As tough as it is watching Lincecum struggle, it is easily the most surprising and astounding turnaround to watch Barry –the Hit Man– Zito turn around his career. Kudos to Zito for handling his difficult time with class and dignity, never sniping, complaining, or really doing anything to convey his dissatisfaction with anything that was happening to him during his first five seasons with the team.
Really, that is perhaps the most inspiring part of his story. Between the horrible pitching, the constant pressure on him because of his huge contract, the booing, the demotion for the 2010 playoff run…. Zito has been a model player in the clubhouse, in the press, and apparently, everywhere else. The result is a player whose return to success is easy to root for, and is really one of the best redemption story imaginable. A player who is celebrated for his ability to turn around what had once seemed to be the end of his career and not only play well, but to even contribute to a championship of his own.
…. “It gets back to competing,” (Bruce) Bochy said. “It doesn't matter what you're doing in this game: pitching, swinging the bat, playing defense – it's all about competing. He's as tough a competitor as I've been around.”
His success so far this season has been a breath of fresh air, and reminds us that comebacks can happen, that people can overcome adversity, and they can do it with grace and class.
Good for him, and good for the Giants.
UPDATE: Jonah Keri goes deeper on Lincecum in Grantland today:
…. Baseball Prospectus writer and pitching mechanics expert Doug Thorburn addressed this in a pair of articles last year: Lincecum's delivery depends on perfect mechanics, and that trademark gigantic stride. As he wrote in an e-mail:
…. He was able to generate ridiculous momentum early in his career (a huge advantage), and he found a timing pattern with it that he could repeat, which was critical for commanding the fastball and keeping that split-change buried under the zone. That stride and momentum required excellent lower body strength, and when his delivery fell out of whack back in 2010, the solution was rooted in conditioning — he had lost his timing because he could not consistently generate his usual stride pattern. Last season, his momentum was noticeably down when compared to his peak, and he struggled to find his timing for most of the season — I thought it was telling that he did so well out of the ’pen, where he could go all out rather than conserve stamina.
Thorburn expressed some mild optimism that Lincecum could bounce back a bit if he can fix his mechanics, which could in turn allow him to better control where his pitches are going. But the beast of four years ago, the guy with the fastball that hit the high-90s and the split-change that was one of the most unhittable pitches in the game? That guy's almost certainly not coming back. Research on pitcher aging curves by Mike Fast and Jeremy Greenhouse suggests that a pitcher this young shouldn't be suffering from this steep of a performance decline, and that it can be very tough to improve once that decline starts.
The worst thing is that I agree with him. If the loss in velocity, now around 5+ MPH since his rookie season, is unfixable, he's either heading to a closer role, or he's done. Either way, I think it's safe to say Sabean looks like Nostradamus by holding the line on Lincecum's salary demands over these last couple of years. At any time over these last three years or so, Lincecum could have been signed to a five or six-year deal that right now would be terrifying to the team. Instead, they failed/succeeded in ensuring that whatever deal they were discussing, it didn't work for someone, and the Giants are actually looking at being able to walk away from Lincecum should this season be another train wreck.
UPDATE, Part II: Well, today did nothing to dispel my concerns. Lincecum looked completely lost, missing his spots by a foot or more. The hitters bailed him out again, but, holy Christ, he looks awful.