This is my Tuesday column.
What a fall.
We thought Tim Lincecum was a future Hall of Famer. A lock. Now he’s not even a lock to stay in the Giants’ starting rotation. Far from it.
The man twice won the Cy Young Award by the age of 25 and threw a 95-mph fastball. He couldn’t control it, but he didn’t have to — it was 95. Here it is. Try to hit it. Now, it’s only 87 mph and Lincecum still can’t control it. Big problem. The catcher sets up down and away, the ball drifts up and in. Lincecum’s phlegmatic fastball misses the target by a foot.
So Lincecum doesn’t want to throw it. Tries to work around it. This season, fewer than half of his pitches have been fastballs. The season he won his first Cy Young — 2008 — more than 65 percent of his pitches were fastballs.
Lincecum has become a junk pitcher. He wants to throw curveballs, sliders and changeups — pitches that break below the strike zone. Pitches that bounce in the dirt. Pitches that make batters swing and miss.
One major league batting coach said he instructs his hitters not to swing early in the count against Lincecum. He told them to wait.
Lincecum likes to get ahead early and force batters to chase his junk the rest of the at bat. But Lincecum can’t control his fastball. So if the batter doesn’t swing, Lincecum falls behind and one of two things happens: He hangs a breaking ball and it gets crushed, or eventually issues a walk.
That’s what happened Sunday night against the Dodgers. Lincecum tried to establish his fastball in the bottom of the first, and walked the third batter of the game — Justin Turner. Next batter, Lincecum gave up a single, and Turner ran to third base. Next batter, Lincecum threw a fastball 5 feet over catcher Andrew Susac’s head. The ball skipped to the backstop and Turner scored from third.
Lincecum gave up on his fastball at that point and started throwing breaking balls almost exclusively. Which got him out of the first inning. Dodgers left fielder Alex Guerrero chased a breaking ball for out No. 3.
In the bottom of the second, the Dodgers hitters sat on Lincecum’s breaking pitches. They waited for him to hang one, and then they crushed it. Checkmate. The Dodgers smacked five hits off Lincecum in the second before Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy pulled him. It was the shortest start of Lincecum’s career — just an inning and a third.
Lincecum can forget the Hall. That dream is over. He has to deal with the reality of being just another guy. Just another struggling pitcher hanging onto a job in the Major Leagues.
Sunday may have been Lincecum’s final start with the Giants. He’ll be a free agent after this year, and it’s hard to imagine the Giants re-signing him considering how poorly he has pitched recently. His ERA is 7.00 his past six starts.
His next scheduled start is Saturday at home against the Colorado Rockies, but he probably won’t make it. Jake Peavy, who has missed the entire season with a bad back, is healthy and ready to pitch. He has to take someone’s spot, and Lincecum is the obvious choice.
Peavy can’t replace Madison Bumgarner — duh. He can’t replace Chris Heston, the rookie who threw a no-hitter on June 9. And he can’t replace Tim Hudson, the vet who gave up just two runs in his most recent start.
The only way Lincecum makes his start on Saturday is if Peavy takes Ryan Vogelsong’s spot in the rotation instead, which is possible. Vogelsong has struggled this season. He was supposed to be a reliever, anyway. He’s starting only because Peavy and Matt Cain were injured.
Like Peavy, Cain is close to returning. If Peavy takes Vogelsong’s spot, Cain will take Lincecum’s spot in about a week. One way or another, Lincecum has reached the end of his rope.
As long as the Giants’ starting pitchers stay healthy, Lincecum probably will spend the rest of the season rotting in the bullpen. He isn’t suited for relief. Relievers put out fires — Lincecum starts them. He’s a full-on arsonist. He’s the last reliever the Giants would use.
If Lincecum can’t start or pitch in relief, what in the world can he do?
What a fall.
Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for The Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.