchers with windups like Lincecum are struggling, that is always going to be the first plan of action. In the end, that usually hurts the pitcher greatly.
Although it is possible that Lincecum is trapped in his mind, there is definitely something more going on. His velocity has steadily declined since he entered the league. According to fangraphs.com, in 2008, he was throwing 94 MPH, but this season, he is only throwing 90 MPH. Four MPH is a healthy decrease in only six seasons. That is the difference between blowing a challenge fastball by a hitter and turning around to watch it fly over the fence.
When a pitcher loses velocity on a fastball, it is kind of like when a ladies' man loses his hair. They have to reinvent themselves, but some pitchers and ladies' men cannot part ways with what made them successful in the first place. The ones who continue to hum in lazy fastballs with the hope that he can still blow it by a hitter are the ones who generally lose their spot in the rotation and are moved to the bullpen.
But, the ones who realize that they are not the same pitcher they used to be and learn to pitch with more finesse by adding more pitches, are the ones who pitch successfully into their later years.
Lincecum was a tad young to lose his velocity, — it fell to 91 in 2010 when he was 26 — but that does not mean he has the right to ignore nature's message that he needs to change it up to succeed. Unfortunately, the opposite has occurred and Lincecum is trying to maintain his same game plan that worked in 2008 and 2009 with massively inferior stuff. The result is a similar amount of pitches in far less innings.
Until Lincecum reorganizes his game plan on the mound, we will continue to watch his nose-dive. If not, a move to the bullpen is extremely likely. He has experience doing it and has been on the record saying he is willing to make the move if the Giants need him to. However, I don't know how much I believe that a competitor and former two-time Cy Young winner like Lincecum would be willing to become a reliever at 29.
He probably expects to go to the bullpen to endure less pressure and figure out what is wrong with him, but the problem is that what is wrong with him is something that he will never be able to fix.
Something that Lincecum and every ladies' man out there will soon learn is that age catches up with everybody at some point and the less they depend on their body for success, the better. The pitchers who are able to make the seamless transition from power pitcher to finesse pitcher in their older age are the ones who become legends. The ones who are unable to do it are either thrown into the bullpen or kicked to the curb.
Lincecum is running out of time to figure this out and unfortunately, at this point in time, it looks like the former two-time best pitcher in the National League will be watching the majority of the remaining games of his career from the seat of his pants.
By: Matt Levine