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.
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."
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
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
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?
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.