SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants haven't publicly freaked out yet over Tim Lincecum's woes. But common sense dictates that they won't be able to contain their concern much longer. Lincecum has gone from being arguably the National League's best pitcher from 2008-11 to, statistically, its worst this season. He entered the Giants' scheduled off-day Thursday with a 6.19 ERA, the highest in the Majors among pitchers who have worked enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His 1.57 WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) ties him with Milwaukee's Randy Wolf for the NL's highest. He has pitched past the sixth inning just three times in 14 starts. The Giants have dropped his last nine outings and his personal losing streak has reached a career-high six. Lincecum's four-inning effort on May 20 against the A's, whom he'll face Friday in the opener of a three-game Interleague series at Oakland, typified his 2012 body of work. He looked imposing as he struck out the side in the first inning. But he ultimately unraveled, disappearing after yielding four fourth-inning runs. Sometimes the pattern varies; of the 52 runs he has surrendered, Lincecum has allowed 14 in the first inning and 13 in the fourth. But whether he struggles early in the game, sags in the middle of it or both, a huge collapse is almost inevitable. He has permitted three runs in an inning three times, four runs four times and five runs once.
Lincecum frequently mixes in multiple-inning stretches of competence, even brilliance, which has prompted manager Bruce Bochy to repeat that the right-hander is "close" to finding consistency. As a two-time NL Cy Young Award winner, a 2010 World Series hero and a three-time league strikeout leader, Lincecum has established a vast credit line of confidence. Retired manager Tony La Russa of the reigning World Series champion Cardinals was interviewed Wednesday on the Fitz and Brooks Show on KNBR-AM, the Giants' flagship radio station. Asked about Lincecum, La Russa said that he hasn't seen the right-hander pitch this year and declined to speculate on Lincecum's flaws. But La Russa urged the Giants to remain patient. "They have quality evaluators there between Bruce, [pitching coach] Dave Righetti, [general manager] Brian Sabean. They have a ton of experience," La Russa said. "They really know what they're doing there. I think our attitude when we confronted something like that was, there is an explanation, there is an answer there, and you just have to work to find it. What you can't do is sit back and say, 'Hey, we've done all we can for him' and either give up on him or let him know that you don't believe in him. ... I'm confident that there are factors there they can identify." Yet it's clear that Lincecum is no longer "The Freak," whose excellence was assumed for so many years. No longer can he assume anything, even if he improves. He'll likely have to work overtime to maintain whatever skill he recovers in the event of a resurgence. Because he has more than one shortcoming to address. "At one point, it's a bad inning, and another it's walks, and another it's not being aggressive in the strike zone or throwing too many secondary pitches," he said recently. "Those kind of things get in your head, when it comes down to just executing what pitch the catcher [calls]. ... I'm just looking for that break where I'm trusting my stuff out there 100 percent of the time." Here's a look at Lincecum's issues: Velocity: It's diminished, but it's not as much of a problem as many observers initially believed. According to his PITCHf/x index, Lincecum's fastball travels at an average of 90.4 mph -- down from 92.2 last year, but not that much different from the 91.2 he recorded in 2010. Lately, Lincecum has routinely reached 92-93 mph early in games before settling into the 90-mph range during the middle innings. He still can succeed with that velocity, but not if he's throwing his fastball into the hitting zone. That leads to the next subject. Control, command: At critical times, Lincecum possesses neither. He ranks second in the NL with 41 walks and his ratio of 4.79 walks per nine innings drastically exceeds the 2.72 rate he maintained in 2009, his second Cy Young season. Just as importantly, Lincecum misses his intended location with alarming frequency. Though he has allowed only eight homers in 77 innings, his home run ratio of 0.94 per nine innings more than doubles his corresponding figures for his Cy Young years (0.44 in 2008, 0.40 in 2009). And by now, anybody who has watched Lincecum probably has seen him bounce a two-strike pitch in the dirt. That also illustrates his struggles to put the ball where he wants it. Mechanics: If Lincecum felt comfortable with his delivery, the only questions involving him would deal with whether he'll make his fifth All-Star team in a row. Instead, Lincecum has yet to find consistency with his motion. He has complained at various times this year about his inability to maintain proper balance and keep his hands more still -- "quiet," in baseball lingo. On Saturday at Seattle, he encountered extreme difficulty when he pitched from the stretch position with runners on base. That flaw fed on itself as Lincecum failed to hold a 4-2 lead. These factors are related, of course. If Lincecum had better mechanics, all of his pitches would be more effective. He'd walk fewer batters and dangle fewer hittable deliveries over home plate. Obvious? Yes. Easy to fix? No. In the clutch: Lincecum has lapsed too often in meaningful situations. Opponents have hit .337 off him with runners in scoring position, a frighteningly high figure. By comparison, in his previous four full seasons beginning in 2008, Lincecum yielded corresponding averages of .228, .149, .147 and .141. Lincecum retains the ability to put away hitters. He's averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings, fifth in the NL and immediately ahead of the suddenly celebrated R.A. Dickey of the Mets. But being vulnerable in the aforementioned areas prevents Lincecum from reviving his familiar dominance. Confidence: It's shaky, at best. But if success breeds confidence and confidence breeds success, which comes first? Does Lincecum somehow have to piece together a decent effort to regain his mental and emotional equilibrium, or does he have to will himself toward a strong performance that will propel him to his customary high level? Before his Seattle start, Lincecum acknowledged that he must win the tug-of-war of mind over matter.
"I know a lot of it has been mental," he said, adding that taking the mound with a "sense of arrogance" might help.Maybe Lincecum needs to recall the May 9 start at Los Angeles in which Matt Kemp, then the planet's best hitter, struck out swinging in all three of their confrontations. Or the dismay Seattle's Michael Saunders displayed in flinging away his batting helmet after striking out against Lincecum on Saturday. Another scene from the Seattle game suggested that Lincecum ought to resume trusting his stuff, as he said. In the fourth inning, he threw a 1-2 pitch to Justin Smoak that prompted catcher Buster Posey to rise from his crouch and start to head for the dugout, certain that strike three would be called. It wasn't. Undaunted, Lincecum fanned Smoak with a 92-mph fastball. Lincecum's mastery still exists. It's just missing in action all too often for him and the Giants.
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.