How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant (cont.)
Peterson and Duquette (the former Orioles G.M.), in conjunction with ASMI, have formed a private start-up to bring pitching biomechanics mainstream. Their fundamental challenge is to make the hardware and expertise of the ASMI lab portable with sensorless technology. On a major league level, for instance, that would mean giving pitchers biomechanical feedback in real time during the game on a clubhouse monitor. On the amateur market, it would mean testing top pitchers at so-called showcase events such as the Area Code Games and Perfect Game and sending them home with a diagnosis and prescription, including drills and a conditioning program to turn red flags into green ones.
"It's very close to coming out, and it's going to turn into a competitive field pretty quickly," Duquette says. "The last time I looked there were hundreds of millions of dollars [worth of pitchers] on the disabled list. Why wouldn't you want to find an answer in that regard? The number of [elbow] and shoulder surgeries is at an alltime high. To have an analysis done and have a program to reduce the [number] of injuries and surgeries is long overdue."
According to Fleisig, the No. 1 injury risk for pitchers is overuse. Young pitchers who continued to pitch with arm fatigue are 36 times more likely to be seriously injured. The risk is exacerbated by poor mechanics. "After someone has pitched for so many years, there are so many weak links in the chain already," Peterson says. "The dynamic power [of the start-up] is at the amateur level. Most people are of the belief that when you talk about fundamental skills of sport, the younger you begin, the better off you are. But the longer you wait to pitch, the better you are. Because understanding the rotational forces is so great, if you're out of synch, you're damaging your arm with every pitch. You can hit for a long time and be a bad batter, and you're not going to injure yourself. Not true with pitching. You will get hurt.
"And those kids, they can and will be saved."
Brad Lincoln, whom the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted six spots ahead of Lincecum, missed all of last season with a blown elbow and has not made it past Class A ball. The other five pitchers selected before Lincecum in 2006 -- the Mariners' Morrow, the Kansas City Royals' Luke Hochevar, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Clayton Kershaw, the Florida Marlins' Andrew Miller (a Detroit Tigers draftee) and the Colorado Rockies' Greg Reynolds -- are a combined 20-31 in the majors, or four more wins (and 25 more losses) than Lincecum has. Lincecum has a .727 winning percentage for a team that has played .394 baseball (69-106) in the games that he hasn't started.
"In my 13 years in the big leagues," San Francisco infielder Rich Aurilia says, "this is the only guy I've seen who really is worth the hype. The first one. The real deal. And the reason I say that is not just the stuff. That's obvious to everybody. But it's the fact that he's a great kid who is smart, who is willing to learn and who respects the game. I really mean that. He's an easy kid to root for, and I don't say that just because he's my teammate. He's going to be great for this game.''
On that hot, early-June night in Washington, Lincecum carved up the Nationals with such ease that he missed the strike zone only 28 times to 25 batters. He bore 94-mph two-seamers into the knuckles of righthanded hitters, blew 97-mph four-seamers to every edge of the strike zone, snapped off wicked 80-mph curveballs and fiendishly disguised downward-breaking 84-mph split changeups with the same ferocious arm speed as his fastball. Lincecum allowed one run in seven innings; he threw 83 pitches. Afterward, as always, he showered and jumped back into his skateboarder attire without bothering to ice his arm. "Never," Tim says. "Like my dad says, 'Ice is made for two things: injuries and my drinks.' "
"I thought I'd have more problems with his delivery," Nationals first baseman Aaron Boone says, "but it wasn't as deceptive as I thought. The fastball, though, is big-time. And that hammer [the curveball] is really good. That was impressive."
Shapiro, the Indians' G.M., recently pulled up the original notes from when Cleveland scouts and executives were trying to decide what to make of Lincecum before the 2005 draft. "No. 2 starter.... Wonder if he's going to hold up as a starter.... Freaky..... Maybe a Frankie Rodriguez[-type] bullpen guy.... Potential closer/setup man.... Potential front of the rotation....." Shapiro said, "We're split. Probably more reliever than starter. There was some concern that he would have to get to the big leagues quickly because you weren't sure he could make it through the usual four hundred to five hundred innings as a starter in the minors. His arm speed is ridiculous -- like it's going to fly off one day."
Chris Lincecum never needed a primer on biomechanics to know that the scouts who doubted his son were wrong. As ASMI -- with its proprietary measurements and motion-capture technology -- pushes pitching further toward quantitative analysis, an aviation parts worker with a backyard mound, a camcorder and an intuitive understanding of how his son's body moves through space traffics in simpler explanations. "I believe," Chris says, "in something called dangle."
Dangle is a term you surely will not find among ASMI's 42 measurements. Dangle refers to the looseness of a pitcher's arm action, the well-lubricated unhinging of the limbs and body, which helps explain why Chris regards Satchel Paige and Sandy Koufax, two hallowed flow pitchers, as the spiritual forefathers to Tim's mechanics. "He'll throw forever," Chris once posted on a blog, referring to his son, "and maintain his velocities and the best breaking ball since Sandy Koufax and the best fastball since Gibson and Feller."
Says Chris now, "A friend told me someday everybody will be throwing like Tim. I hope they do."
"Can't happen," Righetti says, "because few pitchers are as athletic as Tim."
The father's job is done. Version 2.0 is a finished product. Tim is a treasure, a reliable, workhorse major league starter, but also a testament to that unmeasurable art and mystery that always remain within the discipline of pitching. "My dad would notice itty-bitty things with my mechanics and make it second nature for me," Tim says. "Now I'm making adjustments quicker. It's nice to have him there, but I don't need him there to tell me what's going on. I can make those adjustments pitch to pitch now as opposed to game to game."
Maybe the phone doesn't ring as often, and maybe Chris no longer is there behind the backstop with his camcorder and his hand signals. But whenever Tim stands on a big league mound with a baseball in his hand, a 172-pound confounder of hitters and convention, the father is there.
"In my head I can hear his voice," Tim says. "Sometimes I'll be thinking, What would he be saying right now? What am I doing? Because we've been doing it for so long. I'm still young, but I've been doing my mechanics for over three quarters of my life. It should be coming easier to me on the mound. In the back of my mind I'm hearing things that he would say."
Sit down on your legs.... Relax your shoulders.... Left side on target.... Pick up the frickin' dollar....
And then he is ready. The Freak begins to coil and release again. And when the motion is just about perfect, when it approaches that unquantifiable state of dangle, it is not just his right arm that comes along for the ride. The rest of us come too, filled with wonder and awe.