From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, July 7, 2008
AS IF PEERING AROUND A CORNER, THE FREAK TILTS HIS head slightly to the left and 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 G.M. Mark Shapiro, whose team drafted but did not sign Lincecum, still available at pick No. 1,261, in 2005. 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, his boyish face framed by an ink-black curtain of shaggy hair, has little use for comb or razor. 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. Six of the first seven teams to pick in the '06 draft selected pitchers. All of them passed on Lincecum, though by then the junior at Washington was a two-time Pac-10 pitcher of the year who had struck out more batters than anyone else in conference history, including Tom Seaver, Randy Johnson and Mark Prior. 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 wasting his time down there.
Since his May 2007 call-up Lincecum has been only slightly more challenged by major league hitters, and his 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. In his first 40 career starts 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 Mets in the mid-'80s, has won 70% of his decisions over his first two seasons while logging more strikeouts than innings.
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?
The Boeing employee who taught Lincecum how to pitch is his dad, Chris, a vibrant, fast-talking 60-year-old. Only 5' 11", 175 himself, Chris 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 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 was the prototype, and I'm version 2.0."
In the stands Chris sat behind home plate and flashed 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. 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 of 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 habits 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.
"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."
The last part of turning Tim into a major league pitcher was the hardest part for Chris: He had to let go. Lincecum 2.0 belongs to the world now, to the big cities and the fancy hotels and the media and everything else that comes with the spectacle of big league life. In Bellevue, where Chris still gets up each day for work at 5:30 a.m., the phone doesn't ring quite as often with the happy promise of his son's voice. "I used to hear from him every night, even when he played in the Cape Cod League," Chris says. "As soon as he got to the majors, I [started to] hear from him about once a week. But I understand.
"Timmy's kind of like my soul mate. I pray for only one thing, and it's for my sons, and it's not about the most wins or getting rich. I pray my kids are safe and healthy."