Lincecum Is a Super 'Freak'

Tim Lincecum
The Giants moved Tim Lincecum, their top draft pick in 2006, into the major leagues after only 62 2/3 minor-league innings. (Dilip Vishwanat - Getty Images)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tim Lincecum's hair is still wet from a postgame shower, which must be worth at least an extra pound. He has a fat, silver belt buckle holding up his jeans -- call it another pound or so, including the jeans. The tight, designer T-shirt with the cool Japanese lettering is pretty flimsy -- a few ounces at most. Throw in the retro sneakers and the cap pulled low over his eyes, and Tim Lincecum might be all of 174 pounds.

If you saw him at the mall on this night, or in line at the movie theater, you would look right past the boyish-faced kid who stands 5 feet 11 1/2 (but who makes sure the media guide says 6-0). In that regard, you would not be much different than the ballpark security guards around the country who routinely make him show an ID before they allow him into the clubhouse.

If you saw the same 23-year-old kid on a pitcher's mound, however, and watched him throw some warmup tosses -- each with the same, odd, maxed-out delivery -- then observed the awkward swings the first batter musters against him, and if you stole a glance at the radar-gun readout after one of his fastballs, which regularly approach 100 mph, you would realize you were looking at someone special.

"He's a freak of nature," said Giants General Manager Brian Sabean. "To have that kind of athletic ability, those mechanics and the sheer strength he has -- with his stature -- is just unheard of."

The Giants 2 1/2 months ago unleashed Lincecum, their top draft pick in 2006, upon the major leagues, following a mere 62 2/3 minor league innings, during which he compiled a 1.01 ERA while striking out 14.9 batters per nine innings. As a big league rookie, he's 4-2 with a 4.37 ERA after pitching 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball on Monday night against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, though he got a no-decision as Chicago rallied for a 3-2 victory. But peer beyond those standard numbers, the same way you must look past his unassuming appearance, and you can see a superstar pitcher taking shape.

Entering Monday's start, Lincecum was allowing only a .220 batting average to opposing hitters, which would rank ninth in the major leagues if he had enough innings to qualify. His 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings would rank third behind Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett. He struck out eight on Monday.

Still, even more than the numbers, the delivery sets Lincecum apart. It features a pronounced tilt of the head during an equally pronounced windup, a lengthy stride and a whip action with the arm. It has been compared to that of Sandy Koufax, Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Bob Gibson -- and those are merely the ones rattled off in one sentence, each representing a piece of the Lincecum's overall delivery, by Lincecum's father, Chris.

"I developed that form," said Chris Lincecum, 59, who raised Tim in the suburbs of Seattle. "It's really close to mine."

A former star pitcher in high school, Chris Lincecum was prevented from rising above the semi-pro ranks by injuries, but he developed an interest in the biomechanics of pitching and set about teaching his sons, Sean and Tim, how to pitch.

"My brother has 3 1/2 years on me," Tim Lincecum said. "He was learning all that stuff first, so I was this little four-year-old kid watching my brother and learning the same mechanics. You can see me on film when I was a little kid. It's a smaller body, but the same mechanics."

Chris Lincecum said he developed the motion "as a series of hinges -- ankles, knees, hips, chest, shoulder, elbow, wrist, fingertips."

"Think of the body as a pole in the pole vault," he said. "When the guy runs with the pole and lodges it in the ground with his momentum behind it, the pole bends at the lowest point and whips the body over. It's the same concept. [Tim's] left leg, the front leg, is like the pole. We leverage our way up over that front leg. That's why he has one of the longest strides in the game."

The Giants may not buy -- or even understand -- everything Chris Lincecum says, but the front office ordered its field staff at both the minor and major league level not to tinker with Lincecum's mechanics.

Even Lincecum's habit of shunning a postgame ice-pack on his arm following starts -- something only a handful of big league pitchers do -- has been accepted by the organization.

"I've never had a single arm problem in my life," Lincecum said. "My dad used to say, 'Ice is only good for injuries and my drinks.' It's not like he never allowed me to ice. I just never needed it."

It is also clear Lincecum is an exceptional athlete. He can do a back flip from a standing start, or cartwheel into a front flip, or walk across a room on his hands. He played football and basketball in high school, and when he needed to shoot a nine-hole score of 40 to make the golf team, after having only played 27 holes in his life, he shot 39.

"If he ever pitches a perfect game, you'll want to be there," his father said, "because he told me he'll do a back flip off the mound."

After three dazzling years at the University of Washington, where he set a Pacific-10 record for career strikeouts, Lincecum was rumored to be among the players the Kansas City Royals were considering for the first overall pick in the June 2006 draft. Instead, he fell to 10th overall, where the Giants snatched him up.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if he was 6-5, 220, instead of 5-11, 170," one rival executive said, "he would've gone first."

It was clear from the start that Lincecum had little, if anything, to learn in the minor leagues. He lasted only two appearances at low Class A Salem-Keizer, allowing only one hit while striking out 10 in four innings, then made six dominant starts at high Class A San Jose.

The Giants resisted the urge to call him up last September -- figuring the financial damage of "starting his clock" toward future eligibility for salary arbitration outweighed the benefits. But when veteran Russ Ortiz was hurt at the end of April, the move was obvious, if only because Lincecum at the time was 4-0 with a 0.29 ERA at Class AAA Fresno.

As such, Lincecum made it to the majors less than a year after he was drafted, joining a select group of starting pitchers, which includes Justin Verlander and Mark Prior, who have done that.

At his home outside Seattle, Chris Lincecum has gone from videotaping each of Tim's starts in person -- for the purpose of dissecting each one with him afterward -- to Tivo'ing them off television. The kid still calls every day, and their post-start conversations can last for hours.

"I'm not living my life through Timmy," Chris Lincecum said, "but I'm excited for him. For me, it's also exciting, but it's not exactly fun. It's stressful. What's fun is after he pitches a good game. Then I can relax and enjoy it for a few days before I start thinking about the next one."

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