There is a fair amount of freaking out about "The Freak" taking place right now -- among San Francisco Giants fans and, yes, among fantasy baseball worrywarts. The concern is a result of the numbers -- a 10.54 ERA and .344 average against -- and the narrative. Tim Lincecum's velocity has taken a tumble, and the thinking coming out of Spring Training was that he backed off the use of his slider to ease the stress on his elbow. So when that kind of narrative meets these kinds of early-season results, it leads one to wonder whether Lincecum is secretly ailing or whether he's simply losing his Cy Young luster.
Allow me to usher in the obvious by pointing out that it's too early to read too much into either the numbers or the narrative. Lincecum's latest outing Monday against the Phillies offered evidence of a continued decline (five runs allowed on eight hits over six innings) or a potential turnaround (one of the runs came in on a shallow single that Angel Pagan should have caught, and Lincecum seemed to settle in after the four-run first), depending on your perspective. For positive perspective, Giants fans and Lincecum's fantasy owners would be wise to remember how much concern centered around CC Sabathia at the start of the 2008 season. CC's velocity had dipped slightly, and his ERA was a gargantuan 13.50 through four starts for the Indians. By season's end, his ERA had been whittled down to 2.70 (which is pretty amazing, when you stop to think about it) and he was routinely thriving while starting on short rest and willing the Brewers to the playoffs. That doesn't, however, mean all the concern should be shrugged off and pushed aside. After all, this is a guy whose strikeout rate and innings-per-outing dipped in the previous two seasons while his walk rates rose, whose velocity issues are becoming more than just a small sample and whose size (5-foot-11, 163 pounds) has long led to questions about long-term durability. Is "The Freak" venturing past his peak? Too early to tell, but those compelled to make that argument can point to the above as evidence. Personally, I'm not ready to make that argument, though I do find the Giants' long-term rotation outlook to be increasingly interesting. In the past few weeks, the Giants have completed contract negotiations with Matt Cain (six years, $127.5 million, with a vesting option that could push the total value to $141 million) and Madison Bumgarner (five years, $35 million). Lincecum, meanwhile, allowed the Giants to buy out his last two arbitration years with a $40.5 million pact in January, but he remains free-agent-eligible after 2013 and has always showed an inclination toward getting his absolute max value at every step in the negotiating process. These early results aren't enough to redefine our perception of Lincecum, for you give the benefit of the doubt to elite arms. But in some measure, they must have some impact on the thought process of a Giants club that has gone to great lengths to lock up two pitchers not named Lincecum. Lincecum is, of course, the only two-time Cy Young winner on the staff. But over the last two seasons, Cain has posted a better ERA (3.01 to 3.08), WHIP (1.083 to 1.239) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.87 to 2.78). And last year, Bumgarner's strikeouts per nine innings (8.40), walks per nine innings (2.02), Fielding Independent Pitching (2.67) and total innings (204 2/3) marks were all comparable or better than those posted by Lincecum (9.12, 3.57, 3.17 and 217). Now, none of this is meant to assert that Cain or Bumgarner are superior to Lincecum (though, obviously, they're both faring better here in 2012). Still, it is a fact that pitcher aging curves are much less predictable than those of hitters. And so none of us is smart enough to know whether Lincecum, who turns 28 in June, reached his peak in his mid-20s or if he'll get back to that point. But with the 22-year-old Bumgarner, in particular, it's not outside the realm of reason to assume his performance will continue to evolve and improve. And Cain has shown the durability and the adaptability to consistently get big-league hitters out, even with a fastball that routinely hovers in the 88-92 mph range. Right now, the onus is on Lincecum to adapt and improve, and it could well be that he, like Cain, has to make do with less-than-superior stuff. According to data on Fangraphs.com, Lincecum's average fastball velocity thus far is 90.2, down two full ticks from 2011 and nearly four mph from his first Cy season in '08. And he's already brought back the slider, though he is using it far less than he did a year ago, when it was a very effective pitch for him. It's not easy to watch a great talent like Lincecum struggle the way he has thus far, but he's certainly not the first elite arm to endure an ugly April. And the last time he had such a sluggish month was August of 2010, and he responded by leading the Giants to World Series pay dirt. That's why you give Lincecum the benefit of the doubt here and don't get too caught up in the numbers. Having said that, it's going to be awfully interesting to see how the narrative -- both in terms of Lincecum's health and ability to bounce back and the Giants' long-term rotation construction -- unfolds from here.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.