Tim Lincecum had yet to appear on the question-and-answer stage at the Giants’ FanFest on Saturday as general manager Brian Sabean sat there addressing a small crowd.
For nearly an hour, Sabean fielded topics ranging from a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval to the Giants’ bullpen and the likelihood of carrying a fifth outfielder into the season. No one answer or word of Sabean’s elicited more reaction from the gathered fans, however, than the mere mention by the Q&A moderator of Lincecum’s name.
Entering a season in which he will turn 30, the still boyish-looking right-hander remains a favorite among fans of the Giants, who last fall considered his recent struggles and still chose to bring back Lincecum for an eighth season in 2014.
The Giants made Lincecum a priority at the end of last season, re-signing him to a two-year, $35 million contract in October, weeks before he was scheduled to become a free agent for the first time. As Lincecum reiterated Friday, he was only too happy to accept and return to the only professional home he has known.
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“Familiarity is the biggest thing to me,” Lincecum said at the team’s media day. “Coming back to an organization that had nothing but respect for me and showed me that, it’s kind of hard not to return to that and show them that I wanted to be back.”
Still, Lincecum acknowledged that as the offseason began, he had doubts about whether his future lay in San Francisco. Asked Friday if he thought he’d be back at AT&T Park this spring, he responded: “Early in the offseason, no. But after I signed, yes.”
The short-term deal, which Lincecum has favored during his career, came as something of a relief after his past two seasons, during which he went a combined 20-29 with a 4.76 ERA. He admitted there were times last season as he neared free agency when he found himself “biting my knuckles, wondering what was going to happen, if teams were even going to want me after this.”
But the Giants did, seeing enough from their former ace to keep him in a starting rotation that projects to look similar to 2013, aside from 38-year-old Tim Hudson replacing the departed Barry Zito. That’s fine with Lincecum, who said he hopes that knowing his teammates and surroundings will be an advantage as he continues evolving as a pitcher.
“I wasn’t looking for a fresh start,” Lincecum said. “Every year is that, in a sense.”
Last year, Lincecum appeared at FanFest with a new haircut and more muscular physique from overhauling his offseason training. There was no such striking difference this time – Lincecum took the stage Saturday with his short hair combed neatly and a gray jacket over his orange jersey.
The changes he did speak of concerned his approach to pitching. No longer able to rely on overpowering velocity, as in his back-to-back Cy Young years, Lincecum said he has embraced studying opposing hitters – “one of those things I didn’t want to admit that I needed” – to the point where he doesn’t feel comfortable taking the mound if he hasn’t prepared enough.
Physically, meanwhile, he said he “(doesn’t) feel like I have the body of a 30-year-old” and still has the flexibility that helped earn the nickname “The Freak.”
“That’s the biggest part of your game is your mental approach to it,” he said. “Those (last) couple years took a little punch at me a little bit. But I’m a fighter, so I’m going to fight back and I’m going to try to make that adjustment, become a better pitcher even without the stuff I had a few years ago.”
In that vein, Lincecum said he’ll make sure to tap the experience of Hudson when the two meet in Arizona for spring training. Asked what question he’ll pose first to Hudson, who was not at FanFest weekend, Lincecum smiled and said, “How do you throw a sinker?”
“Also, when he didn’t feel he was at his best, what did he turn to?” Lincecum continued. “What made him feel like he had a leg to stand on?”
Damage control has been a challenge for Lincecum in three consecutive losing seasons, though he remains 89-70 with a 3.46 ERA in his seven-year career and last year struck out 193 batters in 1972/3 innings while also throwing his first no-hitter.
“I think he’s close in that I think he’s finally through that transition where there’s less velocity, more control, more damage control with runners in scoring position, because you’re not going to have the strikeout rate or swing-and-miss stuff,” Sabean said before some of the estimated 35,000 fans who turned out for Saturday’s event. “Everybody matures, and he’s certainly one of those guys who’s maturing.”