By Bruce Baskin
Bruce Baskin of Chehalis covers NCAA basketball five days a week on WRMI, a 50,000-watt shortwave radio station in Miami.
Once upon a time, there was a pitcher named Ewell Blackwell. After the 6-foot-6 Blackwell spent four years in the Armed Forces during World War II, he broke into the majors with Cincinnati in 1946 with a so-so 9-13 record but registered a 2.45 earned-run average and led the National League with five shutouts.
Nicknamed “The Whip” because his submarine delivery relied on a hard-snapping wrist action that made his pitches look like they were coming to the plate via third base (and made right-handed batters bail like the crew of the Titanic), Blackwell was the pitching sensation of 1947, winning 22 games for the 73-81 Reds while leading the NL in complete games (23) and strikeouts (193). Ewell Blackwell was arguably the best pitcher in the game at the tender age of 24.
While observing Blackwell pitch, Babe Ruth (who knew something about pitchers himself) was asked his opinion of the tall righty. “He looks good enough now,” Ruth is said to have replied, “but pitching like that, he’s going to be done by the time he’s 30.”
Sure enough, though Blackwell went on to be selected for six straight All-Star Games, his last winning season with the Reds was in 1951 and by the end of the 1953 season, he was out of the majors at 30, as Ruth predicted. Blackwell did briefly appear with the Kansas City Athletics in 1955, but ended that season (and his career) with a 4-4 mark for the Pacific Coast League champion Seattle Rainiers under Fred Hutchinson.
I bring this up because I remembered reading about Blackwell and Ruth’s prognostication when I first saw Tim Lincecum pitch as a senior at Issaquah’s Liberty High School.It’s not fair to compare Lincecum to Blackwell because their deliveries are so different and the way Lincecum contorts his body each pitch is more reminiscent of Sandy Koufax. Yet the strain Koufax put on his body, particularly his elbow, was such that he had to retire after a 27-9 season because he just couldn’t take it anymore.He was (that number again) 30.
Fast forward to 2013, and Lincecum’s struggles with the San Francisco Giants.After going 69-41 over his first five years, with two NL Cy Young Awards and three strikeout titles, Lincecum showed signs of wearing down last year.It’s pretty hard to label someone who leads his league with 33 starts and whiffs 190 batters over 186 innings as worn out, but Lincecum did lead the NL with 15 losses, 17 wild pitches and 107 earned runs en route to a 5.18 ERA. It wasn’t pretty to watch and Lincecum’s numbers thus far this year aren’t much better. At this stage in his career, with free agency looming after the present season and the age of 30 (he turns 29 June 15) just a year away, the right-hander may be approaching a crossroads.What can he do to generate interest (and a new contract) among teams during the next offseason?
Lincecum should consider converting to a reliever.
We all caught a glimpse of how such a role could work for Lincecum during last year’s postseason. He was solved for four runs over 4.2 innings in his lone playoff start against St. Louis in the NL Championship Series but was positively electric when Giants manager Bruce Bochy decided to bring him in from the bullpen five times.In particular, his two appearances against Detroit in the World Series (striking out eight without allowing a hit over four frames) was eye-opening.Sergio Romo saved three straight games for San Francisco, but Lincecum was the talk of the Giants bullpen during the Series. Relief is something he can do and do well. It may also save his career.
The stress Lincecum places on his body every outing would be lessened greatly in stints of one inning at a time every two or three days.The result would be that while Lincecum would make twice as many appearances in relief, he’d be working fewer than half as many innings.And, as he showed last fall against the hard-hitting Tigers, he can still be pretty effective.
Whatever happens, I hope it all works out for Tim Lincecum. He’s been a breath of fresh air for baseball the past half-dozen years. Even if his career ended tomorrow, I’d still pick him over Brandon Morrow, the pitcher the Mariners drafted No. 5 overall in 2006 instead of Lincecum, instead of him in every time.However, it may be time for Lincecum to reinvent himself as one of the game’s best relievers if he continues to struggle as a starter, just as Dennis Eckersley did.
Ask the Oakland A’s and Hall of Fame voters (and Eckersley’s agent) how that all worked out.
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