The media treatment of Giants pitchers Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito early in the season this year demonstrates a total disregard for recent history.
Lincecum struggled badly coming out of the gate, and there were numerous reports wondering what had gone wrong. Nothing. Lincecum has often had these spells of ineffectiveness, as recently as August, but they’re more than balanced by his longer periods of dominance.
He’s returned to good form lately, so hopefully, we’ll have no more “the sky is falling” stories.
Zito is the opposite. When he had an excellent April, with an ERA of 1.67 as the Giants won three of his four starts, writers marveled at the way he’d apparently turned his career around.
Or, maybe they just re-did their stories from April 2010, when Zito had a similar start, pitching better than in his American League Cy Young campaign of 2002. By season’s end, he was so ineffective, he was kept off the postseason roster.
I expect a similar season path for Zito this year. He’s probably already started, with seven walks in just 3²⁄³ innings in his Wednesday start against the Miami Marlins.
It’s not difficult to make these predictions if you look at the career paths for the two pitchers.
Lincecum has been mostly brilliant since he came up early in the 2007 season. He won back-to-back National League Cy Young awards in 2008-09 and set a San Francisco Giants single-season strikeout record with 265 in 2008. He was just 13-14 in 2011, but that was mostly because of wretched run support; his ERA was 2.74.
Zito’s career path has been much different. He peaked in 2002 when he was 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and won the Cy Young. His A’s career went mostly downhill the rest of the way, but Giants scouts didn’t notice. He was signed to a seven-year, $126 million contract in 2007, but he has yet to have even a .500 record or an ERA below 4.00 in his five seasons with the Giants.
When Lincecum has problems, it’s because of his motion. His father devised it to get the maximum torque out of his thin body, and he sometimes gets out of whack. Pitching coach Dave Righetti can’t help because it’s such an unusual motion.
Yet, that motion is also what makes Lincecum a great pitcher because it not only gives him great power, but confuses hitters. On balance, it works very well for him.
Zito’s problem is his mind. He knows what he has to do: throw strikes. He has a mediocre fastball, mid-80s on a good day, but left-handers with mediocre fastballs can be winners if they throw strikes on the corners of the plate.
When he did that in April 2010 and this year, Zito was very effective. But he always seems to revert to his old pattern of nibbling, nibbling until he finds himself with two men on base and grooves a fat pitch which gets hit for a home run.
So, it’s easy to make this prediction: Lincecum will have another great season and Zito will struggle to retain the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Just check their histories.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.