Has Tim Lincecum's Spring Fever Broken?

Mar. 7, 2012; Scottsdale, AZ, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) during the first inning during a spring training game against Colorado Rockies at Scottsdale Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Hilderbrand-US PRESSWIRE

After a rough outing last week, the Giants' pitching ace returned to the mound Monday afternoon against the Royals. Is there any reason to worry about him?

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Tim Lincecum pitched today.

The last time Tim Lincecum pitched, he fared not well at all: five runs, seven hits, one walk and (horrors!) not even a single solitary strikeout. Also, he didn't throw as hard as we're used to seeing, his fastball mostly hovering in the 88-89 range, well under last season's average of roughly 92 miles an hour.

After that last appearance, CSNBayArea.com's Lee Siegel scurried to the dusty record books and tracked down every spring-training inning of Tim Lincecum's career; all 26 games and 86 innings. The results?

Lincecum's spring fever started with his very first spring appearance in 2007. Three earned runs in two innings pitched against Milwaukee. It has continued every spring.

Eight times, including Wednesday, he has had at least as many earned runs as innings pitched in a spring appearance.

Home or away doesn’t matter; he has stunk both places. Early or later in spring training; he's had some stinkers in both time periods. Early or later in his career, age hasn’t affected his up-and-down starts. There isn't one year he has sailed through spring training; the best he fared was 2009 when he posted a 4.03 ERA (though that was also the year of his lowest season ERA, 2.48). His career spring ERA is 5.25.

Well, yes. But as Siegel also points out, Lincecum entered Monday's start with 94 strikeouts in those 86 innings. And his 2.85 strikeout-to-walk ratio is just a touch lower than his career regular-season mark (2.97).

There are caveats, of course (always, there are caveats). Lincecum's not facing the same overall quality of hitters in March that he faces in April through September. Still, I would suggest that his spring-training numbers track his regular-season numbers closely enough that we should not characterize them as stinking. Essentially, he's given up two more home runs than "usual" and I suspect his bullpen didn't help much, leading to the bloated ERA.

Bottom line, Lincecum has not been a different pitcher during spring training. ERA is a good statistic, but it's not perfect and can be particularly deceptive over the course of 86 innings. And has been, in this case.

So if Tim Lincecum went through a whole spring training and didn't pitch effectively -- in particular, if he threw significantly slower than usual, and didn't control the strike zone -- he might be worth worrying about. I mean, more than we usually worry, because worrying about young (and old) pitchers is just something that we do, naturally.

Monday against the Royals, he pitched effectively: four innings, one hit, two walks, four strikeouts. He threw 29 fastballs, most of them in the 90s. His slowest fastballs were 89 miles an hour, and he averaged 91 ... just a touch short of last season's average.

Again, caveats: He threw harder in his first two innings than his last two, and all four of his strikeouts came on off-speed pitches. Afterward, Lincecum seemed pleased with his curveball and change-up, but noted his fastball "got away from me at times."

But maybe this is just The New Tim Lincecum. Last season -- a fine season, by any measure -- Lincecum's fastball wasn't anything like his best pitch.

He used to routinely throw 94 miles an hour. Now he routinely throws 92 miles an hour. And he's been highly effective at both speeds. Would he be as effective at 90? Or 88? Probably not. Right now, though? He's throwing 91, will probably throw 92 once the real games get going, and will probably be plenty effective. Again.

*********

I'd never been around Lincecum before today. And my, what a delightful young man!

Danny Knobler asked Lincecum about Luke Hochevar, his opposite number today. In the 2006 amateur draft, Lincecum was taken by the Giants with the 10th pick; Hochevar by the Royals with the first pick.

Yeah. Oops. Of course, eight other teams could have selected Lincecum, too. The Rays took Evan Longoria with the third pick and the Dodgers took Clayton Kershaw with the seventh pick, but everybody else pretty much whiffed.

Anyway, Lincecum said some nice things about Hochevar's stuff, and how Hochevar, "like all of us", just needs to hit his spots. When asked if the Royals had any interest in drafting him with that first pick, Lincecum said, "I was the undersized pitcher. So wherever I fell, I was happy with it."

I'm glad there's room in the game for somebody like Tim Lincecum.

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