Tim Lincecum: What Happened to "The Freak" and How Can He Fix It in 2013?

Will CarrollSports Injuries Lead WriterJanuary 24, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 24:  Tim Lincecum #55 of the San Francisco Giants throws a pitch against the Detroit Tigers in the sixth inning during Game One of the Major League Baseball World Series at AT&T Park on October 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

No one was a bigger disappointment in 2012 than Tim Lincecum.

The two-time Cy Young winner seemed to fall apart right from the beginning of the season, though winning another World Series ring eventually took some of the sting out of his stat line. That was because Lincecum was able to contribute in the playoffs as a reliever and help his team, but what can he do to fix things for the upcoming 2013 campaign?

There are endless theories on why Lincecum fell apart and what he could do to put things back together.

The most likely culprits for any pitcher's decline in performance are injury and pitching mechanics, two topics that I wrote about in my book Saving the Pitcher

Pitching mechanics are very difficult to analyze and, with Lincecum, we're dealing with a nearly singular motion. Created to mimic Sandy Koufax by his father Chris, Lincecum's mechanics are thought to be complex, but truthfully, his motion is pretty standard. While there is no way to know what the kinematic forces are on Lincecum's shoulder, elbow and other parts involved in the motion, we can look at the basics.

For any pitcher, timing is one visible key to a healthy delivery. According to Rick Peterson—the pitching coordinator for the Baltimore Orioles and formerly with Oakland, New York, and Milwaukee as pitching coach—the sync between landing with the front foot and having the ball in the "high ready position" is imperative.

"If there is one thing I can explain, it's that this is black or white, proper or improper," said Peterson, in an interview with Bleacher Report. "Even an amateur can see this once they know what to look for. The arm needs to be up at the time the front foot lands." (See picture to the right for an illustration of this arm position.)

Peterson explained that for pitchers with a long stride, it's tougher to get that motion in sync: "If you remember a guy like Roy Oswalt, it was always a struggle. Sometimes it leads to back problems." 

Oswalt did have those back problems, as did Tim Hudson of the Braves, who is another long strider. This is a big worry with Lincecum, perhaps the longest strider in the major leagues, in proportion to his height. 

Adding complexity to Lincecum's delivery is the arch in his back. It works like one of those crazy "Punkin Chunkin" catapults to put even more force into his delivery, but it has always worried me. Lincecum did have some minor back problems at the end of 2011, which might have been a sign of the problems to come.

Another complication is Lincecum's fluctuating weight. "Tiny Tim" is certainly no Pablo Sandoval when it comes to weight issues, but Lincecum did put on some weight in hopes that he would be able to have more stamina through the season. Adding weight could have made subtle changes in his mechanics that contributed to both the back issues and the poor pitching results.

Aside from minor injuries like the back spasms, there is no sign that Lincecum has a significant physical issue. Many worried that he was having shoulder issues, leading to the observed loss of velocity last season. This is also explained by the timing issue, and given the fact that Lincecum both took the ball every scheduled start and increased his velocity in his playoff relief appearances, it's more likely that this is a timing issue rather than an injury.

The bigger issue here is that we're guessing. We don't have good data on Lincecum's delivery besides rough observations made from watching games and video.

And it's not only that we as fans don't have this data, but that the Giants don't have this data either. Even after their ace pitcher struggled over a complete season, the Giants, like most teams,  are not known to have sent Lincecum for a biomechanical study. With this simple and relatively inexpensive test, the Giants could figure out exactly what was going on with the forces and timing of Lincecum's delivery.

Without sounding wishy-washy, there is every reason to believe that Tim Lincecum could get back to an elite level this season. Whether he's able to do that is really up to him, his coaches, and the Giants organization. Flags fly forever, but fixing Lincecum needs to start now.