Bay Area Blues: What’s Wrong With Tim Lincecum?

Close to home, Ubaldo Jimenez has struggled mightily for the Tribe. After years of dominating in the most hitter-friendly park in the ML, the Dominican defector has underwhelmed on the shores of Erie, tallying up pedestrian stats for a middling ballclub. But laments concerning Jimenez’s performance seem trivial when measured against Giants “ace” and poster child of the West Coast antiestablishmentarian culture, Tim Lincecum.

How a player transitions from Cy Youngs and punchouts to criticism and punchlines is perplexing. Lincecum, diminutive and unorthodox, captivated Giants fans with his successes. Like a magician with an unsolvable trick, Lincecum’s whirling, corkscrewing mechanics bewilderingly retired batter after batter to the delight of Giants backers. Eschewing the science of economy, his getup is unadulterated art, an eccentric painter brushing his canvas with fastballs and curves.

If a bear attacks, common advice is to make yourself look big. Lincecum is fending off ursine aggression with each pitch, rearing his left leg back before a kinetic thrust towards the plate. His delivery brought home 2 consecutive Cy Young awards and 4 straight spots in the All-Star game. More standard instruction when a predator attacks: play dead. In 2012, Lincecum has been a welcome mat for opposing hitters.

Just how bad has Lincecum been this year? After his All-Star selection last year, his ERA at the All-Star break was 6.42, dead last among starters in the league. His record was 3-10. For these gaudy stats, Lincecum is making over twenty million dollars. That projects to over 3 million for each win. Cardinals pitcher Lance Lynn, who is 13-4 in 20 starts, is earning more then 40 times less then Lincecum, at $482,000.

Fortunes have flopped before, but Lincecum’s regression may be the most severe freefall in baseball history. One past precedent where an unconventional pitcher goes from unhittable to unplayable is the case of Dontrelle Willis. His rookie season, he won 14 games and led the Marlins to a World Series win, baffling opponents with his high kick. Like Lincecum, he was successful for about 4 years. In 2005, the apex of his career, Willis netted the Marlins 22 wins and a 2.63 ERA. Since a 2007 trade to the Detroit Tigers, Willis has won a total of 4 games in 53 starts, with an ERA above 5 each season. Signed and released by 6 different clubs since 2007, Willis announced his retirement earlier this month. Popular theory holds that once batters were acclimated to Willis’ unique delivery, the novelty quickly faded and Willis got shellacked.

The Hurler Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona carries a volatile track record, with his inconsistencies providing statistical peaks and valleys. His sophomore campaign in 2007 was a 19 win season, but Carmona went 1-10 in his rookie year. Carmona toiled again last year, posting a 7-15 record just two years after a 5-12 season. The rest of his years have been respectable, but nowhere near the mirage of dominance beget by his 2007 performance. Carmona struggled even more this offseason than during the regular season; he was busted for identity fraud, gaining 3 years overnight. Sure, he duped Indians scouts and the oraganization into signing and spending millions on him, but the Tribe got the last laugh, giving him three birthday cakes upon his return to compensate for lost time.

Lincecum’s trajectory has mirrored Willis’ more than Carmona’s in all arenas- except for a treasure trove of media fodder. His affinity for marijuana, belied by his image, was confirmed by a 2009 arrest for possession. 2009 also saw Lincecum appear on the cover of pot periodical High Times Magazine, holding a baseball printed with a marijuana leaf.  Tim further entrenched himself in a cannabis conundrum following the Giants 2010 World Series victory, when he was asked about how San Francisco is reacting to the victory. “A lot of beer flowing. Smoke in the air, I’m hoping.”

The remark sparked controversy in the national media, but it lit a flame under progressive fans who embarked on a popular T-shirt campaign pleading “Let Timmy Smoke.” Lincecum’s carefree attitude resonates with Giants backers, making him a fan favorite. His surfer aesthetic magnifies Bay Area ideals, almost an amalgam of local attitudes, the physical manifestation of the city.

So why have the wheels fell off? Giants staff don’t have definitive answers to the $40.5 million dollar question. Lincecum’s velocity on his fastball is down, a malady credited to losing weight after omitting In-N-Out Burger from his diet. He’s allowing more walks per inning then in previous years, highlighting control issues prevalent throughout the season.

San Franciso has struck it rich with a gold rush of offense, scoring a revitalized Melky Carbrera for Jonathan Sanchez, a starter who was demoted for pitching worse than Lincecum. NL All-Star starter Matt Cain and Giants compatriot Madison Bumgarner have shouldered the burden of Lincecum’s collapse and kept the Giants afloat and in contention. His career prospects are comatose on life support. The Giants have a difficult decision to make: Should they terminate the career of a fan favorite, or do nostalgia and monetary investment stop them from pulling the cord?


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