Tim Lincecum Starts Making Sense By Not Making Sense

Given everything that happened later on Wednesday, you might have forgotten that, earlier on Wednesday, the Giants won another must-win game over the Reds in Cincinnati. The Giants won a game that was started by Barry Zito, which lately has not been unusual. Barry Zito himself was quite terrible, which lately has been more unusual. The Giants won mostly because they finally started to hit — they finished with 11 hits in 33 at-bats, eight of which went for extra bases. But another crucial contributor was one Tim Lincecum, pitching in long relief.

Lincecum was not the first guy Bruce Bochy went to out of the bullpen. After Zito discovered a way to walk Dioner Navarro with two outs in the third, Bochy called on George Kontos. Kontos began the fourth, and then was replaced by lefty Jose Mijares, to face lefty Joey Votto. Mijares struck Votto out for the second out of the frame, and after that bit of unplanned strategic genius, Bochy signaled for Lincecum. Lincecum got out of a jam by striking out Ryan Ludwick, and then Lincecum just kept on pitching through the eighth.

Lincecum’s final line: four and a third innings, a run, zero walks, and six strikeouts, with 55 pitches thrown. When Lincecum entered, the Giants were ahead 3-2. When Lincecum was removed, the Giants were ahead 8-3. The run he allowed scored on a groundball double and a sacrifice fly. This, of course, was not Lincecum’s first relief appearance of the series. After being excluded from the Giants’ NLDS four-man rotation, Lincecum threw two shutout innings in Sunday’s Game 2. Together, he’s thrown six and a third innings, with eight strikeouts and not one walk. When he’s been on the mound, he’s looked like Tim Lincecum — in terms of appearance, and in terms of performance.

It’s no secret why Lincecum was left out of the rotation. This regular season, he was bad. The degree to which he was bad depends on your statistical measure of choice, and maybe you’d argue he was mediocre, but a lot of runs tended to score when Tim Lincecum was on the mound. Most notably he had a ton of trouble pitching with runners on base, which is when he’d be mostly pitching from the stretch. To a certain extent, the struggles made sense, because Lincecum has a complicated throwing motion and the slightest thing being off could have a considerable negative effect. On the other hand, Lincecum allowed a 74-percent contact rate. For his career, he’s allowed a 75-percent contact rate. Lincecum remained difficult to hit, yet he also proved oddly hittable at the wrong times.

Now Lincecum has made two strong postseason appearances in relief. Granted, we’re talking about two appearances, against a below-average offense. While people like to believe that postseason performance matters more, two appearances are two appearances and we can’t conclude much. But everything that Lincecum has done in these two appearances has been encouraging, right down to hardly warming up at all before the first one. One might’ve been concerned that Lincecum would need a while to get stretched out, like starters do. He didn’t.

This season, just under 62 percent of Lincecum’s pitches were strikes. Now in the playoffs, he’s thrown 80 pitches, and 59 of them — 74 percent — have been strikes. Of those, 14 have been swinging strikes. Where in the regular season just over half of Lincecum’s pitches were fastballs, in the playoffs he’s thrown just 33 fastballs. Interestingly, bullpen Lincecum hasn’t gained velocity. This year, his fastball averaged a shade over 90 miles per hour. Over a shorter first bullpen appearance, it averaged 90.2. Over a longer second bullpen appearance, it averaged 89.8. Going to the bullpen has given Lincecum a performance boost without giving him the usual pitch-speed boost (so far).

But here’s the thing that most caught my eye. See if it catches yours!

That’s Lincecum striking out Jay Bruce in the bottom of the seventh with nobody on. The pitch is good, but ignore the pitch and look at Lincecum. With nobody on, Lincecum was throwing from the stretch. Lincecum has been throwing exclusively from the stretch, and these postseason results have followed.

This year, with no one on, Lincecum posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio of just about 3. With runners on, it fell to 1.5. With no one on, Lincecum allowed a .322 wOBA. With runners on, Lincecum allowed a .363 wOBA. For most of the season, it seemed like there was a relationship between Lincecum pitching from the stretch and Lincecum coming apart. Now Lincecum is pitching from the stretch, exclusively, and he’s flourishing. Again, two appearances, but two really good appearances.

Lincecum has gone through some phases of pitching from the stretch in the past, generally when it was thought he was having problems from the wind-up. Basically, when his issues were reversed. Pitching from the stretch supposedly made things simpler. Pitching from the stretch has done anything but make things simpler for Lincecum in 2012, but his performance in the NLDS doesn’t fit the rest of the pattern, which is curious. It makes you wonder whether Tim Lincecum might be figuring Tim Lincecum out.

It doesn’t make sense that 2012 Tim Lincecum would get going pitching from the stretch in an unfamiliar role, without any kind of velocity boost, but here we are, and at last Tim Lincecum has generated some Tim Lincecum-like results. You wonder whether Lincecum might have a future in short or long relief, but now you’re probably getting ahead of yourself. Should the Giants advance, Lincecum would probably replace Zito in the starting rotation. But what’s most important right now isn’t Lincecum’s role; it’s his performance, and through two strong appearances, the numbers have actually matched the name.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Give Bochy credit for getting Zito out of there early even with a lead.

And, also, it’s clear that the amount of runs the Giants scored yesterday is directly attributable to his decision to bench Belt. That’s the key to winning the series.