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Wednesday, November 19, 2008
Updated: November 20, 9:59 AM ET
Tim Lincecum: The Outlier


Tim Lincecum reminds us of a young Bill Gates.

In Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, success, he writes, is not so much a raw occurrence, an irrepressible gift from nature, but a mere combination of rare surroundings and hard work that produce something special. He focuses at one point on Bill Gates, and points to a magic level of 10,000 hours of practice that can make someone an expert in their field. Gates reached that plateau long before he dropped out of Harvard. He wasn't a drop-out; he just didn't need the reps. He was ready to be creative.

"Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good," Gladwell writes. Gates had accumulated the practice that a PhD in his field might have done by age 21. Not because he was brilliant (though he is obviously gifted), but because of passion and some rare circumstances. Born in 1955, even at a young age he'd been surrounded by computers at a time when few could even imagine such a thing. This may help us explain Tim Lincecum. Lincecum is accompanied by a perpetual footnote, it seems. He is too small. His size should be on his uniform, instead of his number. Five-foot-eleven, a hundred-seventy somethin'. It's the number everybody knows anyway. Last week, he won the Cy Young in a relative landslide, and by doing so was described not just as a dominating pitcher, but as a dominant mini-wunderkind. He is "The smallest Cy Young winner since…". Lincecum's size is always the issue, because all analysis of him seems to start there. It is because of his small frame, we are told, that the second most interesting thing about him occurs, which is his peculiar motion—a powerful blend of elbows, hips, tilted head and Gumby-esque elasticity. It has to be this way. How else could he generate a 98 MPH fastball? But what he is, at 24, is perhaps just a new way of thinking about what genius is. Like Gates, he is a perfect result of circumstances: a pitcher trained perfectly for his pursuit, and one that would have been trained as such whether he stayed this size, or was 6-foot-5 by age 16. He says so. So does his trainer. He's been training, methodically—with tapes, instruction, lifting, stretching, techniques built just for him—since age five. He is genius, but he is built.

The key is to be both built, and not deterred by prevailing trends. Blacks haven't become good quarterbacks through a mix of good breeding and science, they've been exposed to the position at a young age by non-bigoted coaches when they so often weren't before. Until coaches agreed that blacks could be great quarterbacks, there weren't any chances for there to be great black quarterbacks. Lincecum goes against the prevailing trend of what a pitcher looks like, but that's partly because most kids his size are told to play second base before they ever learn to pitch. Gates was programming computers at a time when that skill could hardly be seen as particularly useful. Gladwell writes about how a young Gates finished his 10,000 hours while in middle and high school in Seattle thanks mostly to good fortune and passion. His school oddly had a computer club with access to (and the cash for) a sophisticated machine. At that time, few did. As well, his childhood home was near the University of Washington, where he had access to an even more sophisticated computer. "By the time Gates dropped out of Harvard after his sophomore year to try his hand at his own computer software company," Gladwell writes, "he'd been programming practically nonstop for seven consecutive years. He was way past 10,000 hours." As the article notes, Gates was obviously a brilliant student of this arena, but he also was a beneficiary of odd circumstances as a kid. He was suited to programming, but also exposed to it in a way few could have been.

How many others, equal in brains to Gates, never get that opportunity? Lincecum is a baseball version of Gates, circa 1986. He is, in a baseball sense, right about at the time when those first Microsoft profits began to accumulate. Where Gates at age 21 had basically spent the time programming that one would normally expect from a PhD in computer science, Lincecum was also a perfect piece of constructed pitching genius hard to discover, because, well, this isn't how its done. Whereas Gates dropped out of college, something brilliant academics need not do, Lincecum had to go to college, something gifted pitchers often skip. Lincecum was barely 100 pounds when he began pitching in high school. Because of that, he has always been playing against competition that looked a little bigger. He still does. His modes of adapting his own game can thus stay the same. On the other hand, many scouts look for a big body that can develop a good arm. Physicality is important. Instead, Lincecum and father developed their own model. Tom Verducci writes wonderfully of Tim and father Chris. Tim, at five, began learning from lessons provided to his older brother. "The mechanics Tim employs now are the same he used then … Chris designed a weight-training program for Tim and videotaped all his amateur games—the two of them would critically review them the next day—except for road games when Tim was in college. By then Chris knew his younger son's mechanics so well that even while listening to those games on the radio, he could 'see' what Tim was doing wrong."

Could Ichiro have been a great pitcher?

According to Gladwell's theories (which are, he admits, derived from other, academic theories), it's clear that Lincecum hit his 10,000 hours well before other pitchers do. These weren't just hours, they were intensive hours. And if, as a part of those hours, much of the time was spent on perfecting mechanics, perhaps the single greatest cause of pitching breakdown, Lincecum may become the next great pitching genius. Of course, this flies in the face of other cautions.

"Pitching a baseball is, to put it mildly, a torturous and self-destructive act," Buzz Bissinger wrote last year. When we spoke to Dr. James Andrews on the matter, he reiterated not just this, but said that it's not just pitching that matters, it's the amount of pitching done under stress. It's the difference between a car being pushed, and one being driven, he says. So were those pitches Lincecum threw so often as a child, the ones reviewed on videotape in an effort to perfect his motion, just pure mileage, or were they literally taking miles off the odometer? Are pitches thrown to teach perfect mechanics really a form of the deterioration of pitching genius? Were the hours and hours Gates spent programming more likely to refine his accuity, or likely to cause burnout? Gladwell seems to think they were better served to create brilliance.

If Lincecum's father was a hardened composer, he might today be a gifted first chair violinist in the Boston Pops. Either way, Lincecum is a deserved Cy Young, maybe the best pitcher in baseball, and we are still transfixed by his size. And we are perplexed by it. Ichiro Suzuki can throw a ball on a line for nearly 300 feet, and could do it even better a decade ago, when he was about Lincecum's age. He is a stunningly methodical player, keeping his bats in a humidor after they are ordered, and stretching almost non stop. He has always been this way. He is committed, to the tiniest detail, to his craft. It's a shame nobody ever taught him to pitch at age five the way Lincecum was taught. He might be the best pitcher in the game today. All 5-foot-9, 160 pounds of him.