How Tiny Tim Became a Pitching Giant
The mechanics of diminutive Tim Lincecum -- looks 18, throws 98 -- are more than an act of violence, they're a marvel of modern science. Unconventionally honed by his father, that delivery has produced the most fascinating ace of his generation
As if peering around a corner, the Freak tilts his head slightly to the left as he begins his explosive, homemade pitching delivery. What lurks around that corner is either greatness or danger, which makes tiny Tim Lincecum, all 172 pounds of him, the most fascinating pitcher in baseball. Not since Mark (the Bird) Fidrych spoke to baseballs, manicured mounds and baffled hitters more than 30 years ago has a pitcher been this consistent and this captivating from the start of his career. Lincecum does not throw a baseball as much as he launches it, 98-mph rockets somehow expelled, with finely tuned kinetic energy, from a batboy's body. He scares hitters and scouts alike.
"There aren't too many comparables at his size, especially as starting pitchers," says Cleveland Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, whose team in 2005 drafted but did not sign Lincecum, still available at pick No. 1,261. A stumped Indians scouting department could not agree whether the undersized righthander was an ace, a closer, a setup man or a horrific medical disaster waiting to happen. "It looks like his head is going to snap off and his arm is going to fly off," Shapiro continues. "Body type has something to do with it, but the way he throws too."
"Timmy?" Giants manager Bruce Bochy says when approached by a reporter about Lincecum. "You mean the Freak?"
Lincecum, 24, his boyish face framed by an ink-black curtain of shaggy hair, has little use for comb or razor. The San Francisco Giants' ace has been stopped for trespassing by clubhouse security attendants who don't believe he is a ballplayer. In early June he showed up for work in Washington, D.C., wearing jeans, a T-shirt and a black wool hat pulled low in the 90° heat. He is 5' 10" -- maybe. He is 172 sinewy pounds of skin, bones, fast-twitch muscles and, in the heat of battle, intracooled circulatory and nervous systems.
It frightens the chaw out of the cheeks of traditional baseball people that someone so lithe can throw 98 mph. The skittish Baltimore Orioles, picking ninth in the '06 draft, basically took him off their board -- though by then Lincecum, a junior at Washington, was a two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year who had struck out more batters than any other pitcher in conference history, including Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Mark Prior. "We took a high school hitter," recalls then-Baltimore general manager Jim Duquette, referring to Bill Rowell, a third baseman who is hitting .225 in high A ball. "There was a feeling that [Lincecum] was short, not a real physical kid, and mechanically he was going to break down, that there was enough stress on his arm, elbow and shoulder. Our scouting department kind of pushed him down because of the medical aspect."
Six of the first seven teams to pick in that draft selected pitchers. All of them passed on Lincecum, even the Seattle Mariners, who played it safe in choosing the strapping 6' 3" righthander Brandon Morrow -- a guy they use in relief at that -- rather than the Freak in their own backyard. The Giants took Lincecum at No. 10. He pitched only 13 times in the minors, allowing seven earned runs and whiffing 104 batters in 62 2/3 innings, before it became obvious to San Francisco that it had a prodigy who was wasting his time down there.
Since his May 2007 call-up Lincecum has been only slightly more challenged by major league hitters. In 40 starts through Sunday, he was 16-6 with a 3.30 ERA and 264 strikeouts in 256 innings. Only one starting pitcher in baseball history, Dwight Gooden of the New York Mets in the mid-'80s, has won 70% of his decisions over his first two seasons while logging more strikeouts than innings.
Lincecum's reliability at the start of his career is historically remarkable. He is one of only seven pitchers since 1956 to throw 30 quality starts in his first 40 games. If there is any justice in baseball, or the least bit of awareness of plot, Lincecum will take the ball as the starter at Yankee Stadium in this month's All-Star Game just as Fidrych did in Philadelphia in 1976.
How can it be that a runt like Lincecum, who learned virtually everything he knows about pitching from a parts inventory employee for Boeing, is this good, this reliable while a 6' 5", 225-pound, broad-backed pitcher template such as Prior, the epitome of modern training and coaching, routinely breaks down?
The Boeing employee who taught Lincecum how to pitch is his dad, Chris, a vibrant, fast-talking 60-year-old whom you don't dare disappoint with the wrong answer when he asks, "You want the long version or the short version?" One day last month Chris telephoned his son with a concern.
"Tim, everybody is calling you a freak."
"Well, Dad, I am. Why?"
"How can you say you're a freak? You're just a good athlete."
"O.K., is Michael Jordan a freak? Tiger Woods? Jack Nicklaus?"
"Yeah, I'd consider them freaks," Chris said. "Then, O.K., you're a freak."
Chris, only 5' 11", 175 himself, pitched as a youth and claims to have thrown 88 mph at age 52. He was teaching son Sean, four years older than Tim, on a backyard mound in Bellevue, Wash., when Tim, at five, began piggybacking on those lessons. The mechanics Tim employs now are the same he used then, the same as Chris used as a boy himself. "My dad and I aren't very large guys, so it's about efficiency and getting the most out of my body that I can," Tim says. "He learned that, and I'm a modified version of that. He was the prototype, and I'm version 2.0." Before Tim accepted a full ride at Washington, Chris made the Huskies' coaches promise they wouldn't change his mechanics.
Chris designed a weight-training program for Tim and videotaped all his amateur games -- the two of them would critically review them the next day -- except for road games when Tim was in college. By then Chris knew his younger son's mechanics so well that even while listening to those games on the radio, he could "see" what Tim was doing wrong. "Watch the angle of your shoulders!" he might yell, for example, at the radio when his son's location was particularly off.
In the stands Chris would sit behind home plate and flash signals to Tim, who knew exactly what to correct. If, for instance, Chris slapped his thighs, Tim knew to "sit down on my legs" through his delivery, to use the lower half of his body more. "His dad obviously did a very good job with Timmy," says Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. "I treat Timmy differently from most pitchers: I leave him alone."