WASHINGTON – Tim Lincecum does not come with an instruction manual. When he breaks, there is no numbered diagram to follow or 800 helpline to call.
His mechanics are bespoke. His taut body is an eccentricity. He is not cut from the scouting pattern for pitchers -- 6-foot-4, all torso and thigh, stampeding down the mound. He is different. He glides back, gathers and explodes, finishing every pitch in a flamingo pose.
But what happens when his feathers get ruffled? What happens when a two-time Cy Young Award winner, a four-time All-Star and owner of two World Series rings heads into the second season of trial and error?
How do you begin to apply conventional wisdom to an unconventional pitcher?
Maybe you go to an unconventional source.
To a pitcher who was a 34th-round pick, not a first-rounder. Who is wearing his eighth major league uniform. Who has lived his baseball life on the periphery, where you must be an expert swimmer to survive the constant churn.
“I just kind of told him how I prepared for a game,” Chad Gaudin said. “I just told him some of the things I picked up through trial and error -- you know, the hard way.”
Lincecum always had it so easy. And if something happened to go awry, he always could talk to his father, Chris, who developed his unique mechanics and has coached him intently from Little League. He could talk to Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti or bullpen coach Mark Gardner or manager Bruce Bochy, and benefit from their continuity. Each of them has been in the dugout for every one of his major league starts.
But the voice that might have done the most to resuscitate Lincecum’s career belongs to Gaudin, who joined the Giants on a minor league contract last winter and has become a vital part of the club – as well as a fast friend.
“For him to even consider listening to somebody, that’s got to be tough for him,” Gaudin said. “Who else has done what he’s done? It would be very easy for him to say, `You know what? I’ve got it pretty well taken care of.’
“You’re talking about a guy who has accomplished above and beyond. What, four All-Star teams, two Cy Youngs, two World Series? It’s pretty impressive. He just got to a place where he was struggling a little bit. That happens to all of us.”
Gaudin and Lincecum have become close friends and personal coaches to each other. In Gaudin’s last start against Baltimore last Friday, he was struggling to throw strikes in the early innings. Lincecum took him aside in the dugout and started showing him how his front side was leaking open.
And Gaudin has done worlds of good for Lincecum, especially when it comes to preparation, reading scouting reports and breaking down hitters.
It didn’t start as a lecture or as unsolicited advice. Lincecum had questions. Gaudin tried to provide his perspective, not ironclad answers.
“We touched on the mental side,” Gaudin said. “Where do you want to be against this guy? What can you do here?
“He’s very, very talented and very athletic and maybe that worked against him.
When you don’t fail, you don’t go through that. All of the sudden, when you’re not performing up to expectations, or your own expectations for yourself, you begin to doubt.
“Things change. The world is changing every day. The ability to change and adapt in this game is key. Nobody in this game has longevity without that. He figured that out on his own.”
Lincecum wasn’t a cerebral pitcher by any stretch while winning his Cy Youngs in 2008 and ’09. Not to suggest he was a brain-dead heaver, but he could dominate a lineup with his mid-90s fastball and biting changeup alone. Hitters were always on the defensive against him. It wasn’t as simple as showing up and throwing, but it wasn’t much more complicated than that, either.
In his younger days, Lincecum didn’t sequester himself before starts or spend a lot of time poring over scouting reports. He’d joke with the beat writers during batting practice and while away the hours before he’d take the mound.
Later on, as his fastball velocity receded, he took pains to adjust. He started throwing his slider more and leaned on that in 2010 during that historic, 14-strikeout game against the Atlanta Braves in the NL Division Series. When that combination stopped working, he started flipping more curveballs or throwing a two-seamer. He always pulled something out of his back pocket. He could always come up with something.
But last year, the tricks stopped working. Nothing that Lincecum could shape or invent in his side sessions seemed to work. Almost every first inning was a 30-pitch grind, and he didn’t put in enough work in the offseason. He didn’t have the stamina to rebound. His 5.18 ERA was the highest among all qualified NL starting pitchers, and his hero turn as a reliever in the postseason couldn’t erase that number from the back of his baseball card.
He put in the work this past winter, arriving in camp in much better shape. But he still struggled to put together consistency from batter to batter and inning to inning, nevermind start to start. Through a dozen starts this year, he had a 4.75 ERA.
Gaudin helped him come to realize something.
“It’s not just his stuff,” Gaudin said. “It’s comparing his strengths to a hitter. It’s kind of like studying for a test. And when you do that, there’s a peace of mind. You knew there’s some backing behind the decisions you’re making out there. It’s a validation. It’s a confidence.”
Lincecum always threw hard and everything came easy. Now he’s throwing easier, and he’s not having as hard a time.
“He’s within himself and that’s what’s been giving us the hope,” Righetti said. “Now you want the results and he’s gotten those, too. The results are catching up to what he’s doing out there. You see him righting himself.”
You don’t see him joking around the hours before his starts any longer. He’s going over video, spending more time with catcher Buster Posey, plotting and planning for the hitters he’ll be facing. He’s still capable of improvisation on the mound. But now he can play a complex arrangement, too.
If you toss out his bad one against the Reds, Lincecum has a 2.63 ERA over nine starts since June 16, including a 148-pitch no-hitter July 13 at San Diego that added to his storied legacy as a Giant. And he’s coming off a one-hit, one-walk, eight-inning, eight-strikeout performance Thursday against Milwaukee.
Gaudin didn’t set out to fix Lincecum. They gravitated toward each other because they have similar personalities. They became friends, and you always want to help a friend.
“Timmy’s the kind of guy he’s just himself, whether he’s pitching of playing video games or whatever,’ Gaudin said. “He’s an open, welcoming kind of person – jut a good person in general. He’s nice to everybody, never a judgmental attitude.
“It’s just nice we can help each other here and there.”