SAN FRANCISCO -- Time rules all. It does not know mercy, and it does not discriminate. And until recently, it looked as if time had come for Tim Lincecum's pitching arm, having already collected from it a fastball that sat around 94 mph, leaving the slim righty to sort out what he could do with what he had left. After years of struggling to adjust to his slower assortment, can Lincecum adapt?
"He's carrying a different cross than a lot of us," San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti said. "There are not a lot of guys who have won two Cy Youngs. That in itself sets him apart, but maybe that makes it harder for him to make that adjustment too, thinking, 'Why am I doing this or changing anything?'"
Having command of 94 mph heat helped The Freak win consecutive Cy Youngs in 2008 and 2009. But during the past three years, Lincecum struggled: In 2012, he finished last in the National League in ERA qualifiers and 38th out of 43 pitchers in 2013. In 2014, he would have been next to last if he'd gotten enough innings; the Giants didn't let him, moving him to the pen instead. That year, his average fastball velocity slid below 90 mph, narrowing the gap between it and his changeup from more than 10 mph to closer to 6 or 7.
Perhaps even more frustrating was Lincecum had worked hard to avoid failure -- and had nevertheless failed. He'd started taking his conditioning much more seriously in 2012, before he'd turned 28; before the 2014 season, he rented a warehouse in Seattle where he built a mound to help him get in shape. And he'd still put up flashes of success, like last season's midsummer streak of five straight strong turns, leading off with his second no-hitter in as many years against the Padres, highlighting a run of 11 quality starts out of 15 between May and July. But by August, he'd also lost his job in the rotation.
Left unanswered was a series of questions: Was Lincecum ever again going to fool hitters often enough to string his spates of success across a full season? And would he even earn the opportunity to try, after getting dropped from the rotation down the stretch? He was one of at least seven strong alternatives for the Giants' starting rotation this spring, and 2015 is his final season under contract.
But there was an even bigger question: Lincecum was questioning his own ability to pitch. And having tried everything else, Lincecum tried the one thing he had not: going back to his dad, the man who had coached him through childhood, helped him create his distinctive windup -- and from whom he'd grown distant in recent years. Working with his father gave Lincecum what he needed as well as what was possible: a sense he could still get good mileage out of what he had left.
"I just changed my mindset to be more confident," Lincecum said. "I kind of brought it back to how I was as a kid, when my dad was teaching me in the first place. It was nice to get back to that kind of perspective and challenge myself again in that way.
"The last few years, I just kind of felt without … actually, just kind of without, personally --" Lincecum paused, no doubt thinking back on his long run of bad fortune. "Going out there, trying to compete, but not really knowing how to work your body again -- it's kind of sad to have to say, but it was kind of true. Being able to work with my dad, it kind of negated any doubt I had. Him giving me the affirmation kind of helped me gain confidence, even just working off a mound inside of a warehouse."
Which was a place to start, but only regular-season results could demonstrate something beyond the benefits of a repaired relationship. Happily for Lincecum and the Giants, results have come quickly, with five quality starts in his first eight turns, before he suffered back-to-back beatings.
That could be how it goes, as he struggles to keep his place as a fourth or fifth starter in a good rotation. He's never going to get the fastball back, but he's throwing it for more strikes these days, 30 percent of the time as opposed to 27 percent from 2012 to 2014.
"He's wanted to locate his fastball better, but he knew he wasn't going to throw 92 or 93," Righetti said. "He's OK with 87 to 90. The other stuff has always been there; it's just that the other teams respected his fastball in the zone, and he's just doing that much better. He's just looking for location and that crispness that he wants now, and he's just a more comfortable pitcher on the mound now because of it."
That's a small but critical difference that has made Lincecum more effective. But he's also throwing an increasing number of breaking and off-speed pitches in the zone for strikes. Per ESPN Stats & Information, he's using his curveball more often now (16.5 percent of the time) than he has since 2009, but he's also throwing his split-change hybrid more than 25 percent of the time -- eighth most often among big league pitchers -- while putting it in the strike zone more than 47 percent of the time, a big improvement on the 37 percent he averaged from 2012 to 2014.
"I think the overhand curveball has helped me a little bit more," Lincecum said. "The way to throw that right is you've to get on top of it, so this mechanical thing that I worked on this offseason helped me get there. This one big thing that I felt was eluding me for a while was the arm angle and the deception. That all came with the mechanics that I learned as a kid and forgot in later years."
"The curveball wasn't quite a weapon as it is now, but the reason for that is fastball command," Righetti said. "If you don't have that, the curveball will be hit a lot more and swung at a lot more. Back then, they had to speed up their bats, because he was throwing 93 to 95 mph with an ungodly changeup. Now the curveball has come back, like when he first came up to the big leagues with a really big curveball. And he kind of got away from it, with the changeup and a little bit more with the slider, but I'm really happy that he's gone back to this a lot more than that slider."
Having that sharper bender while throwing more changeups for strikes in the zone has been especially helpful in icing left-handed hitters this season; Lincecum is limiting lefties to a .485 OPS through his first 10 turns in the rotation, with no homers allowed.
"The changeup has always been a big pitch in his career," Giants catcher Buster Posey said, "But when he's getting good movement on his fastball and can mix in that changeup, it's really tough on lefties. I really think the thing he's really done is just mix really well." For Lincecum, success is creating a never-ending series of chess matches, one at-bat after another, in which he has to outthink opponents instead of overpower them.
"It's kind of funny when you're like, 'Man, I maybe couldn't get a high school team out with my stuff right now, but I'm getting major league hitters out.' I think that just goes back to treating it like a chess game, and keeping it simple. You stop worrying about things you can't control."Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants pitcher, on becoming one of the slowest throwers in baseball
"Obviously as a pitcher you're trying to create that for the batter, to throw their timing off," Lincecum said. "It's hard to do that with -- at least in my mindset -- a typical pitch plan, down-and-away, up-and-in kind of thing. I have junk that I can throw at them, so that kind of helps me out and helps me hide my fastball in there. I've just been getting the results, kind of surprising results, especially since my stuff hasn't been as good as I thought it was. But I'm still getting the kind of [poor] contact that I want to see and getting strikeouts when I need them, which lets me know that I can strike out guys in pressure situations and make good pitches in pressure situations."
"For him to accept where he's at is just as gratifying for me to watch as it was when he first came up," Righetti said. "That's for me, because that's what you want from your pitchers: to still be healthy and make those adjustments so you can have a really cool, long career, right?"
Still, one thing is also apparent from Lincecum's early results -- he's walking more guys, nibbling with junk because he must. It's a penalty Lincecum feels he has to pay in order to create a game of hide-and-seek in every at-bat, to compensate for his lack of velocity before daring to risk slipping a slow strike across the plate.
"I think I've always kind of been that guy, trying to get guys out of their zone. My stuff has that kind of effect," Lincecum said. "I've kind of been leaning on that, but there's times where you're kind of scared of challenging their zone because you're wondering if they're seeing you good, and that goes back to that lack of confidence in yourself."
That's understandable, considering Lincecum's among the slowest throwers in the league these days. His average fastball velocity this season of just over 87 mph is the sixth slowest in the majors, but along with veteran soft-tossers Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy, Lincecum tries to make light of it.
"We joke about it all the time because we're the slower throwers on the team, among the slowest throwers in the league," Lincecum said. "It's kind of funny when you're like, 'Man, I maybe couldn't get a high school team out with my stuff right now, but I'm getting major league hitters out.' I think that just goes back to treating it like a chess game and keeping it simple. You stop worrying about things you can't control."
It also takes an element of daring, especially for a guy who's throwing so many changeups in the zone. But that's where Lincecum sometimes just nerves himself into a fire-and-forget mentality.
"Sometimes it's kind of nice to trick yourself in a way into thinking that you're fine, no matter what, that you can get out of tough situations, that you've done it before, you've done it with this stuff. So why not believe in yourself?" he asked.
Why not? Working within his changing circumstance, Lincecum is clinging to his job any way can, throwing anything he can, as well as he can. Whatever is supposed to happen next, it's in his hands now. At least until the batters say otherwise, give him the ball and it's a conversation he'll start and try to finish, cheating them -- and cheating time -- for as long as he can.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.