The difference between ‘hype’ and ‘hope’ on a keyboard is only three keys, barely 2 inches apart. But in real life, the difference between the two can seem a whole lot smaller.
Such is life for the fans of the San Francisco Giants. A disappointing season has turned ugly as July as turned to August, and as several hundred canine fans gathered in the bleachers at AT&T Park for the annual Dog Day celebration on Saturday, August 5th, the team on the field is looking more and more like a dog of its own variety, losing their 11th of 12 games.
At the same time, at the end of a 45 minute drive down Interstate 280 to San Jose, a new ray of hope was on the mound for the first time in the Bay Area. But it is getting increasingly hard to distinguish the hope from the hype surrounding the 22 year old whose name is on the lips of Giants fans everywhere.
Meet Tim Lincecum.
Despite having one of the top college seasons of the year, many people had their doubts about Lincecum coming into the 2006 draft. After all, he was just 5’11. Many scouts and observers were concerned that Lincecum’s body would not be able to handle the stress (despite the fact Lincecum had never missed a start in 3 years of college). Some predicted that whatever team drafted him would simply shut him down to protect his arm; others thought he could be a reliever to relieve the stress on it, and thus move quickly up a system into the big leagues.
Those doubts let Lincecum drop in the draft to the Giants, and while no one was more surprised about than the Giants, no one could be happier. Except, perhaps the fans.
To put it mildly, Giants fans have never felt they had much to look forward to out of their farm system. In the past decade, most heavily hyped young players had fizzled out, both in the field (Damon Minor, J.R. Phillips) and on the mound (Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams). The players who have succeeded have either been very slow developers at the major league level (Pedro Feliz), or relatively unheralded (Noah Lowry). Only Matt Cain has stood up through the hype and delivered (so far) in the majors.
Added to those perceived failures in 2006 is the emergence of a former Giants farmhand, Francisco Liriano, whose name has become such a sore point that rivals love to needle Giants fans with that some Giant fans have taken to simply calling him ‘Dead Horse.’ And with a faltering major league team, many of those fans are looking for hope anywhere, and turning their eyes to Lincecum, and have already begun asking perhaps more than he can give.
Lincecum’s hype got perhaps its biggest push after the draft. Part of Lincecum’s summer activities included attending the awarding of the Golden Spikes award, which he was surprised to find out was to be awarded to him. “I wasn’t actually expecting to win it,” he said of the honor. “From what I hear, it’s the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for amateur baseball, and so I was like well that’s gotta be a really big compliment to me. And so I took it for all that it was worth.”
In person, Lincecum’s slight build makes him look even younger than 22. At 5’11 and a listed weight of 160 pounds, he looks like he needs to stand on the mound just to see over everyone else’s head. But then, that stature (or lack thereof) has been the calling card of a pitcher that has been dismissed many times in his young life. And it’s that stature that has helped him become the pitcher he is.
“I just get as much out of my body as I can, because I’m not exactly the biggest guy out there, so I gotta do what I have to do,” Lincecum related to me, a day before his debut in San Jose, the Class-A Advanced affiliate of the Giants.
How he does it has been a lesson passed down by Tim’s father, Chris Lincecum, a former professional pitcher himself. “He is exactly the same size as me,” Tim says of his father, thinking for a moment and smiling. “I mean he’s got a little more weight on him now, but other than that we’re built exactly alike. It worked for him and then he taught it to me, and it just helped me out through my whole life.”
What worked was a set of mechanics that didn’t just reduce the body to two parts, like some young pitchers are taught. “It’s taught me to use every part of my body, as opposed to just upper half and lower half.” He starts by dropping the ball straight down behind him, and taking a long step forward, keeping his eye on his target. As he falls forward, he brings down his front arm, and his throwing arm follows in a windmill motion, picking up speed and snapping the ball towards the plate.
It’s an unusual motion, but it has worked. And it’s gotten Tim what he enjoys the most: strikeouts. Lincecum picked up an amazing 161 in 112.1 inning pitched his first year of college in 2004, and by 2006 his total was a jaw dropping 199 in 125.1 innings to lead Division-I baseball.
His father has remained an influence through his college years. “He was at the baseball games and stuff, giving me little signs of something I should be doing, and things that he’s taught me. It’s kinda like a sign language that we got going, that he’d sit right behind home plate, give me a sign that’d tell me what I need to be doing or…he’d study those for me, and it’d just became a practice that we’ve gone back and forth with.” But now, with college behind him, Lincecum won’t be looking for those signals from the stands. He’s growing up and on his own. “We had this talk before, but he figures I’m ready… I don’t need to do it so much now because I’m old enough and if I haven’t figured it out by now I probably won’t.”
Lincecum took some time in the summer to soak things in. He signed with the Giants in late June, and made some visits to the park as part of a press routine. His bonus of $2.025 million was the largest ever given by the Giants to a draft pick. As young and as excited as he was, however, he already knew he couldn’t go wild. “I wanted that (Mercedes SL 500), but I didn’t know if financially that was the best idea. So I went with something a little bit…I went and bought a Tahoe,” he says with a smile that may be hiding a wince.
After he had finally signed, the Giants kept Lincecum working with their staff, studying his mechanics. Giants fans were chomping at the bit to see what he could do, but the Giants remained patient. They wanted to be sure of what they had before they sent him out there. Finally, the Giants announced that Lincecum would make his long awaited first professional start on July 26th.
Lincecum’s debut was indeed spectacular. On a strict limit of one inning, Lincecum debuted in late July for the Short-Season-A-Ball affiliate of the Giants, the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. All Lincecum did was strike out the first three batters he faced. Swinging. Only a passed ball let one of the runners on base, and Lincecum got to face a fourth batter, who popped out. “I was happy with it and all,” he said of his debut, “But I…I’m a strikeout guy and I like to strikeout people, so I was kind of upset when I didn’t get that fourth strikeout after the dropped third [strike].
Lincecum’s 2nd start was nearly as good. With a limit of three innings or 45 pitches (whichever came first), he gave up his first hit in his first inning of work. That was the only downside, as Lincecum struck out 7 of the 10 batters he faced (5 swinging) in just 36 pitches and only turned out more hype.
It had been intended that Lincecum would spend more time in S-K before being promoted. But the 10 strikeouts in 14 batters faced, with no walks and just 1 hit allowed earned Lincecum a hard push up to San Jose, skipping a level before he’d even made his third professional start.
Lincecum loves the strikeout. He’s proud of it, and he doesn’t apologize for it. Let’s face it, strikeouts have always been the fun thing for a pitcher. Just as a hitter never dreams of hitting a seeing-eye single or a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 9th to win a game, pitchers don’t dream of inducing a hitter to hit a 2 bouncer to shortstop or a pop up into foul territory.
In high school, he started marking the bill of his cap for every strikeout he recorded, and it was a trend he continued in college, even has the strikeout totals grew. He ran into a problem in Salem-Keizer, however. “Up in Salem, we had like three hats. And some of them, the bottoms are black, so they don’t show up too well.” However, he has tempered a practice that might be called cockiness with a little humility and respect. “I don’t think I need to do that until whenever that day is I get called up, I don’t when that’s going to be three years from now or tomorrow or whenever. I probably won’t start doing that again until I actually prove myself in that level.”
The hype had turned Lincecum into what many fans had come to believe was a strikeout machine that was major league ready, and some fans even began clamoring for Lincecum to be promoted to the major leagues right away, and step in for the increasingly unpopular closer Armando Benitez. When asked if he thought that such an idea would be realistic, he laughs and says, “I don’t know if I’ve proved myself that much, actually. I just gotta see how things go up at these certain levels as I progress through the system, and see if I’m actually ready for that. I’d love to be up there right now with them, but it’s not really up to me.”
Lincecum, while a starter in college, has had some time closing thanks to the Cape Cod League, a summer league for college players which is, for many, their first exposure to wooden bats. But the change in roles came from a scary necessity.
“I had three starts when I took a line drive off the head and I was out for like 5 days, and so after I came back, they just figured let’s see if you can [be a closer], so I just started closing and that just kind of worked out for me. It wasn’t that big of a transition ‘cause all I wanna do is pitch anyway.”
When asked where he wanted to end up, heading up a rotation or finishing off a bullpen, Lincecum had just one quick response, “I don’t even care. I just want to pitch.” He added, when talking about the differences between the roles, “Not that they weren’t different, but I really didn’t have a problem doing one or the other.”
Lincecum, however, is well aware that he has things to pay attention to still, and that he’s not as perfect as fans envision. His main nemesis is walks. “It was a big concern [in college]. In high school, granted the strike zone was a little different, and the hitters aren’t as good, obviously, so I mean I wasn’t walking as many guys. I just need to get a little more consistent with my mechanics and just growing into myself…I don’t have to be so fine with all my pitches or strike everybody out. I just had to make that adjustment every year. I got a little better, but I still walked quite a bit of guys this year, but it was a lot less than I usually do.
“At every level, it’s all about just getting the ball down, keeping it down out of the guy’s power zone. Of course, the higher the pitch the easier it is to hit out. Like Reggie Jackson used to say, the fence high pitches, you know, belt high, that kind of stuff. So I’m just try to live more at the knees and then just not make too many mistakes.”
Lincecum has certainly found an affinity for the fans in San Francisco already. “The fans are great there,” he said. “I went to that game where I think Barry hit his 721st, and all the fans were backing up the guy, despite all the allegations about him and all that stuff, they just put it aside and just enjoyed the game. Just watching those fans getting up for certain innings even though they were down in the game, they seem like real good fans.”
And the fans clearly like him too. But how has that affected him? Lincecum certainly has been treated differently than other players in the system. He has gotten the largest bonus in team draft history. He has had what appears to be a personal catcher, in former major leaguer Yamid Haad. The mainstream media actually mentions and follows him, which is different from most prospects at the low levels. And the fans certainly at least know his name, if not what he is actually capable of. Have the expectations and hype put any extra pressure on him, or altered how he melds into the team? He doesn’t think so.
“No, not any whatsoever,” he replies quickly when asked. “It’s not like just because I got picked higher it doesn’t mean I’m going to big league ya or that kind of stuff. I just want to be another one of the guys on the team…I just want to throw, and that’s all that matters to me.”
Lincecum has done his best to blend in, even if he hasn’t been given much chance to. He enjoyed his time in Oregon. “I’ve been able to become good friends with guys like John Odom, Clayton Tanner and Buster Lussier, and guys like that for the Keizer team. The time that I was down there, they made it real easy for me to get along with.” And then there’s Haad. “He’s a great catcher. He makes you feel like you’re not throwing hard or anything… You’re just like wow, this guy’s been there, he knows what he’s doing. It just helps to have that guy behind the dish.”
When asked if it felt like he had his own personal ‘Crash Davis’, a la the film Bull Durham, he laughed. “If it’s for like 10 consecutive outings, then I guess I gotta make that assumption.”
The media attention doesn’t bother him, either. “I don’t even care…I’ve gotten used to the whole media thing, people having an eye on me because I am that small kid, but whatever.” After talking with him, it’s obvious he has already has learned the ‘right’ responses to the standard questions, whether or not his catcher has been the one who has taught him them. And being good with the media is essential to becoming a star someday. Just ask Barry.
Before anyone knew it, it was Saturday, August 5th in San Jose. Even with all the hype and all the expectations, it was still just his third start of his pro career, and with his 2nd team in 3 weeks and in front of new fans. This time, the crowd of just over 2,300 people might very well be the same fans that would eventually cheer him in San Francisco.
The game started out well for Lincecum. He flashed the fastball early and that devastating curve in 2 strike counts, and struck out the first two batters swinging. Although he ended up issuing his first major league walk, the first inning ended without incident and with the fans as excited as ever. The radar gun had even flashed up a 99 on the board (it would be the only time), through for most of his outing, he sat between 94-96 with the heater.
But in the second inning, the inevitable happened. Bakersfield third baseman Adam Fox swung at a fastball and hit it solidly down the line. It curved, but not far enough, as it hit about 15 feet up off the foul pole. Lincecum’s first run allowed came in to score, as well as his first big fly allowed. Despite the big fly, San Jose had a 2-1 lead (thanks to a big fly of their own by Chad Santos), and Lincecum collected two more strikeouts.
The third, however, would be the end of it for Lincecum. He got another strikeout to lead off the inning, but then gave up a single and a booming double that tied the game. But then, a ground ball to shortstop Johany Abreu turned into a 2 base error, and an unearned run came in to give Bakersfield the lead. Lincecum got another groundball for an out, but was lifted after walking another batter to put runners at the corners with 2 out and Fox, the guy who had just homered off of Lincecum, coming up. Reliever Anthony Moreno came in, and got the final out without incident.
The end of the day line for Lincecum: 2.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 SO, and an ERA of 6.75. For those who came for the hype and not the hope, those numbers look disappointing.
The truth is that an outing like this might be the best possible thing for both Lincecum and the fans. On one side, adversity is something everyone needs to learn to deal with, and in this game, the only lasting blow was to his pride. The Giants, though down 3-2 when Lincecum left, eventually won decisively and moved into a first place tie with the Visalia Oaks. Perhaps remaining in San Jose is ideal for Lincecum. He can find a place to settle in with a team, and the clubhouse under venerable manager Lenn Sakata is one of the best in the minors. Lincecum can pick up some playoff experience with the Giants, who won the 1st half title for the Northern Division, and have already secured a playoff spot. And he can do it within an hour’s drive from the very interested San Francisco front office.
But for the fans, the hype generated by 10 strikeouts in his first 14 batters took a serious blow in Saturday’s debut, and a much-needed blow at that. He’s not perfect. He’s not one of those rare finds that is ready for the major leagues right away. The fans, desperate to grasp onto a savior needed a little reminder that at the end of the day, Lincecum is still human.
Through it all, the hope remains. Despite the barely fair home run, despite the hard hit double, Lincecum showed the pitches that make him a legitimate pitching prospect, and someone who could turn into an ace. He still has things to learn. Whether it be to keep the ball at the knees, or teaching himself (or having some catcher teach him) that strikeouts are indeed facist and that baseball is a democracy, Lincecum is still growing.
But the day will come when the hopes, if not the hype, will be fulfilled.
Love me, hate me, idolize me, or laugh at me, just don't ignore me. Let me know what you think: write me at email@example.com .
The views expressed in the columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the site's publisher, writers, or other staff members. The content on this site may not be redistributed without the expressed consent of SFDugout.com.