Tim Lincecum’s velocity readings are one tell. In 2007 and 2008, when Lincecum was fresh-faced, gawky and his most freakish, he was averaging 94 on his fastball. He was also averaging 10 strikeouts per nine and becoming a Cy Young pitcher.
The velocity would dip after that. He was hitting 91 and 92 over the next three seasons, then 89 and 90 over the following three. By 2015 he was averaging 87, striking out 7.1 per nine and posting a 4.13 ERA. That’s actually not bad, but Lincecum was no longer reliable and a shell of his previous exceptional self. After one failed comeback in 2016, he was gone. He was also 32.
The velocity readings are one tell, but anyone who has been following baseball knows that “The Freak” is closer to myth than present-day reality. His reign seems to belong in a time capsule, swift but sweet, a four-year stretch where he couldn’t be touched. He struck out 977 hitters in those four seasons, winning 62 games and leading the Giants to a world championship.
Now Lincecum, 33, is coming back. He agreed to a one-year, $1 million major league contract with the Rangers. He will pitch in the big leagues again. He will get another opportunity. But the story of Lincecum isn’t about comebacks, and it isn’t even about those mythical years where he stood atop the pitching world. The Tim Lincecum story is of seeing everything slowly fade away, of watching your best years die in the distance, and of the grand attempt to seize your greatness once more.
It was uncommon in 2007 for a 22-year-old pitcher to immediately light up the major leagues, but Lincecum did just that. Though he gave up five runs in his first major league start, he followed that with a run of solid outings, highlighted by a 10-strikeout game against Houston. As his first season unfolded he rode the rookie-year roller coaster, enduring a few rough starts mixed within quality performances. Then 2008 happened.
It seemed as if Lincecum couldn’t go wrong in 2008. Only once – a 4.1-inning outing in which he gave up six runs to the Rockies – did Lincecum truly stumble that season; otherwise, he was nearly unhittable while pitching at least seven innings 20 times. This was the quintessential Lincecum: The feathery hair whipping to and fro behind his bony face, the outrageous delivery and the stories of his father’s influence, and the silent but deadly results. But there was also the mysterious absence from the 2008 all-star game and the whispers that maybe Lincecum was having too much fun.
Whatever. He was still great. In 2009 he was arguably better, pairing his strikeout stuff with a better walk rate and fewer hits allowed. He was dominant, and he was also ever more giddy, excitable and, well, 25.
At the end of the ’09 season he was charged with marijuana possession. Before pot was legal in his home state of Washington, Lincecum was both a cautionary tale and a cult hero. For some he represented a foolish, irresponsible kid who didn’t appreciate his success, but for others he was just Tim Lincecum, a fun dude who happened to be the best pitcher in the universe. He was also 25. People get slapped on the wrist when they’re 25, and sometimes for much worse. Whatever.
Smoking pot isn’t a serious thing; it isn’t even a crime anymore, but back in 2009 it created just enough of a crumb to invite the whole pack for dinner. Lincecum was still masterful enough to quiet the gnawing, striking out 231 while walking 76. But there was the tell: a drop in velocity, a a 3.43 ERA – a full run less than the year before – and signs that the unorthodox delivery wasn’t as effective as before. He did lead the Giants to a world championship, pitching some of his best baseball in the World Series, but the cracks were only beginning to show.
As the years progressed the cracks grew. He was fantastic in 2011 but felt knee soreness. He cleaned out his body and strove to be the absolute best pitcher of his time. Meanwhile he rejected a five year extension, puzzling in retrospect, but back then proof of a 26-year-old’s unassailable belief in his gifts. That backfired. He put up a 5.18 ERA in 2012, and the Giants made him a reliever in the postseason. That worked. The old fire was still there. But it didn’t last long.
There were tweaks, attempts to fix his delivery, but Lincecum could never get it back. The velocity dropped. The strikeout numbers fell. He still had his moments, including two no-hitters in 2013 and ’14, but he wasn’t the same freak who was baseball’s brightest attraction. The bottom dropped out in 2015; he was no longer a strikeout pitcher, throwing 87 with a fastball that in a previous life lit the Bay Area. The funny thing is Lincecum was still decent – his ERA after a June 16 start that year was 3.31 – but he wasn’t the Freak. He wasn’t powerful, rubbery and exciting. He was 31 and suddenly a regular old pitcher.
Regular old pitchers aren’t captivating. And at 31, if you’re not captivating, you’re just anyone else on the street, a shadow in a sweatshirt. Lincecum could never be that guy. It wasn’t in his smile or laugh. It wasn’t in his bony face or rail-thin arms. It wasn’t in his feathery hair or rubberband delivery. So he faded away, the best years deep in the distance. And he tried with the Angels, maybe thinking a change of scenery would reignite the flame. But that just felt hollow. A 9.16 ERA. Too many walks. An 87 mph fastball.
Now he’s back again, ready to come out of the bullpen while wearing the red, white and blue of the Rangers. He won’t be Tim Lincecum, the feathery haired wild boy who captured our attention in cream, orange and gray. He went through the short hair phase. He went through the mustache phase. Now he’s muscular, no longer a twenty-something out for fun but a thirty-something out to prove himself capable of hanging with the kids. He returns to a league of launch angles, where everyone’s striking out and kids with mighty power rule the world. Lincecum won’t be unique. He’ll probably be pretty regular out there.
Thirty-somethings are typically pretty regular. But they’re often wiser, more mature and prepared for whatever comes their way. Tim Lincecum has never been in this position before, and while it may not be the Freak who responds, we’re bound to be intrigued while watching this unfold.