OK, this is no April Fool’s joke. Our half-Filipino/true Asian American Major League Baseball superstar, a winner of two Cy Young awards, and two World Series rings, takes the mound against the Los Angeles Dodgers tonight in his season opener. But he’s no longer the San Francisco Giants best player. Not even the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th best player.
What has happened to Tim Lincecum?
Here was the guy they called the “Franchise,” and for a time he was the “Face,” as he adorned everything from soda cups to ducats. And it was all due to being the improbable athlete with the unusual delivery and the unhittable pitches. Those were also the main reasons he was called the “Freak,” though there were likely other recreational activities that could have earned him that moniker.
But now, the freakishness has normalized for Lincecum, and while still a fan favorite–especially among Filipino Americans–he is neither “Franchise” nor “Face.” He’s gone from high-test to regular, just like his fast-ball. And now the question is whether he’s lost the chance to get one of those long-term lockups recently awarded teammates Buster Posey, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner that essentially make them forever Giants in their prime.
And after all he’s done for the Giants? I mean, we’re not talking Aubrey Huff here.
After following the Giants as a fan all these years, I’m writing this blog more regularly this season (Call it the Linceblog on Amok.com) because of what Lincecum has meant for the Giants and to the Filipino American community. When there’s a dearth of high-profile Filipino Americans in anything, a star baseball player does more than you think to a community’s self-esteem. His troubles on the mound make this a critical year for Lincecum watchers. It’s hard to imagine him not being a Giant for life.
In the clubhouse after his last pre-season start against Oakland at AT&T Park, I got a chance to ask him about the start of the season.
What you notice about Lincecum is that while he’s often referred to as “short” at 5-feet-11 inches, he’s tall for a half-Filipino guy, though still fairly slight. He’s also more pensive and thoughtful in his answers than most jocks.
I didn’t want to ask him if he regrets not taking the big payday when it was in front of him (reportedly a five-year $100 million dollar deal after 2011). Instead, he signed a two-year $40.5 million deal (that still puts him in the top ten among all baseball stars), and makes him a free agent at the end of this year.
But he may not be in position to command $15 million, let alone $20 million a year, unless his performance dramatically improves.
So I asked him as the season begins, if this was a “make or break year” for him:
“Not really, that concern is the last worry, the last emotion on my mind, it’s more excitement and obviously ..ah.. conviction. This year is going to be a big, big year for me, but I don’t look at it as a make or break year, I look at it as an opportunity to make myself better and come out at the end of the season on top.
“You never want to take a negative approach to anything in baseball or anything in this profession, so just to be able to stay positive after coming off a rough year last year is good for me. I’m carrying all the positives I can into this year.”
The positives are the relief performances in the post-season last year. And maybe even the flashes he showed last week against the A’s. Forget about having an ERA that was the highest in the Majors for any active starter. Forget about a Spring training shortened by blister and an ERA over 10. The guy’s staying optimistic, and he’s certainly not thinking about things like the deal that goat away.
This week in Los Angeles, CSN Bay Area Andrew Baggarly asked him more directly about why he turned down the big deal contract. Once again, Lincecum showed he’s slightly different than your basic capitalistic jock.
“It was a time where I was in my life, I wasn’t exactly ready to commit that kind of time over something that I was still learning about, by that meaning just being in this business of baseball,” Lincecum told Baggarly, then expounded further. “It’s hard for me personally to just commit years of my life ahead of time. What I’m focusing on is what I want to do now. I just don’t want to get ahead of myself.
“I’ve never been a guy who thinks too far ahead with my future. I think I’ve made that clear with my contracts. I’m still that same guy. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a Giant any less or anything like that. I just like to see where I am at the end of the year.”
So Lincecum is positive and he’s motivated. It’s the kind of thing that helps star performers elevate their game. We’ll see if that happens this year. But if Lincecum performs like he did early on in that game against the A’s last week, the Giants could win the rubber match in this opening series against the Dodger.
Lincecum looked sharp the first three innings of that Bay Bridge Series exhibition game. He started with a nine-pitch first inning that ended with slugger Yoenis Cespedes striking out swinging on three pitches.
It was kind of the ideal Lincecum inning: A flyout, a single, a great defensive play by Crawford to get a second out, and the big K. If all his innings this year are like that, it would definitely mark a return to form.
The next two innings were almost as good with a nine- pitch duel against Josh Donaldson that ended with a strikeout in the second. And there was another defensive gem by Crawford.
At one point Lincecum was 20 strikes for his first 24 pitches with his fastball working the best. He said he was just throwing what catcher Buster Posey was calling for. But then admitted afterwards he was getting a little “change-up happy.”
In the fourth inning , the second time through the line-up, the A’s caught up with Lincecum including Cespedes who homered a 2-1 pitch. Lincecum fought back and struck out the next hitter (BrandonMoss), and got the tough Donaldson out on a fly. But his elusiveness was gone, and control became an issue. By the time Lincecum was around 70 pitches in the fifth, he was done for the night.
That has been the typical arc of a Lincecum game (with or without a pitch limit). It‘s also the reason why he’s gone from “The Franchise,” to “The Concern.”
We won’t talk yet whether the future for Lincecum is as a middle reliever. That for sure would be a shock to his bank account.
But if Lincecum wants to remain in people’s eyes as an effective, if not dominating starter, he needs more strong innings like that first one against the A’s.
That will go a long way to end a sense that at the start of this new season he’s one of the Giants’ biggest question marks in 2013.