Every now and then, there’s something in sports that just doesn’t make sense. Former San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum was one of those things. At first glance, Lincecum looks more like one of the last kids picked for dodge ball in gym class than a professional athlete. But for a few years, the man who stood (generously listed at) 5’11’’ and 170 lbs. was the most dominant pitcher in baseball. He was a small pitcher with powerful stuff, and that’s why he was nicknamed The Freak. But he was the best kind of freak.
Lincecum was slight of build, to put it kindly. But that didn’t stop him from throwing with immense power and reaching top-flight velocity. He used a long stride and a distinct delivery to generate incredible amounts of torque, allowing him to throw his fastball in the upper 90s, a pitch that nearly defied the laws of baseball considering his size. Even after undergoing hip surgery late in his career, Lincecum was still able to ramp up his fastball to 92 mph, showcasing impressive power from such a small package.
For most of his career, most predicted Lincecum would end up making a permanent move to the bullpen because of his size and unusual mechanics. But that never happened. He made just eight total relief appearances and seven more in the postseason, but Lincecum remained a starter against all odds.
“In my 13 years in the big leagues, this is the only guy I’ve seen who is worth the hype. The first one.”
If one were to think logically, they would realize that few pitchers with Lincecum’s size ever experience sustained success, much less as a starter. In fact, when Lincecum’s college coach at the University of Washington, Ken Knutson, first scouted Lincecum, he thought someone was playing a joke on him until he actually saw the undersized Lincecum and his unusual delivery in action.
Of course, his unique mechanics also made people believe that Lincecum was destined for the bullpen. There was so much effort and torque in his delivery that it seemed impossible that any pitcher, much less one shorter than 6-feet tall, could perform that motion in excess of 90 or 100 times in one game. Those odd mechanics make it even more amazing that Lincecum was able to experience the profound levels of success he did as a major league pitcher.
“He’s a freak of nature. To have that kind of athletic ability, those mechanics and the sheer strength he has — with his stature — is just unheard of.”
Brian Sabean, Giants GM
After winning the Golden Spikes Award for the best amateur player in the country while he was in college, he shot through the minors and almost immediately became one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball. He made his big league debut in in May 2007 and proceeded to make four straight All-Star games from 2008 to 2011.
He was the National League strikeout leader for three straight years from 2008 to 2010 and won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. Later on, Lincecum threw a pair of no-hitters, one in 2013 and another in 2014. Along the way, Lincecum also helped the Giants to three World Series titles. To date, he’s just one of two pitchers with multiple World Series wins, multiple Cy Young Awards, multiple All-Star Game appearances, and multiple no-hitters. The other is legendary lefty Sandy Koufax.
Eventually, Lincecum’s brilliance started to fade, and so did he before turning 30. His numbers began to diminish and injuries ultimately took him off the mound, despite a valiant comeback effort with the Angels in 2016. In the end, the critics may have been right to some extent. Lincecum’s size made it difficult for him to have lasting success. But from 2008 to 2011, it was hard to find a better pitcher in baseball, and in those years, Lincecum earned his nickname of The Freak, and in the best possible way.