Halfway through March, Tim Lincecum still searching

Jamie Squire

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Why do I feel like I've been here before?

Oh, right: Because I've been here before. Exactly one year ago Tuesday, I was in Arizona for Tim Lincecum's second spring-training start. In his first spring-training start, he'd gotten knocked around.

This Tuesday -- that is, last night -- I was in Arizona for Tim Lincecum's second spring-training start. In his first spring-training start, he'd gotten knocked around.

Last year, Lincecum pitched well in his second spring-training start, and I wrote this:

He used to routinely throw 94 miles an hour. Now he routinely throws 92 miles an hour. And he's been highly effective at both speeds. Would he be as effective at 90? Or 88? Probably not. Right now, though? He's throwing 91, will probably throw 92 once the real games get going, and will probably be plenty effective. Again.

I was wrong. He wasn't plenty effective again. Then again, he wasn't nearly as bad as his 5.18 ERA suggested. Lincecum's fastball wasn't as fast, and he did give up more walks than ever before. But his strikeout rate remained high, and he was victimized by poor luck on batted balls, with more hits falling in and more fly balls flying out than average luck would have predicted. Last year he showed the talent of a 4-ERA pitcher rather than the 5 in the ledger.

Fairly or not, Lincecum actually lost his starting job last October. Of course everything worked out in the end; still, it was reasonable to ask some serious questions about Lincecum's short- and long-term future. No, there wasn't any reason yank him from the 2013 rotation while leaving Barry Zito in. Yes, one might wonder if Lincecum would be anywhere near worth his $22 million salary. Or earn anything like $22 million in one season, ever again.

Now, this spring. Lincecum's once-flowing locks are gone, which makes him seem somehow younger, thinner, and more vulnerable than ever. His first spring outing was marred by a blister on one of his valuable fingers. His second spring outing lasted 43 pitches and 2⅓ innings. Afterward, he said the blister was long gone. He said he wasn't suffering from fatigue during his rocky third inning. He said he was just "trying to build arm strength and work on some stuff out there."

The good news, I guess, is that everybody is saying the most lovely things about Tim Lincecum. From Andrew Baggarly's postgame report:

Hector Sanchez’s view was better than anyone else’s. And from 60 feet, 6 inches away, Lincecum looked fit and fortified.

"You can see how different he is, physically and mentally," said Sanchez, who caught Lincecum as the right-hander threw 43 pitches in 2 1/3 innings. "He’s a different guy. He looked good. He looked comfortable and confident. He threw all his pitches down in the zone.

"This year he will do very good things, I think."

--snip--

He didn’t appear to have anything holding him back in the first two innings, when a scout’s gun had his fastball topping out at 93 mph. Lincecum followed Kensuke Tanaka’s throwing error by getting a double-play grounder, then he threw a beautiful, rainbow changeup that struck out Mark Kotsay.

--snip--

"But overall, a good job, good stuff," Bochy said. "We got him where we wanted him. We have plenty of time. He had a good delivery. This was a good base for him.

"We’re not concerned with results so much as what the delivery looks like. And I think he’s stronger this spring. He’s definitely showing more arm strength. He worked hard this winter. That much is evident. I like where he’s at."

It's like Home on the Range: When it comes to Tim Lincecum, discouraging words are seldom heard. In the scrum of reporters surrounding Lincecum after his outing, nobody (including me) mentioned 2012. Maybe that's just Standard Operating Procedure, or maybe it's because nobody likes posing tough questions to grown men who don't look grown all the way.

I'm not complaining. Sometimes I think the world could do with fewer tough questions for young athletes, and more for old politicians. Maybe Lincecum is now filled with self-doubt, and maybe he's not. Either way, there's no particular reason for Lincecum to tell us exactly how he's feeling. Or for that matter, for Hector Sanchez or Bruce Bochy to tell us exactly how they're feeling. It's the middle of March and Tim Lincecum's got a 14.73 ERA and he hasn't been a really good starting pitcher since 2011 and there's no reason for us to believe he's really good again until he pitches a few really good games in a row.

That might start happening next week. It might start happening next month. It might never start happening again. But considering that Lincecum's making $22 million and Plan B is Chad Gaudin, he'll have plenty of chances to make it happen.

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