The Shameful Melancholy of Tim Lincecum’s No-Hitter

Despite Brian Kenny's protestations, a no-hitter is still an event to get excited about, like Christmas morning even after you know Santa Claus isn't coming. The combination of talent meeting luck, as an entire team is stymied by the pitcher and nine men who, for one day, are positioned in just the right way so no hard liners, bloop singles, or slow rollers can find safe haven–a no-hitter is the perfect expression of the oddity that is the game of baseball. It's the sporting version of having a Chinese fortune cookie actually come true.

But Tim Lincecum's no-hitter, while as enjoyable and exciting as summer popcorn fare, had an added dose of depressing subtext, especially as his pitch count rose to astronomical levels. Because Lincecum's outing wasn't easy, he needed 148 pitches, the most in a single game since 2010. His command having been his greatest bugaboo (and not Destiny Child's great "Bug a Boo"), flared up once again, leading to four walks, a hit batsman and a wild pitch. Sure, he struck out thirteen batters, but his fastball topped out at 92 mph, averaging only 90, instead of the 94 he averaged during his first two seasons, relying on changeups (or splitters, if you prefer), curveballs, and sliders to get his outs. 

This wasn't a young pitcher throwing a no-hitter in his coming out party to the league. Nor was it a pitcher in his prime, allowing us to dream of the Cy Youngs, shutouts, and cheesy Dick's Sporting Goods commercials down the line. Instead, this felt like a Kevin Costner movie: a grizzled veteran nearing the end of his ropes, getting one last magical game to cap his career. And Lincecum is only 29. If the best days of a finely tuned athlete are behind him before he's even turned 30, what hope is there for the rest of us? Maybe I should install some vinyl siding now and pick out my burial plot. 

If Lincecum was younger or still posting ERAs under 3, I can't imagine Bruce Bochy letting him throw 148 pitches. Because instead of a no-hitter, the team would be worried about the weeks in front of Lincecum, the years stretching out forever, fairly certain that there would at least be one of these opportunities again. Instead, Lincecum has wavered between the rotation and the bullpen, the collapse of the Giants starting staff perhaps the only thing saving him.

And while we'd like to think that this one special evening, when everything came together, represents a change, the flash point where Lincecum commands all of his weapons and can enter the second phase of his career, chances are it's not. While he continues to strike batters out, Lincecum had a 5.06 ERA in the ten starts before the no-hitter, his fWAR over the last two seasons ranking him 68th, in between Lucas Harrell, who can't cut it in the Astros rotation, and Bruce Chen who's been bounced from the Royals staff. His ERA since 2012 is the third highest, behind the uninspiring Joe Blanton and the thin residue of hope left on Ubaldo Jimenez. 

Perhaps I'm being too pessimistic. Perhaps Lincecum's success with his offspeed offerings proves that while he has the ability to get outs without an overpowering fastball, he's still learning how to properly harness it, how to spot pitches on the corners, how to find a second act in American life. Maybe it will be another year, or two, or three before Lincecum finishes his transition from a high strikeout, high walk power pitcher to a sinkerballing Tim Hudson who made a career out of pounding the lower half of the zone with low 90s fastballs. 

But when Yonder Alonso flew out and Buster Posey raced behind Lincecum, lifting him in a giant bear hug, it felt like the coda to Lincecum's greatest seasons, not the start of something new. As the Giants struggle to stay out of the cellar in the NL West, this was the post credit sequence to a team that Lincecum helped lead in the post-Bonds generation, guiding the club to two World Series titles along the way. 

Unlike movies that can choose to end the story on the moment of triumph, fading to black and letting you pretend that only blue skies are ahead, Tim Lincecum's career will continue, probably offering only a continuation of ever reduced results. Because while Saturday night was magical, I couldn't stop thinking about the future. And baseball history hasn't been kind to pitchers on the down slope of their careers. 

 

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