SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum led the National League in four categories last season -- games started, losses, wild pitches and earned runs allowed. He has been forced to reinvent himself with a garden-variety fastball, and now he’ll face the added scrutiny of performing for the defending world champions with the specter of free agency hanging over him in November.
So maybe it’s a good thing that everyone is so focused on his coif.
Lincecum, San Francisco’s two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, forsook the skater boy look this winter for something more worldly and professional. When he appeared at the Giants’ recent fan fest with close-cropped hair and a pair of faux eyeglasses, he was peppered with questions from reporters and fans alike. People seem to be warming to the new, more contemplative Lincecum (one media member observed that he looks like a "poet") after several years of Big Time Timmy Jim.
"It makes him look younger," Giants general manager Brian Sabean said. "I like the hair, but I like the fake glasses better. It takes a lot of [guts] to do that."
Now that pitchers and catchers have reported to Giants camp, Lincecum is about to become a Cactus League focal point. Can he regain his old staff ace form or something remotely close to it? And by doing so, will he price himself out of San Francisco or increase the likelihood that he’ll stay with the only professional organization he has ever known?
Whichever fork in the road he takes, it will have a major impact on the Giants’ pursuit of their third NL West title in four years.
The Giants have been fortunate to enjoy an impressive run of rotational continuity in recent years. Last season, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Lincecum and Barry Zito combined for 160 of the team’s 162 starts. If you guessed that Eric Hacker and Yusmeiro Petit made the other two starts, feel free to toot your horn on Twitter.
"It’s pretty amazing, really, how healthy these guys have stayed and how they’re able to go out there every fifth day," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy. "It’s a credit to how the pitchers take care of themselves and the conditioning that our training staff puts them through. We’ve been fortunate. I knock on wood when I think about it."
Even though Lincecum made 33 starts, his season was a grind from the outset. According to FanGraphs, Lincecum’s fastball velocity has declined from 94.1 mph in 2008 to 90.4 last season. During that same span, his ratio of walks per nine innings has increased from 3.33 to 4.45. His ratio of first-pitch strikes (55.4 percent) was the second lowest of his career.
"He’s got to pitch to contact and throw more strikes," Sabean said. "His fastball is not gonna come back, per se. When that happens, you need to increase your ability to get guys out in three pitches or less. We’ll see if he’s going to make those kinds of adjustments. Having said that, he can still miss a bat."
An armchair psychologist might speculate that as Lincecum finds it more challenging to dominate hitters with his power repertoire, a little voice in the back of his head steers him away from the heart of the plate. He wouldn’t be the first pitcher to be guilty of excessive nibbling in conjunction with diminished velocity.
Lincecum, for his part, attributes his issues to problems with his notoriously unorthodox mechanics. He struggled with both the landing position of his front foot and his follow-through last season.
"It’s a timing delivery," Sabean said, "and when the timing is off, you’re not going to be able to get your arm in the right place and you’re not going to be able to have a consistent release point."
While Lincecum was shedding hair in the offseason, he gained an estimated 8-10 pounds with a greater emphasis on strength training and fewer trips to In-N-Out Burger. He checked into spring training at 170 pounds, and hopes the added muscle will help him better endure the rigors of August and September.
Lincecum also hooked up with some new trainers back home in the state of Washington and concentrated on more dynamic, explosive workouts in an attempt to regain the funk in his delivery. With the exception of a vacation trip to the beaches of Cancun with his girlfriend, his winter was all business.
Just as Bochy expects Zito to build on his success in October, he thinks Lincecum received a major confidence boost from his bravura performance out of the bullpen in the postseason. Lincecum was lights-out in long relief against Cincinnati in the National League Division Series (1-0 with a 1.42 ERA) and contributed 4 2/3 shutout innings with eight strikeouts against Detroit in the World Series.
Now that the postseason urgency has subsided and Lincecum has the freedom to work at his own pace in Arizona, he's ready to chalk up his relief stint as an educational experience. It’s time to take a deep breath and embark on a voyage of self-discovery that will carry him back to his rightful place in the rotation.
"When you're put in a situation like I was in the postseason, it's the most selfless situation you can be in when you're in the playoffs and you're just dying to make it to that next game," Lincecum told reporters at the fan fest. "This year's a little different. I'm hoping to get back on that horse and be in the starting rotation again and re-stake my claim as a starting pitcher and a good one."
Even though Lincecum might look like a new man thanks to the contributions of his hairstylist, a few million Giants fans would be considerably happier if he resumes pitching like the same old Freak.