Tim Lincecum makes important start

Tim Lincecum starts for the Giants tonight against Josh Beckett and the Dodgers (ESPN, 10 p.m ET) in what will be our first opportunity to watch one of the most important pitchers of the 2013 season.

Now, Lincecum doesn't have to be great for the Giants to make it back to the playoffs. After all, he was generally pretty terrible last season, and they still won 94 games. But it certainly would create an easier trek for the Giants if he returns to some form of his 2008-11 version.

What does he have to do to revert back to ace-like status? Chris Quick of Bay City Ball has a good piece on important things to look for tonight. Chris writes:

From 2009-2011, Lincecum’s changeup was filthy. Batters rarely made good, hard contact on the pitch. As you can see in the top heat map, batters just didn’t connect on Lincecum’s changeup -- as evidenced by the low line drive rate on the pitch -- that often. The contrast between pre-2012 and 2012, in terms of line drives hit off the changeup, is pretty stark; batters squared the pitch up more often than not in 2012.

Chris points out that with Lincecum's drop in fastball velocity, the difference between his fastball and changeup has gone from 10.4 mph in 2008 to 7.1 mph last year. Watch that tonight, and as Chris suggests, look to see what kind of swings the Dodgers are getting off the changeup.

It's only his first start, of course. But a bad one -- following a bad spring training -- will certainly get the speculation going: How long of a leash does Lincecum have? Who's the No. 6 starter? Would they send him back to the bullpen, where he pitched so well in the postseason? Usually, two-time Cy Young winners are pretty safe with their role. That may not be the case this season with Lincecum.