Programming note: Cardinals-Giants coverage starts Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. with Giants Pregame Live on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
SAN FRANCISCO – Dave Righetti is most decidedly old school.
He came up with George Steinbrenner’s Yankees, a degree of separation or two from the Ruths and Gehrigs of baseball lore, and learned stoicism from baseball men with faces carved from granite. His own father, Leo, an accomplished shortstop with the San Francisco Seals, imparted his own lessons. You don’t draw attention to yourself, you’re never the squeaky wheel and you value loyalty above all.
So amid a quirky clubhouse scene after Tim Lincecum’s no-hitter last Wednesday, when the free-spirited pitcher put on a Gladiator helmet and a soccer jersey and the entire team started to fete him with the arm-raising “Yes! Yes! Yes!” salute, give Righetti a world of credit.
He managed to get one arm into the act.
It’s turning into something of a tradition that I seek out Righetti for his thoughts after a no-hitter. There have been four of them in six years, after all. The old lefty has a big heart, a vault of knowledge when it comes to the art of throwing a baseball off a slope, and he’s always committed himself to coaching the person as much as the pitcher. All of that makes him both insightful and emotional in these moments – a motherlode to a beat guy.
But these last few no-hitters, Righetti has been elusive. Last year, when Lincecum no-hit the Padres at Petco Park, Righetti begged out of an interview request and I had to flag him down the next day. Last Wednesday, when Lincecum no-hit the Padres again, he turned down another request.
Nobody had to say anything. I came to understand it on my own: Righetti wanted Lincecum to have that day all to himself. He deserved it.
I finally caught up to Righetti behind the dugout prior to Friday’s game. He talked about what made this no-hitter different than last year’s game for Lincecum, how the two-time Cy Young Award winner has changed over the years, and how Matt Cain is grappling with an issue that Lincecum has spent the better part of four seasons trying to conquer: making pitches from the stretch.
Here’s what the Giants’ long-tenured, old-school, one-arm-raised pitching coach had to say:
Q: How would you compare and contrast Lincecum’s two no-hitters, from your vantage point?
A: Well, the vantage point was better here. Just because in San Diego it’s really tough with the dugout configuration. You’re worried about getting whacked by a ball. I know you weren’t asking that, but …
You know what? The two games were obviously different for one big reason. There were a ton more foul balls in the other game, a ton of ‘em, and a lot more pitches because of it, but a lot more pitches that were out of the strike zone and back in the zone. (Whereas) the other day, he was pretty sharp the whole way. Even the fastballs he missed, he missed where he wanted. The control was just outstanding and I know a lot people will say, `Well, why can’t he do this all the time, or throw that way all the time?’ Well, it’s where the ball ended up. You can throw that (slider) but if you leave it up in the zone, it’s over the fence. This last time they were down and away, down and away. He finished them. As he says, he got over his front leg and finished them. He wasn’t late. Balls weren’t backing up. And the other thing I want to say about the (first no-hitter) is there were at least two or three at-bats (Everth) Cabrera got on and he had to throw a ton of pitches from the stretch. A ton for a no-hitter, anyway. This time he didn’t have to but for (two batters), so that’s a big difference.
Q: And of all four no-hitters over the last six years, this one probably came at a time when the team needed it most.
A: Yeah, and that’s what is cool about starting pitchers sometimes. We know when we aren’t doing well. Each guy wants to do something to help the team. There was a lot of angst going into that game if you think about it. They came in and beat us twice here and we know we’ve got to set the gauntlet down sometime along the line otherwise we’re not going to win. We need these kinds of things to keep us going until we do get going. You don’t know how this season is going to end or how important these games are until we get further along. But for him to just concentrate on doing what he wanted to do, that was the key for me. Because believe me, that’s how he thinks. When he’s thinking, `OK, this is the rhythm I want and this is how I want to pitch,’ he thinks about it all game. He thinks about being relaxed and carrying that the whole way. And I thought it was tremendous. And in the end he feels good because he thought he felt maybe he helped the team come out of something.
Q: He made it clear he felt really good about getting those two hits, too.
A: Ha, I’m sure he did. And in a lot of ways that helped him, too. He was out on the bases, not in the dugout thinking about it.
Q: According to the Pitch/FX data, Lincecum threw 40 sliders and 39 fastballs. The Padres were 0 for 13 on that slider. Is that accurate, do you think?
A: Oh no, definitely not. A lot of those changeups are sliders or vice versa. In fact, you can ask him. He knows he threw a lot, and I have to go back and analyze each one, but there were times, he’ll throw the split and it goes left and people will call it a slider because it’s the same speed. But I’d say it was in the 30s, maybe. What he’ll do, he can change the speed at which he does things and he’ll turn his slider into a hard curve. The last pitch looked like a hard curveball but it’s a slider to him because of how he throws it. He thows (from a high release point) up here so they look slurvier, but they always finish lower than the curveball. Especially with two strikes, he goes to it a lot. And they end up almost a hard curve.
And again, you saw the beginning of the game, how many times especially at home does he get fired up? A left-handed (leadoff) hitter’s up there and he gets fired up, everything is high and away, and the breaking ball seems to get him on line right away, get him through the nerves. And so he said to hell with it, go throw them low and away, give them a shot. Now the next team’s got to think about it, and he can throw a fastball right down the middle maybe and get away with it. But you’re never going to (make it work) when you’re way up (high) with every first pitch, missing off the plate away. So he definitely made an adjustment. For it to pay off like it did, I mean, nobody ever sees those things coming. As they build you do but you’re still thinking, `Hey, it’s 2-0, it’s 2-0, let’s get some runs.’
Q: But maybe his chances were better of finishing this second one off because his pitch count was so much more manageable.
A: Sure, and there’s a big difference on our side, as the manager or coach. There’s no way we wanted him to (throw 148 pitches) again, but last year we wanted to give that to him because of all he’d done for us. We knew coming into that game that he wasn’t hurting and we knew very well we could give him a break (with the All-Star break coming up). That was, I won’t say a gift, but we knew what we were doing. Quite frankly, you do have to care about it. You never want a guy to live with that the rest of his life, knowing he had a shot at it and didn’t get a chance to finish.
Q: It seems Lincecum is forever leaning on a different offspeed pitch, whether it’s his split-change or his slider. Do you show up every spring wondering what he’s come up with this time?
A: No that’s basic, that’s basic. He’s thrown the same pitches. The only difference is the consistency of it. Sometimes the speed of it will change and actually the slower it gets the better it gets. He’s not flipping it up there at 65 like Livan (Hernandez) would do. But you can tell the difference in his offspeed stuff because he’s so wiry fast, his arm sped is fast, that when he throws a pitch at 75 it looks real slow. You know? He gives off that impression. That’s why when he’s in the zone, throwing the ball well, throwing strikes with his arm speed, he sells his pitches as well as anybody. With Timmy, everything he does is fast twitch. It’s like Huddy in a sense, a fast arm, fast body.
Q: Fangraphs had an interesting piece that showed Lincecum has remained fairly steady in terms of opponent’s average from the windup, even from his peak Cy Young years through to now. It’s from the stretch where you see these wild swings. That’s interesting to me because so many pitchers will say the stretch has fewer moving parts. So you’ll see pitchers sometimes go to the stretch with nobody on base if they aren’t feeling comfortable in their windup. In terms of effectiveness, why has the stretch been such a bigger issue for Lincecum?
A: No doubt, no question, no question. It has been. Well, with his delivery style, which we’re trying to get him not to do, the big turn and all that, does he really need all that to throw strikes and still probably throw 90? And he’s cutting it down gradually and gradually. He doesn’t get back where he used to. He can’t physically, I mean, it just wears him out. It wears his back out. It’s hard for him to get into that position. But years ago, we’d put him in the stretch because he couldn’t control the windup. He’d just step back and make too big a turn and get wild and so he’d just pitch the rest of the game out of the stretch. He didn’t want to go through the angst of (a bad start), that was just his personality. But we didn’t want that to continue obviously. Having him pitch out of the stretch all the time obviously isn’t the smartest thing to do. But anyway, it’s all about getting sped up. Letting the runner speed you up. When he’s a 1.5 to the plate, he can pitch with anybody in baseball. But they’re going to steal every base. And when he has to go to 1.2 and 1.3, all those moving parts are trying to catch up. You lose your location. It’s simple as that. There’s no other reason.
Q: And now Matt Cain is going through the same issue. What are you seeing with him from the stretch?
A: There are just times you go through that. Two years ago we had a season where he was maybe top 5, Vogey led the league, in (average with runners in scoring position). You go through those things. And right now, he’s getting hit. And when you’re in the stretch and you’re not comfortable, you get a little flat. You get quick to the plate, the pitches come in a little flatter and you lose that angle. There’s a lot of reasons, but it’s mostly timing.
You’re adding all these questions in here.
Q: Sorry, but permit me one more. Cain has been so consistent over the years. How are you and Mark Gardner approaching his struggles this year, and are you just as concerned as supporting him mentally as trying to give him something that can help him mechanically?
A: Always, always. You’re always looking for something and you’ll see him do something different when he starts next. Most people won’t even notice, including the so-called experts. I’ll just let you figure it out. We’ll see if he maintains it. It’s not a big deal. He’s already changed this year and nobody noticed. His windup and his hand movement, it’s totally different. He started last year doing all this stuff. He’s trying to get a little more freedom, get him to throw how he plays, catch, how he does everything. And it’s helped his windup. From the stretch he’s stagnant and it’s just bull in a china closet after that. We’re trying to get him in a freer position. It’ll look a little bit like Ian Kennedy, in a sense. So look for it tomorrow and see if you see it.
POSTSCRIPT: Cain changed his hand position from the stretch, beginning his motion with his hands held out from his chest instead of at the belt. The Cincinnati Reds were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position and Cain threw seven shutout innings before Sergio Romo blew the save in an extra-inning loss.