Just Go With It
Big league scouts told Tim Lincecum he was too small to succeed. Fantasy owners passed him over because they weren't sure he'd hold up with that crazy motion. But he has news for all of 'em: it wasn't magic dust that helped him win the Cy Young Award.
On a bright January morning at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Tim Lincecum prepares to play catch. He has brought along his friend and roommate, Sean Webster, and now they hop out of the third base dugout with their gloves and three clean baseballs, ready to go to work. They stand about 40 feet apart. Lincecum rolls his shoulders once or twice, turns his chin to each shoulder, grabs a ball out of his glove, rocks back and fires.
To watch this 170-pound man throw a baseball is to witness a miracle in a minor key. His first throw—his very first one—leaves his hand and reaches Webster almost simultaneously. And Sean, poor Sean, isn't quite ready for this. He played college baseball for a bit at Gonzaga and was Lincecum's equal on the mound when they were both juniors at Liberty High School in Renton, Wash. (Their senior year saw Lincecum create some separation, as Webster readily admits.) But that was a few years ago, and right now Webster isn't so much catching a baseball as he is fighting for his life. When he stops the first throw with the heel of his glove shoved against his navel, it brings to mind footage of an old-time circus performer being hit in the stomach with a cannonball.
"Hey, Timmy, can you move over a little?" Webster asks, sweeping his glove to the right. "I'm having trouble picking it up. There's a glare off those seats behind you." Lincecum moves, but the battle continues. Webster is focusing like a near-sighted man reading an eye chart while Lincecum seems physically incapable of doing anything—even passing the salt—at less than 85 mph.
After about five throws, an obvious question occurs to a bystander: Is this any way to warm up one of the most valuable arms in baseball?
"Yeah, I guess," Lincecum says. "Actually, I'm not real big on warming up. I don't know, it's just the way my body works. I just go with it. That's why so many people thought I could be a good closer. It doesn't take me long."
Life's traditional velocity doesn't apply to Lincecum. Dick Tidrow, a Giants executive who scouted the pitcher at the University of Washington before the team chose him with the 10th pick of the 2006 draft, watched Lincecum's first start at Class-A San Jose that summer and told GM Brian Sabean, "This kid's going to get there a lot faster than you think." Lincecum was called up to San Francisco in May 2007, after just 62µ minor league innings. Last year, in his first full big league season, he won the NL Cy Young Award, going 18–5 and leading the majors with 265 strikeouts. Along the way, he defied the scouts and general managers who questioned whether his 5'11" (maybe) frame and much-dissected motion could withstand life as a frontline starter. In fact, he got better and stronger as the season progressed, going 7–2 in August and September and pitching at least seven innings in nine of his last 12 starts.
Lincecum might just be the most unlikely dominant athlete in team sports today, baseball's equivalent of Allen Iverson in his prime. When scouts told him he was small, Lincecum said, "Yeah, I am. There's not much I can do about that." Except punch out hitters, over and over. The message is the same for scouts and fantasy owners alike: Don't question what you see. Simply appreciate it.
Lincecum might just be the most unlikely dominant athlete in team sports today, baseball's equivalent of Allen Iverson in his prime.
In the fantasy game it's especially important to gauge young pitchers early, because they often peak before hitters, whose best years generally don't start until they hit 26. But before Lincecum broke out, the stats guys didn't quite know what to do with him. Heading into last season, ESPN.com ranked him 24th among fantasy starters, behind, among others, Rich Hill (who got demoted), Aaron Harang (who was awful) and Erik Bédard (injured). He's now No. 2, trailing only Johan Santana. That's what a Cy Young and a sweet WHIP can do for you.
Well beyond the numbers, there is a lightness to Lincecum, a bright-eyed wonder that is cynicism's antidote. With his shaggy hair and easy grin and crooked teeth (now being straightened by a Hollywood orthodontist), he's 24 going on 12. There is a baseball cap or wool beanie permanently affixed to his head. "People ask me why I always have my head covered," he says. With that, he lifts his cap to reveal a helmet of matted, black hair. "See? Now you know." He showers intermittently and makes no apology. "I might go three days," he says with a shrug. "If it feels right, I go with it."
Sometimes Tim (Timmy to anyone who has met him more than once) will be so intrigued by the many choices at a fast food restaurant that he'll order three meals, picking and choosing after laying them out on the table at his San Francisco condo. "A one-man buffet," Webster says. And Lincecum's kid-in-a-candy-store enthusiasm is viral: His excellence on the mound was so welcome last year that Giants employees greeted each other with "Happy Lincecum Day" each time their ace (their salvation, their joy) took the ball.
His first big purchase as a big leaguer was a Mercedes CLK55 (his number) that he bought from teammate Dave Roberts. "Isn't that cool?" Lincecum asks as he drives toward the Embarcadero. "I bought Dave Roberts' car."
Chris Lincecum sums up the younger of his two sons this way: "Timmy's a little goofy, but he's a little goofy because he's a kid. You look at him and you'd swear he's 16, but put him on the mound and you'd swear he's 35." In one well-traveled story from last year, the ace walked through the clubhouse and suddenly did a complete backflip, sticking a perfect landing. Centerfielder Aaron Rowand, one of the crustier Giants, took Lincecum to task immediately, telling him he was too valuable to endanger himself with such frivolity. The pitcher didn't argue, but his father says, "They don't understand what kind of athlete he is. He's not going to hurt himself doing that."
One of many photographs displayed prominently in the elder Lincecum's family room in Bellevue, Wash., is from Timmy's days as a member of a fifth-grade basketball team. There were seven players on the squad, and league rules mandated that everyone had to spend some time on the bench. In this photo, one boy has his head in his hands, eyes cast downward, clearly pouting because he isn't in the game; the other boy, feet off the ground, mouth in midscream, is raising his fists to the sky as he reacts to something the camera can't see.
The second kid on the bench, the one jumping around, is Tim Lincecum. "Whenever someone asks me about Timmy, I show them that picture," Chris says. "That tells people who he is better than I ever could. He's a great athlete, but more than that, he just loves to be part of whatever he's doing."
Two hours before a September start last season, Lincecum could be found lying on his side on the floor of the Giants' clubhouse, his head propped up by his valuable right arm. A few feet in front of him sat Barry Zito, strumming an acoustic guitar. It had the feel of summer camp. "He was swooning me," Lincecum says.
Even now, with a 25–10 record through 57 major league starts, Lincecum sometimes stops without warning and says to Webster, "Dude, I'm in the big leagues." After games in which he pitches, he goes home and awaits the highlights. There might be other friends around, Lincecum's girlfriend might be in from New Jersey (they met at spring training last year), but at some point Webster will invariably look at Lincecum and say, "Dude, we're watching you on SportsCenter. How cool is that?"
"It blows me away," Lincecum says. "It's surreal. I hope I never get used to it."
The delivery, all 2.5 funky, forceful seconds of it, is a continuous, liquid motion that showcases Lincecum's athleticism 100 times a game. It's the creation of his father, who emphasized three fundamentals: 1) "tilt"—the turn of Tim's shoulders toward the third base dugout, forcing him to pick up the target out of the corner of his left eye; 2) "dangle"—the downward thrust of his right arm as he turns toward home plate; and 3) "reach"—the violent forward propulsion that creates a stride that exceeds his height and raises the real possibility that Lincecum might someday spike himself in the back of the head with his right foot.
Chris Lincecum is a Boeing parts-distribution employee who says his job could be done by "a monkey who can read." He's about the same size as Tim and, using the same unorthodox motion, was a talented pitcher himself, starring for nearby Green River Community College in the early 1970s. But his baseball career was diverted when he broke his back after a misstep sent him tumbling down a 20-foot embankment. He has definite opinions about pitching, and one of the first things college recruiters heard when they entered the Lincecum household was Chris saying, "Let's get one thing straight: You're not going to change him." To this day, Chris sits in front of the TV and charts each of Tim's starts—pitch, location, where the ball is put in play. "You know what it's for?" Chris says. "Therapy. I used to sit in the stands and give him hand signals, but I can't do that anymore. I have to do something."
At a time when ballplayers, especially pitchers, obsess over training regimens and slavishly follow routines with a compulsive joylessness, Lincecum subscribes to no solemn throwing program. He doesn't really stretch, never ices and swears he has never felt so much as the slightest twinge in his right arm. Nine teams passed on him in the 2006 draft, and six of them chose pitchers. Two of those guys, Colorado's Greg Reynolds and Pittsburgh's Brad Lincoln, have already undergone arm surgery. All of them were, in Lincecum's term, "specimens."
Giants scouts prepared Tidrow extensively before he watched Lincecum face Oregon State during his junior year at UW, and still the former big league reliever was completely unprepared for what he saw: "The arm speed, the hand speed, the length of his stride—I was blown away. There were a lot of things going on, but basically I liked all of them."
Lincecum is an interloper in a world of relative sameness, where pitchers are either tall and sturdy or ignored. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, whose undersized little brother, Greg, was a pretty good pitcher, says, "We've been seeing the first big wave of academy kids who've been taught by private coaches or in pay-to-play travel programs. They're all big and strong and light up the radar guns. They're talented, but they've been taught to do one thing: take instructions. You can tell them what to do and they do it, but they're not going to think it out on their own."
By contrast, Lincecum's most overlooked quality might be his adaptability. He's gone from relying on a strict mid-90s fastball, power-curve repertoire to incorporating a changeup (the grip took him three years to master) and a cutter. "He's learned that he doesn't have to go full-tilt boogie all the time," Tidrow says. "He's learned to make the ball do things, and he's learning how to do more with fewer pitches. It's scary, but he's only going to get better."
The conventional spoon-feeding of the young stud pitcher calls for strict pitch counts and early exits. Lincecum is no exception, but he hates it. At Washington, he sometimes relieved on Friday nights and started on Sundays. He once threw 157 pitches in a college game. He chafed—politely and silently—when Giants manager Bruce Bochy removed him from games last year after the count topped 110. "I don't want to be a guy who gets to 120 pitches and then says, 'Oh damn, now I can't pitch anymore,'" Lincecum says. "There are days when you're tired at 80 pitches and days when you're still pumping at 140 with adrenaline through the roof."
On this day at AT&T Park with Webster, he will throw long enough to break a sweat but not so long as to induce boredom. He will not count the throws or pace off the distance or otherwise impose any official structure on the proceedings. "I might throw for 10 or 15 minutes, depending on how strong I feel and how many balls I'm throwing away," he says. "Sometimes I throw the ball over the guy's head a few times and I'm like, I don't want to go get that. So I stop."
Lincecum at ESPN The Magazine's photo shoot in January 2009.
Asked how he feels at this juncture, roughly three weeks before he will report to spring training in Scottsdale, Lincecum appears to have never considered it. "Uh & good," he says. "I'm just kind of getting ready, but I don't want to be too ready by the time I get down there. I like to get there and work up to it. But yeah, I feel good."
His momentary hesitation can be excused. He has never felt anything but good. In fact, this brief session at the ballpark is the first time Lincecum has thrown in about a week, since he brought his glove to a Saturday barbecue that he and Webster hosted for a few friends in San Francisco's Crissy Field. He threw long toss that day, and while Webster and another friend were doing the double-crow hop just to reach him on two bounces, Lincecum was firing 250-foot heat-seekers that never got more than 15 feet off the ground.
There's nothing extraordinary about young men playing catch in a public park, but it didn't take long for this scene to become spectacle. The people walking their dogs, flying their kites, jogging—they started watching the throws and looking at the thrower. They'd take one look &
Nah, it can't be.
…then another. The body, the motion, the ball searing through the air…
Has to be.
Tim Lincecum can't be mistaken for anyone else. There's nothing—and no one—quite like him.
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