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Tim Lincecum Is Back, but “The Freak” May Still Be Missing

The two-time Cy Young Award winner has signed with the Texas Rangers and is looking to jump-start his second act

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We hold these truths to be self-evident: that two-time Cy Young Award winner Timothy LeRoy Lincecum has lately been documented in a state best described as “swole”; that the Texas Rangers are in need of late-inning pitching assistance; that I, for many years, told anyone who would listen that I planned to name my future first-born child Tim Lincecum Jr. McNear, regardless of gender or parentage (a pledge I am still ready to honor); that Timmy should, now and forever, be permitted any herbs he so chooses; and that the era of the Freak that seemed to be over is now, suddenly, here once more. Maybe.

On Tuesday, Lincecum signed a deal reportedly worth $1 million plus performance incentives with the Rangers. Texas is expected to position him as a relief pitcher, bringing him back into the league 11 years after he first entered as the no. 11 prospect in baseball, 10 years after his first Cy Young Award, nine years after his second, five years after he no-hit the Padres, four years after he did it again, three years after he last suited up for San Francisco, a year and a half after he fizzled out with the Angels, and five months after a fruitless Mercury News search for the pitcher prompted The New York Post to run the headline, “No one seems to know where Tim Lincecum disappeared to.”

Now, we know: Lincecum disappeared into a training regimen. He’s spent his M.I.A. months working out at Seattle’s Driveline Baseball, a training center that specializes in helping pitchers increase their velocity. Lately promising details have emerged about his results: Reports from a closed-to-media February 15 showcase had him throwing between 90 and 93 miles per hour. But velocity alone won’t fix all of Lincecum’s previous issues. He has appeared in just 24 games since the start of 2015, he’s had just one season with value above replacement level since 2011, and in his three-month tenure with the Angels in 2016, he racked up a dismal 9.16 ERA over 38.1 innings. For the Rangers, who have yet to name a closer for the 2018 season, the four-time All-Star is an unambiguous gamble. But he might very well be a good one.

Baseball nicknames can tend toward the cute or abstruse, an inside joke among fans or fellow players. Lincecum’s was neither: He threw like a freak, and that was that. Standing at 5-foot-11 and weighing 170 pounds soaking wet, Timmy at his peak relied less on precision than sheer, panicky force. He threw like he was trying to set a dislocated shoulder, like one of the blood vessels in his eyes had done something to offend him. He threw, most accurately, the way he was taught to by his dad-cum-coach, Chris, who has quibbled with media in the past about the difference between throwing and pitching. Whatever you want to call what Timmy was doing so well on the mound, Chris Lincecum told The New York Times in 2011 that he was the one who taught him how.

And because his success revolved so much around his speed—according to Brooks Baseball, his four-seam fastball routinely topped 94 miles per hour in his earliest seasons and at times even approached 100 mph—Lincecum’s peak always felt tenuous. When his stuff started to fade, it wasn’t exactly a surprise that it came so fast. Elbows get old, and elbows as palpably abused as Lincecum’s most assuredly do, too. “Everything from my toe to my ear,” Lincecum told the Seattle Times in 2006. “I use it all.”

But, even as he started to fade as a starter, he gained some experience in relief. Late in Lincecum’s rocky 2012 campaign with the Giants, when his speed first started to fail and he led the National League with 15 losses and a 5.18 ERA—the fourth-highest among qualifying starting pitchers—San Francisco used him from the bullpen on no less a stage than the World Series. The Giants swept the Tigers; Lincecum exited with a 0.69 ERA through five appearances.

That was years (and a 2015 labral tear) ago. We don’t yet know what Lincecum’s time away from the majors or at Driveline Baseball might have produced beyond a test-case velocity bump. And age isn’t in Lincecum’s favor—since 2006, the average age of a pitcher in the majors has been 28. Lincecum is 33.

This season, the best-case scenario for Lincecum and the Rangers might be something decidedly un-Freakish: the drawing of a line between his freakish throwing—which came so naturally, until it didn’t—and more classical pitching. Even if he throws more traditionally and loses a bit of his force, it’ll be nice to have the future Tim Lincecum Jr. McNear’s namesake back in the league.