Worrying about Tim Lincecum has become something of a cottage industry. The only reason I titled this piece "What's Wrong With Tim Lincecum?" is so it would be considered for the year-end compendium of "What's Wrong With Tim Lincecum?" articles. After five years, all of the year-end compendiums will be collected for a coffee-table book. Five years of "What's Wrong With Tim Lincecum?" articles in one book. And I want a piece of that action. Ka-ching!
Lincecum pitched on Monday night, and he gave up four runs in the first inning. He settled down and finished six innings, but the damage was done. He's allowed ten runs in the first inning this year. He allowed eight last year. The answer to the question in the headline: Dunno. Something. Something's wrong with Tim Lincecum. You can make that last sentence as ominous as you want, or you can make it a relatively innocuous thing. As in:
Something's wrong with Tim Lincecum. His velocity is down. It's not coming back. And if the arm strength goes, the breaking stuff isn't going to be as crisp. The little levers and pulleys inside his arm and shoulder are weathered and decrepit, and every pitch he throws could be the last before he becomes Livan Hernandez once and for all, flopping 65-m.p.h. curves to set up his 81-m.p.h. fastball. That's if he doesn't break down completely.
Something's wrong with Tim Lincecum. He's not getting his plant foot down in the same spot, and it's leading to inconsistent release spots. His command is off, and he keeps leaving breaking pitches up in the zone.
Disclaimer: I'm pretty useless when it comes to pitching mechanics, so some of that last section was invented. But the overall point stands. Something's wrong with Tim Lincecum, but you can make it a little wrong or a big Wrong, depending on your level of fatalism.
If you're thinking that the wrong is a lower-case 'w', you can point to how Lincecum gave up his runs. A pop fly became a double because of a defensive miscue, a 3-2 changeup led to a walk, a solid single, a bloop single and a line-drive double. His stuff and command was fine after that. Roy Halladay gave up just as many runners through the first six innings; he just gave them up in a better order.
If you're thinking that the wrong is an upper-case 'W', you can point to the diminishing velocity. He started at 91 in the first, went to 90 in the third, and dipped to 89 by the fifth. And you can't just dismiss the walk, the solid single, and the double in the first sequence. They happened. Missed spots and flat breaking balls were responsible. He wasn't pitching pretty. The fastball isn't blow-away quality anymore, and that makes all his other offerings just a little more hittable.
Lincecum also has to fight the easily recognizable starting point. There's a reason why Albert Pujols' slow start last year inspired a thousand columns about what could be wrong, whereas no one really cared about Matt Kemp hitting .224/.306/.429 from April 25 to May 24. The latter was a performance plucked on purpose from a sea of endpoints; the former's struggles started on Opening Day, which has to mean something more because there wasn't anything before it with which to compare.
But Lincecum has had hiccups like this in the middle of the regular season. His August 2010 performance would have made Adam Eaton wince. He started last June with a miserable string of starts. Both set off a spate of "WWWTL?" articles, as Jonah Keri collected here. People take notice every time, start of the season or not. And Lincecum's bounced back every time.
This could be the suppressed scout in all of us, the voice in the back of our collective head that believes that Lincecum was too small to succeed, and that he was likely to break down. The universe forgot to carry the two but finally figured out its mistake, and now everything's returning to its natural state. Maybe that's why everyone's so quick to wonder what's wrong with Tim Lincecum.
Or maybe there's something wrong with Tim Lincecum. Like, really wrong. And maybe he isn't bouncing back this time. It's happened to scores and scores of talented pitchers throughout history.
You're probably already leaning toward big-W wrong or little-w wrong. None of these articles are going to change your mind. But something's wrong with Tim Lincecum. And we can't be sure of a lot just yet, but we do know one thing: Tim Lincecum's struggles just made you read another "What's Wrong With Tim Lincecum?" article. He tends to do that every season or so.