I have begun to forget Tim Lincecum.
I certainly remember that the man exists. I, of course, remember his glory years when he was the best pitcher in baseball for a couple of seasons, and one of the game’s best for a couple seasons after that. I naturally remember the 2010 World Series heroics, when he tossed eight innings of one-run ball on the night when the Giants clinched their first championship in 56 years.
I can only admit that all of these facts, these events and these details have dissolved into historical abstraction. I recognize them as things that I witnessed, as things that stirred awe and excitement in me. But in the intervening seven years, they no longer feel graspable. The Lincecum with whom we’ve all been forced to contend with since the beginning of the 2012 season has felt all too more concrete. Lincecum reached such extraordinary heights and fell so rapidly — so completely – -that the present has done all it can to erase the reality of what The Freak stood for.
We now stand at the precipice of yet another attempted Lincecum comeback. His feeble 2016 campaign with the Angels had appeared to quash any hope for a continued big league career, and then suddenly, last December, Lincecum emerged at Driveline Baseball, working on his velocity and his deltoids, apparently.
Could he do it again? Could he, at the ripe old age of 33, with an arm formerly held together by loose bits of string, really hold the title of Major League Pitcher once more? A bunch of teams certainly thought so after he worked out for scouts in February, with positive reports about improved velocity the highlight of the tryout.
tim lincecum threw for 25-30 scouts this afternoon in seattle (at least 15 teams, likely 20). said to have thrown 90-93 mph, better than two years ago. chance for a job: improved.
— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) February 15, 2018
The Texas Rangers took the shot, signing Lincecum to a one-year, $1 million deal with incentives built in. Reports surfaced that manager Jeff Banister will use him in the bullpen, perhaps as the team’s closer. It feels like the setup to some bizarro version of The Rookie, and yet it’s actually happening.
Will it work? Lincecum’s most recent major league experiences would suggest that it will not. The man averaged 88 miles per hour on his fastball in his nine starts with the Angels two years ago, getting lit up for 11 home runs in only 38 1/3 innings. He walked more than 11 percent of the hitters he faced, striking out a mere 16 percent. He allowed a .436 xwOBA on contact. For context, the league average was .362. He pretty much stopped throwing his four-seamer, since it had no gas behind it; the secondary pitches got lit up anyway. Lincecum tallied an 8.18 Deserved Run Average that year, which actually indicated that he might have been a bit unlucky to have a 9.16 ERA next to his name.
After spending his final two years in San Francisco battling injuries and poor performance, Lincecum had to wait until June 2016 to get back in a major league uniform. The experiment didn’t even last the summer before the Angels outrighted him. He couldn’t get a job last year. Now, he’s flashing only slightly better velocity than he did when he worked out for scouts at this time two years ago. There’s some hope there, but it just doesn’t feel like it’s enough.
After all, it wasn’t just the four-seamer that got torched in Anaheim. The two-seamer didn’t fare any better. He leaned more heavily on his slider because his curve allowed a .276 xwOBA, which doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize that the figure was solidly and amply worse than the league average contact quality on curves. Lincecum’s repertoire will get streamlined with a move to the bullpen, but he can’t become a one-pitch closer like the Kenley Jansens of the world. What Lincecum’s second pitch will be is an entirely open question.
The Rangers project to be in the 75-79 win range this year. They are not planning to compete. As good as many of their position players are, they just don’t have much pitching. PECOTA believes that Keone Kela, with his 3.23 projected DRA, will be the Rangers’ best relief option. Kela has quietly been a very decent middle innings arm, but relief ace he is not. In other words, why not make Lincecum your closer?
Those wisps of the past have calcified into lines in a text, something we study and ponder, like Bob Feller’s peak or Rube Waddell’s dominance. They happened, and they impress, but they are confined to the place of the mind and not the heart. But Lincecum is the kind of player that wants to give you hope. Because between the words and the numbers, we do manage to grasp something of what he once was. The fastball is a slight tick up. The musculature dares to impress. Maybe, just maybe, we can catch some of those wisps in a bottle again.
Probably not. But isn’t the whole point to try?