The Passion of Chris Lincecum

"Pitching is a position that can be taught to almost anybody; but throwing properly is an art."
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Image © Dave Nelson

Tim Lincecum was a month away from becoming the 10th overall pick in the 2006 amateur draft when I started a story about him for a regional lifestyle magazine based in Seattle. The magazine was not in the habit of publishing features about college pitchers, but I had convinced my editor that Lincecum was not only an exceptional college pitcher, but a fascinating story. Tim’s father, Chris, I told her, was a former minor league pitcher and Boeing engineer, who had developed his son’s unorthodox throwing motion according to aerodynamic principles. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was completely false. But it was still a good story.

When I first approached Chris at one of Tim’s games, he didn’t want to talk. The game in question was Tim’s final start for the University of Washington, his final game-situation audition for major league scouts. It was also a must-win game for the Huskies to sustain their slim College World Series at-large bid hopes. Tim was chasing the all-time Pac–10 career strikeouts record, then held by Mark Prior. I approached Chris between innings, behind the Husky Ballpark bleachers, where he was sucking down a cigarette and chatting with a friend. He was and is still a slender man, with a leathery face. He told me that he didn’t want to talk right then. Could I email him?

I thought I was getting brushed off, but instead I seemed to have gotten in his good graces by backing off. I soon received a 1,500-word manifesto on the art of pitching that basically predicted Tim’s career. But if I had been a scout, the info in these emails probably would have scared me away from Tim Lincecum.

***

You’ll get a better sense for the passion behind these emails, I think, if they are presented verbatim, with Chris’ original punctuation—or, more properly, his lack of concern for it.

Seth

He had a ball in next to him the day he was born;as did his older brother Sean. He started throwing when he was old enough to walk.He was pitching when he was eight..

As I did with any kid I worked with (and numerous adults I instructed) I started him throwing in a full wheel motion from the beginning.My instruction is taught for the purposes of throwing propurly and as efficient as possible with the least amount of stress and effort on the WHOLE body..I used to tell kids and there family’s that I wanted them to be able to come back to me 20 or 30 years later and say quote;” Mr. Lincecum,I can still throw and I never hurt my arm”.That was my ultimate goal. 

The mechanics themselves( which I hear too often as “unconventional” ) is very old-school like the pitchers in the late 1920’s through the 1950’s.Satchel Page,Sandy Kofax,Bob Feller,Carl Hubble,etc;I always had a live arm myself and my dad( as my eyes and catcher) helped me develop the theories I used;thus turning it into an ART.

I started playing in 12 and under little league when I was 6 years old(they never checked birth days and I dad fibbed about my age).At that age the competition was extremely tuff because there were very few teams and even lesser leagues and fields and that was the war-baby era.So if you didn’t make a team you found something else to do.When I was nine years old I would make the teams and we realized I had a live arm so my dad took me to my uncle(who was a good highschool pitcher for Orting H.S , Wa.). who showed me how to hold and release a curveball.My dad and I developed different veriations of it and I was on my way.

I was an All-league pitcher for Sammamish H.S.and graduated in 1966.I went on to eventually play at Green River in 1969 and was the player/pitching coach and played semi-pro after that..Followed that with many years of softball…

If you need more let me know..Thanks for not being pushy at the game(it was nuts) and good luck in your further ventures.

Sincerely ; Chris\

I had some great background about Chris, but not exactly what I needed for the story. I emailed Chris back, trying to confirm that he actually was a Boeing engineer. I also asked for a little bit more about Tim’s mechanics. I got more than a little bit.

I’m what they call an MPRF( basically expedite parts into the company and through the shops)……..Not an engineer…….”Full wheel motion” is just one of the descriptions I use…A term I did make-up is “dangle”.I use that to describe the the loosenes from the shoulder to the tips of the fingers during the wind-up as the arm drops and hangs down before coming over the top toward the target.

I believe in using hinges to increase leverage flow…The following is a description of the pitches taught to Tim and some of the methods I use..

***

Chris Lincecum was not an engineer. I’d assumed that, based on the fact that he worked at Boeing. Probably I had wanted it to be true, because I liked the idea of a pitcher’s mechanics being based on aerodynamic principles (which, thinking about it now, doesn’t really make any sense). Instead, I was about to find out pretty much everything I might ever want to about Tim’s pitching style and his history. Just a few weeks before major league teams would decide where to draft his son—a decision that would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars—Chris Lincecum decided to send me, a freelancer with a Gmail address, an exhaustive scouting report on Tim, a scouting report that is more likely to hurt his son’s tenuous draft position than help it.

He throws a two two-seamed fastballs and a four-seamed(averaging between 94 and 98 constantly).

1.) One of the two-seamed are with his fingers on top or just on the left side of the closest separation of the seams which sinks and fades to the right of the plate( toward a right-handed hitter).

2.) The other two-seamed fastball is with his finger-tips(index and middle finger) on the top of the top parallel seam (where the seams are closest to each other) which rises when thrown.

3.) The four seam is where his finger-tips are touching the top of the seam where the seams are farthest apart of the ball..It tales a little left or right but stays on plain parallel to the ground and is easier to control and Tim feels it’s what they call a heavy ball.

He has two hard breaking curve-balls:His bread and butter which he’s thrown since he was about 8 years old.

Throwing curveballs since he was eight years old! Conventional wisdom says that kids risk permanent arm damage if they throw curveballs before age 14. Recent studies have shown that throwing curves is no more damaging to young arms than fastballs, but major league scouting departments aren’t known for enthusiastic embrace of “recent studies.” Lincecum already had one strike against him—his size. Before the draft, one scouting director said about Andrew Miller, the class’s consensus top pitcher: “You look at those at other pitchers, and then you look at Miller and he’s a 6-foot-7 lefty with tremendous arm strength. He’s a completely different animal and if there’s any way you could pull [drafting Miller] off, you’d have to.” Conventional wisdom held that Lincecum, at 5-foot-11, didn’t have the strength to fire 100 pitches in a game 30 times a season. With his mid-90s fastball (there was no doubting that), Lincecum might make a good closer someday, but top-ten picks are for starters, not relievers. But if the San Francisco Giants had listened to conventional wisdom, their championship drought might be at fifty-seven years, instead of one.

His body mechanics are the same with his breaking balls as it is with his fastballs.The key to having a sharp-breaking curve is the amount of spins and always using a fast arm speed created by using total body whipping mechanics(and a soft grip just like he throws every pitch-What I show anybody that wants to know is that when you hold a ball too firmly the wrist tightens up and end of the whip never takes place. This usually causes sore arms in the bicep and elbow). The mechanics he uses along with maintaining core muscle strength( and most important the small muscle strength) is why he can throw for so long, while still maintaining his velocity late in his games(even after throwing 125+ pitches).

The small muscles are the wrists, elbow, shoulder, lower-back, groin, and around the knee and ankles….

!.) The so-called 12/6 curve is held with the index and middle-finger close together with the index touching and on the left part parallel to the seams when they are closest together on the ball. Pulling the ball down on the same plain as his arm( and “letting” the ball release as apposed to forcing the ball with a snapping wrist so the ball rolls off his fingers).The angle of his shoulders ( as though you are looking at a clock) is the key to the direction of the break.

2.) The 2/8 so-called cure has been my favorite and is the first Tim learned and actually breaks twice( over to the left toward a left-handed batter and down.

It’s held basically the same as the 12/6 but is deeper in his grip (being held with more of his two fingers and thumb as apposed to the holding it between the middle and second joint on the fingers. The angle of the break is again created by the angle of his shoulders which are at a 2/8 angle.

He has developed a slider this year which we worked on years ago but never needed ( because if thrown too often while developing his fastball it can cause lack of velocity with the fastball due to muscle-memory which tends to cause a cutter and that slows the ball down).But this year he worked on holding the ball with his fingers close together,like the 12/6 curve, and throwing it at about 1:30/7:30 angle and rather than getting on top of the ball at release he rolls around it..He throws it about mid-eighties speed.

He tried different change-ups for the last three years ( the circle with the index and thumb basically touching the tips and throws it with his index, four-finger and little finger controlling it) .He’s experimented with numerous pressures and deeper in his grip or toward the tips or what they refer to as a football grip and has found a comfort zone with a pitch he worked on in the Cape-Cod league. It dies off to the right and down toward a right-handed hitter in the low eighties .

Lincecum still throws the two- and four-seamers, though with slightly less velocity than he had in college. That new “comfort zone” change Chris mentioned may be the “split-changeup” has become Lincecum’s new strikeout pitch. In college, and early in his major league career, Tim’s strikeout pitch was his 12–6 curveball. He throws that pitch much less now (only 7.3 percent of the time, compared to 19.7 percent his first season,according to Fangraphs data). As early as his fourth month in the majors, Lincecum had realized that hitters could identify his curve easier than they could his change.

He throws a splitter ( which is nothing more than an abbreviated fork-ball in the upper eighties )and a knuckle-ball which they don’t feel he needs to throw..Some of the players tell me the knuckle is so nasty that nobody would be able to catch it.

All in all his mechanics are ( as some people have referred to as freakish or un-orthodox) like the old-time pitchers in the20’s, 30’s and 40’s and early fifties.Example:Sandy Kofax, Bob Gibson, Satchel Page, Bob Feller. Carl Hubble, Juan Marichal…

Those athletes didn’t throw with just there arms and shoulders as probably 70 percent or more have been doing for the last 40+ years. Those pitchers don’t last for more than 4 to 7 years and usually throw their elbows or shoulders out. Sad thing is that they become pitching coaches and open clinics and teach their mechanics to the children (charging ridiculous fees) addressing their mechanics as “the Pro way” of doing it (after all, all you have to do is watch a game on T.V. and see that most major leaguers are using the muscle-method way of throwing ,therefore confirming it). Thus creating less than efficient throwers ,for the next generation, who intern throw their arms out and usually can’t understand why.Just watching these type of poor mechanics makes me cringe with pain. 

***

Chris didn’t come right out and say it (though I sure he would have, had I pressed), but it wass clear that Tim’s unorthodox mechanics weren’t up for discussion, no matter what a team that wound up drafting him might have thought.

Pitching is a position that can be taught to almost anybody; but throwing properly is an art and needs to be respected and constantly adjusted due to growth and muscle development and aging…I love it the most in all sports.

Hope I didn’t bore you or get to specific but it’s my passion.. 

Thanks

Chris

***

Exactly one year later, I had occasion to e-mail Chris again—to congratulate him on Tim’s promotion to the majors. Tim was making his first appearance in Shea Stadium that night, his first dance into the New York media spotlight. The next day, after the Mets won in the 12th, I got an email back. As always, for Chris, it was all about the baseball.

Thanks Seth….He’s doin’ alright…should have won that game tonight…


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