Tim Lincecum: The Debut of the Future
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
May 9, 2007

The Future arrived in San Francisco on Sunday.  The present, however, was just a little bit bumpy. 

After dominating hitters in the month of April at AAA Fresno to the tune of a 0.29 ERA (1 R in 31 IP) and a .119 BAA, Tim Lincecum made his highly hyped major league debut for the San Francisco Giants against Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies on Sunday night. Lincecum pitched in front of a packed house at Willie Mays Field as well as a national television audience.  While the results were not what Giants fans had hoped for, there was still a lot to like.   

The Giants recalled last year’s number one draft pick to make the start after placing Russ Ortiz on the 15-day disabled list, and against Philadelphia, Lincecum allowed 5 hits in 4 1/3 innings while walking 5 and striking out 5.  The Phillies also scored 5 times against the young right hander (4 earned runs).  A little history lesson, however, shows that there isn’t necessarily anything to worry about just yet.

First Major League Start

Roger Clemens – 5.2 IP, 11 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 4 K

Tom Glavine – 3.2 IP, 10 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 5 BB, 1 K

David Wells - 4 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 5 K

Nolan Ryan – 1 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 3 K (2nd ML appearance)

Tim Lincecum – 4.1 IP, 5 H, 5 R, 4 ER, 5 BB, 5 K

Lincecum also displayed an impressive fastball that the stadium gun clocked as high as 100 MPH on at least 3 occasions in the first inning (drawing oohs and ahs from the crowd) and all five batters he struck out on the night went down swinging.  

In fact, while his curveball was for the most part MIA, Lincecum pitched better than his final line indicates.  Four of the five runs he allowed came on just two separate swings of the bat and the fifth run scored only after a highly questionable interference call wiped out his pickoff of Shane Victorino in the fifth.

Let’s take a closer look at how it all went down.

After watching Lincecum’s first pitch go by at 97 mph, Jimmy Rollins got things started for Philly by grounding a seeing eye base hit up the middle.  Then with the speedy Rollins on first, Victorino fouled off two more 97 mph fastballs to fall behind in the count 0-2.  That is when Lincecum made his first mistake of the night.  Instead of making Victorino prove he could get around on his imposing fastball, Tim tried tossing his first major league curveball which quickly turned into a major league souvenir for someone in the right field arcade.  Just like that, the Phillies had a 2-0 lead and Lincecum had an ERA, or at least he would once he retired a batter.

As the inning progressed, what became most obvious to me were Tim’s nerves.  Back in spring training while making his first appearance against big league hitters, Lincecum allowed three runs in a shaky first inning against the Brewers.  Despite pitching in a meaningless game at Maryville Baseball Park in front of only 1,699 paying patrons, nerves – and consequently overthrowing – were cited as the root cause for his early struggles but the 22-year-old right hander then quickly settled down to throw a scoreless second inning.  He would then allow just 2 more runs the rest of camp while nearly winning a spot on the opening day roster.

Against the Phillies in the first inning of his major league debut with the entire country watching, Lincecum was consistently clocked by the stadium gun between 97 and 100 MPH.  Ask his father Chris and he’ll tell you that while he certainly can hit triple digits when he wants, Tim is at his best when he’s between 94-96 MPH.  Understandably Tim was a bit pumped up for his big league debut and was overthrowing a bit, causing his curve to lack bite.  After the first inning his fastball was consistently in the 95 MPH range and his curve was moderately better.

Tim settled down after the home run and struck out Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Aaron Rowand to end the first, with only a walk to Pat Burrell spliced in between.  In fact, Lincecum would retire eight of the next nine batters he faced after Victorino’s bomb. Then with two outs in the third, he made his second big mistake of the night: walking Utley ahead of Howard.  Sure Howard was batting only .196 heading into that at bat, but clearly it’s never a good idea to walk anyone ahead of a batter with 60 home run power potential, particularly with two outs.  That in turn led to Tim’s third mistake of the night – a fastball – which Howard deposited deep into the centerfield bleachers. 

Nibbling hurt Lincecum against Utley and put him in a hole against Howard.  Trust and confidence in his stuff is the remedy. 

Lincecum then allowed a leadoff hit to Wes Helms in the fourth but stranded him on second before Victorino once again did him in in the fifth inning.  After the Hawaiian-born speedster led off with a base hit to center, Lincecum promptly picked him off.  However in the ensuing rundown, Victorino and Omar Vizquel collided on the infield grass, with umpire Gary Cederstrom mystifyingly ruling that Vizquel interfered with Victorino.  After Utley flew out to left and Howard was intentionally walked, Lincecum walked Burrell for the third time and was done.

At that point, Lincecum had thrown exactly 100 pitches, which was just about his predetermined limit. Vinnie Chulk was summoned from the bullpen to take over.  Would-be pickoff victim Victorino would eventually come around to score an unearned run and officially close the book on Tim’s night.  Again, while it wasn’t a perfect night by any means – his control was off, his curveball lacked bite, and he surrendered a couple of no doubt home runs - it nonetheless was very encouraging.

Consider that the hot hitting Phillies – who left San Francisco with the second most hits in baseball behind only the Mets and were second to none in on-base percentage – never mounted any serious rally against the rookie.  Before fifth inning, the Phils had only 1 at bat with a runner in scoring position. On the night, they were a collective 0-for-2 with 2 walks (one intentional) in that situation.

Consider that Lincecum overpowered the Phillies at times with less than his best stuff, even reaching 100 mph on the gun and recording several swing-throughs.  “His stuff is electric and he made a couple mistakes,” manager Bruce Bochy told reporters later, “but he showed what a great arm he’s got.”

Consider that the curveball Lincecum lacked Sunday night – the one has been compared to that of the great Sandy Koufax – is not going to disappear forever.  I’ve seen Uncle Charlie, Giant’s fans, and he’s just plain nasty.  He will be back.

And consider that most of Lincecum’s struggles and control problems against the Phillies can be attributed to old fashioned, ordinary, and expected rookie nerves.  After all, it was a tall order to ask a kid who less than a year ago was still pitching for the University of Washington to step up and deliver a gem in his debut against one of the most patient teams in baseball while on TV in front of the whole country.  But just as he did after that day in spring training when nerves got the best of him, he’ll bounce back and be stronger for it.  Of that I have no doubt. 

Tim Lincecum Giants fans, is still The Future.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.