I've wanted to make love to a lot of different pitches in my time. Like, a ton. You don't want to browse through my Chrome history. Tonight's unrequited love was the first pitch Tim Lincecum threw to Chase Utley in the first inning. It was 94, with movement that brought it back over the plate. Utley turned into the pitch, and it went right by him, back into the strike zone. It was an unambiguous strike. And it wasn't anything a hitter would swing at.
It was pitching. Remember that? Pitching. It was throwing a baseball with a plan. The first pitch sets up the second pitch, which sets up the third and fourth pitch. Or maybe the first pitch sets up the next four pitches as a roundabout way to set up the strikeout pitch. Pitching. That first pitch felt like a pitch the masters would throw, something that Greg Maddux would watch through a monocle as he exclaimed, "Bully of a pitch!"
Then everything went to shit, as it often seems to do with the starting pitchers these days.
We're a year and a month into the middling-to-bad Tim Lincecum, and at least there's a sliver lining built in. Every time we watch him start a game, we could be thinking $126 million. I can't believe they gave him the Zito. $126 million. Or $150 million. Or, man, who knows what kind of contract he could have nabbed if the Giants were desperate to lock him up. It would have been the highest contract ever given to an ex-pitcher.
Because Lincecum can't pitch. He can only throw. And occasionally, the throwing will pass for pitching. It mimics pitching for a little bit, sort of like a kid standing on the shoulders of another kid under a big trench coat can mimic an adult wanting to see an X-rated movie. After a split-second of inspection, though, everything falls apart. The Utley pitch described above would mean something if Lincecum could do it again. It would mean something if he could do it half of the times he tried to. Heck, a quarter. Alas, he can't. And that's the problem.
Between 2011 and 2012, some intrepid scout came up with a scouting report on Tim Lincecum. It was more like an action plan, a way to crack the code of Tim Lincecum. It was written on an index card and passed around the league. All it read was this:
Treat every Tim Lincecum pitch like it's a 3-1 count. Except for the two-strike pitches, which you pretend are full counts.
What do hitters do on a 3-1 count? They shouldn't chase, for one. Even if the umpire jobs them on a call, they'll get a 3-2 count. So they get to look for a specific part of the strike zone. Pick a quadrant. Pick a speed. Look for a hanger. The league hits .351/.690/.704 on 3-1 counts. They can sit on a pitch and look for curveballs that don't curve, or sliders that don't slide.
And that's all hitters do against Lincecum. If he gets ahead 0-1, the hitter pretends it's 3-1 and looks for a fastball down the middle. If Lincecum misses with the 0-1 pitch, the hitter can pretend it's 3-1 and look for a fastball down the middle. If Lincecum gets that second strike, the hitter can back out, collect himself, and pretend that it's a full count, looking for a fastball mistake, while also watching for an off-speed pitch that stays up.
I don't remember the last hitter that looked uncomfortable against Lincecum. I've seen them strike out against him. I've seen hitters go down on nasty changeups that did what they were supposed to do. But on the way back to the dugout, the hitter isn't thinking "How does anyone hit that?" He thinks, "Oh, yeah, great. I'm the guy he throws that to," and then continues not looking uncomfortable in his at-bats against Tim Lincecum.
Did you notice how Kyle Kendrick was setting hitters up with front-door sinkers and putting them away with changeups? Or how he would hit the outside edge of the plate the pitch after Mike DiMuro gave him an extra inch? That's pitching. It's what Matt Cain did for years, and what Ryan Vogelsong did for the last two seasons. And it's sure as heck something that Tim Lincecum used to do. He can't anymore. I don't know why. He probably doesn't either.
Also, you can scratch "Yearns for Giants pitching to be more like Kyle Kendrick" off your bingo card. Also, if you actually have that on a bingo card in front of you, you are in Hell. Literally. You were a bad person, you died, and now you are in a warm place where you wish Giants pitchers can ape the sweet, sweet pitchability of Kyle Kendrick.
There's no solution. Not until the deadline, at least. Clayton Blackburn isn't going to ride in on a well-controlled horse, skipping two levels to save us all. Chris Heston probably isn't the answer. Zack Wheeler is still retired, writing the Great American Novel, just like I've been telling myself for the last year. All we can do is hope Lincecum figures out how to pitch again. Hoping is fine. Recommended, even. But I'm not waiting for it anymore.