Throughout his highly-publicized rehab from hip surgery this past offseason, former ace Tim Lincecum was clear on one thing: He was working hard to come back as a starter, despite the moderate success he’d found pitching out of the bullpen for the Giants in several stints since the 2012 playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Angels need starters like, well, a team with the fourth-lowest rotation WAR in all of baseball and four starters on the disabled list. It was a match made in desperation, and on May 20, to the sound of hearts breaking across the Bay Area, Lincecum signed a one-year deal with L.A.
How’s that going?
So far he’s 0-2 for the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees, but of course that means next to nothing, especially in the context of rehab. There are signs of encouragement and some of the same old problems.
Last week, in his first game in over 10 months, Lincecum pitched five innings, giving up three runs on three hits and three walks but showing considerable improvement over the course of the outing. He admitted to feeling nervous for the start—which could explain why he balked in a run in the first after loading the bases—but he managed five strikeouts all told, telling MiLB.com:
The third inning is when I kind of settled in and things started clicking. I started throwing more quality strikes and getting hitters to swing at the pitches that I wanted by expanding the zone. Before then, it was a lot of nerves, a lot of feelings, a little bit overwhelming wondering what the next play would be or where I’d need to be or what’s going to happen. I was getting a little bit ahead of myself instead of just worrying about the play at hand. But three innings went by, and it was like riding a bike. I fell back into my old rhythm.
(Mobile users can watch the video here.)
Yesterday, he had his second start for the Bees and it went, well, kind of the same: four runs (two earned) on three hits with two walks and six strikeouts in five innings.
The first inning was a shit show—although only a certain amount of responsibility for that can be dumped on Timmy. The first guy reached on an error, and after a fly out, Lincecum walked two guys to load the bases. It took him 41 pitches to get through the frame, which included all four runs, two errors, and an opposing runner getting a bloody nose that stalled the game somewhere along the way. When he came back out for the second, Lincecum struck out the side.
Reasons to be encouraged: Lincecum’s velocity is better. We can likely rule out the possibility that he’ll ever be a flamethrower again like he was in his early days, but after averaging 87.2 mph with the Giants in 2015, he’s been up around 88-91 this year. He’s yet to give up a home run (granted it’s two minor league starts, but Angels starters are currently leading baseball in dingers allowed, so they’ll take it), he’s inducing groundballs, and when he misses, he misses down. Despite location struggles early in both games, he has more than twice as many strikeouts as walks. Lincecum says the surgery he had last year isn’t effecting his performance and that seems to be true. In both starts, his stuff looked much better at the end of his appearances, even after close to 100 pitches, and his distinct, exaggerated delivery seems largely unchanged.
Cause for concern: The almost-32-year-old looks a little rusty. He balked, earned an error on a throw to first, and twice gave up too many runs before settling in. Once again, or perhaps still, Lincecum is struggling out of the stretch. Maybe it’s too soon to look for such patterns, but failing to work out of jams was a major factor in his seasons-long fall from stardom.
Right now, what remains to be seen is whether or not the Angels can afford to give him the time he really needs to work through these deficiencies down in AAA. Lincecum said he considered this stint in Salt Lake to be his spring training, and there’s a reason pitchers and catchers report early. L.A. is so hard up for starters, though, that they’d hoped to have Lincecum ready to pitch this upcoming Sunday. After yesterday’s early struggles, it seems like they’re reevaluating that timeline, but we’ll probably find out soon if he can be effective again at a major league level, whether he’s ready or not.