Sunday, July 6, 2008

Tim Lincecum's Mechanics And The Bandwagon Jumpers

Tom Verducci wrote the cover story about Giants ace Tim Lincecum in this week's Sports
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Illustrated----SI Story----and as usual whenever someone new and unusual bursts onto the scene there are the criticisms of those who think in the "conventional" way and make decisions based on categories other than velocity and results. Lincecum's father, Chris, is quoted extensively regarding the unusual motion and regimen used by his soon-to-be All Star son; along the way, other pitchers like Mark Prior, whose mechanics were considered "state-of-the-art" just five short years ago are suddenly being ripped because their mechanics turned out to be not quite as great as everyone thought.
Lincecum is healthy, throws bullets and uses an unusual motion that has been compared
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and hooks the ball skyward behind his back, then uses a very long stride----Rick Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe also happened to be 6'7", which would make Lincecum nearly a foot shorter. In the article, much is made of Chris Lincecum's insistence that the coaches that ran Tim's teams not fool around with the specially designed delivery.
Amid all the criticisms of pitchers like Prior and the required ravaging of teams that dared to take other players over Lincecum due to size and injury-concerns, the question left unasked is how many pitchers make it to the big leagues as quickly and successfully as Lincecum? Luke Hochevar and Brandon Morrow, two pitchers drafted before Lincecum, are big, hard throwers who haven't established themselves in the majors to any reasonable degree as of yet; that doesn't mean that they won't end up having better careers than Lincecum; Lincecum just happened to make it faster and has an interesting storyline of an unusual way of going about his job and that he's so small it's hard to imagine him launching fastballs at the velocity he does.
One thing that would have been useful between the lines was how many coaches and self-styled "experts" looked at Lincecum as he was coming up, folded their arms and tilted and shook their heads in disapproval and said, publicly or privately, "that kid's never gonna make it at his size with those mechanics and I don't care how hard he throws." It begs the question of how many talented pitchers and hitters had their natural way of doing things changed, altered and destroyed by coaches demanding that they do things "their" way or not play. Tim was lucky in that he had Chris around to keep an eye on him and the goods in that 98-mph fastball to back up the demands.
The thing about pitchers is that there's no way to know how long they're going to be able to
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hold up before breaking down regardless of their mechanics. Pitch counts, computer generated mechanics and corrections and better exercise technology are supposed to keep them healthy, but there seem to be more injuries from less exertion than ever. It may be time to reexamine
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everything that is believed about pitchers and how they're selected from the ground up. Pitchers like Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Roger Clemens and Lincecum have been called "freaks of nature"; but Ryan and Carlton had excellent mechanics and above-and-beyond work ethics; Clemens apparently had chemical assistance; and Lincecum has his own way of doing things and the important factor of having a father who wouldn't allow others to arrogantly and condescendingly mess around with him.
I have a problem with calling someone who does something well and stays healthy a freak, and those that do something well and get injured are considered normal. Ryan and Carlton never heard of a thing called pitch counts as they sometimes racked up 200+ pitches a start with all the walks, strikeouts and complete games. Even with the drug allegations, Clemens kept himself in great shape and was always fine-tuning his motion to maximize effectiveness while minimizing injury.
There have been pitchers like John Smoltz who gave everything they had on the mound and got hurt despite having great mechanics. The Kansas City Royals of the mid-80s developed four pitchers----Bret Saberhagen, David Cone, Danny Jackson and Mark Gubicza----who had
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mechanics focusing on hard leg drive and power pitching similar to that of Ryan and Tom Seaver and the only one to stay completely healthy for the duration of his career was Cone and Cone battered himself (on and off the field) more than any of the four. Sutcliffe had numerous arm injuries throughout his career, as did Hershiser.
The computer generated motions and mechanics are all well and good, but if a pitcher is destined to get hurt, he's going to get hurt no matter his mechanics. Steps can be taken to minimize injury and with Lincecum, he's doing such radically different things before and after starts with stretching and declining to ice his arm, he may be starting a new era or it may be seen as having been a mistake after a few years; the only way to be able to tell will be in hindsight; right now Lincecum is the flavor of the moment, but in five years, the same credit may turn into criticism and instead of crediting the Giants for drafting Lincecum and leaving him alone, the Royals may get the same credit for selecting Hochevar. The only thing that will truly determine the outcome will be after the fact.

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