Entering his junior season at the University of Washington, Tim Lincecum was regarded as one of the premier starting pitchers in the draft class of 2006. Lincecum then lived up to expectations, leading the nation in strikeouts to earn Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year for the second time of his collegiate career.
Due to his small frame and unorthodox pitching mechanics, however, nine teams passed on the flamethrowing right-hander, considered short for a pitcher at 6-feet-tall.
Thus, several organizations and scouts worried about his durability and questioned his ability to stay healthy due to his funky delivery and 170-pound frame, causing him to fall to the San Francisco Giants at pick number ten.
While Brian Sabean has made some poor decisions—giving up a healthy Francisco Liriano and Joe Nathan for a short-term rental of the most hated catcher in baseball is among them—his scouting department's decision to take a risk on Lincecum is paying dividends for the Giants. After rising to the majors with ease, he has emerged as one of the premier starting pitchers in the National League, if not the majors.
Tim Lincecum (AP)
Lincecum, 24, entered his start on Thursday afternoon against the first-place Chicago Cubs with a 16-6 record in 40 career starts, posting a 3.30 ERA in 256.0 innings pitched. A tremendous athlete with a strong a multi-pitch arsenal—including a two-seam fastball that can touch 100 MPH—he has baffled hitters at times since his call-up to San Francisco, striking out 264. He added to that total on Thursday with another effective outing, striking out eight in six innings to pick up his 10th victory in the Giants' 8-3 win over the Cubs. The Sports Illustrated cover boy this week, who has a 130-to-45 K/W ratio, also helped himself out at the plate, collecting an RBI single and scoring a run.
With every outing, it seems, he improves his candidacy for the National League Cy Young award. While we are not even at the All-Star break yet, few pitchers in the game have been as effective as Lincecum, who improved to 10-1, lowered his ERA to 2.49, and increased his NL-strikeout lead to 122 by toying with one of the best lineups in the Senior Circuit. Along with Edison Volquez of the Cincinnati Reds and Brandon Webb of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Washington product has made a strong case to earn the start for the National League in the 2008 All-Star game at Yankee Stadium, going 10-1 in his first 18 starts despite the Giants' inability to score runs behind him.
The Giants remain in contention in the National League West, more of a result of the poor first-half performance of each team in division—projected to be among the most difficult in baseball with the reigning pennant winner, the Colorado Rockies, among three other legitimate pre-season favorites— in the first half than anything else. Lincecum, however, has been invaluable to the Giants, establishing himself as one of the toughest pitchers to score runs against in the majors by posting an opponents' line of .251/.325/.337.
Matt Cain has is among the best pitchers under the age of 25 as well. Cain, 23, and Lincecum will anchor the Giants' starting rotation well into the next decade, and it is a shame how difficult it is for the offense to plate runs, because the pair has the potential to string together wins in bunches.
The Giants are five games back in the West, but have a -39 run differential, meaning that they are undoubtedly a pretender. San Francisco, in fact, ranks 26th out of 30 with only 351 runs scored, as no player on the Giants has reached the double-digit mark in home runs—John Bowker's nine reign supreme—and Fred Lewis is currently the club leader with an .819 OPS. Clearly, when Lewis, a late bloomer, is the top offensive player in a lineup, it means that his team will struggle to plate runs. As a result of the poor lineup, the post-Barry Bonds era has not gotten off to a great start.
Cain, Lincecum and Jonathan Sanchez, 8-4 with a 3.79 ERA, however, have done their part to help keep the Giants respectable at least.
Throwing so much money at Aaron Rowand—essentially a player who will turn into a fourth outfielder by 2010—was another unwise decision to add to Sabean's resume. Regardless, though, with Lincecum, who went from the Pac-10 to the majors in less than 12 months, leading the rotation, there is some hope for the future of this franchise. With one of the most unhittable heaters and a swooping 12-to-6 breaking ball, expect him to continue to post Nintendo-like numbers, as he is practically untouchable when he has command over his pitches like he did on Thursday afternoon. It truly is a good thing for Sabean and San Francisco that those Lincecum-for-Alex Rios rumors turned out to be false.
While Luke Hochevar, selected nine spots ahead of Lincecum in '06, is now pitching in the majors as well, it is easy for the Kansas City Royals to wonder "what if?" The American League has not exactly been kind to Hochevar, whose natural 6'5'' frame intrigued scouts, to this point of his major league career. While he is still young and has tremendous potential, he is 5-6 with a 86 ERA+—100 is the barometer for league average—for the Royals, who opted for the lanky right-hander over the likes of Clayton Kershaw, Evan Longoria, Andrew Miller and Brandon Morrow.
While the draft is an unpredictable process—a crapshoot perhaps—and it is easy to Monday morning quarterback previous selections, it is safe to say this: the Royals' young starting rotation would be considerably better with Lincecum alongside the up-and-coming Zack Greinke.