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San Francisco Giants opponents: Fear the sneer!

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The San Francisco Giants have to be pleased at the way Tim Lincecum is throwing as the team returns to Arizona to face the Diamondbacks in the season opener for both clubs. The way Lincecum struck out Marcus Semien swinging in the seventh inning of Saturday’s Bay Bridge finale, you would have thought it was the Timmy of the pre-2012 era, sneer and all.

The hair has come and gone, as has the “mustache,” but the sneer is here to stay, at least as long as The Freak can continue to deliver his pitches with such duplicity. From the batter’s perspective, the pitch is heading straight in toward the plate, when it takes a wicked dip, long after he has committed to his swing.

Inevitably, it leaves the viewer wondering what the batter had in mind, with a pitch so obviously in the dirt. Then you realize that it is Lincecum’s delivery, as inconsistent as it has been in recent years, that is so deceitful. He has made a living off of striking out opponents. Let’s look at a few numbers.

In an eight-year MLB career, Timmy has logged in 1,644 Ks, a rate of 9.4 per nine innings. However, since his 9.2/9 rate in 2012, he has posted consecutive declining years in this area, 8.8/9 in 2013, and 7.7/9 in 2014.

His walks per nine innings rate has done the reverse: It has gone up. From his career average of 3.4/9, Timmy has put up equal or higher than his average in the past three years. It was 4.4/9 in 2012, 3.5/9 in 2013, and 3.6/9 in 2014. Lincecum knows that the key to his success is to reestablish the ability to entice his opponents into taking that fatal swing so that he can control the flow of the game.

When his control is an issue, the opposition knows that it can’t put the ball where it wants to, so it simply waits for him to throw strikes. When he can’t, players take first base. Also, when his control is an issue, it means his mechanics are out of sync, and that always means trouble in the attic.

On the other hand, when he is on his game, as he was from June 25th through July 11th of last season, there is arguably no one more dominating in the game. He tossed his second no-hitter in two years, along with two other shutout starts during that period, to remind us all that he used to be the best, as his two Cy Young Awards attest to.

Jun 25, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (55) celebrates with teammates after throwing a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park. The San Francisco Giants defeated the San Diego Padres 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been made of Lincecum’s inconsistency and whether or not he might be better off in the bullpen. His contract would seem to dictate otherwise—$17.5 million dollars being much more than your average ‘pen artist earns—but there is a precedent already established back there in the 2012 postseason, so that is not a concern.

Timmy is bright enough to have figured out that something had to change or he would not have to worry about being a $17-million pitcher anymore. So he went to his father Chris, with whom he had grown apart, and asked for some one-on-one tutoring. Together they spent fifty sessions in the offseason, working to get his mechanics back in place, with Chris overseeing each of the workouts.

It’s scary/sweet to think of the potential ramifications of having the real Freak back in control, especially behind the one-two punch of Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and a surgically repaired Tim Hudson. Lincecum’s return to his earlier form would be the difference-maker in a division that has been considerably upscaled by the two SoCal residents on the list, the Dodgers and the Padres.

Not all upgrades are recorded in the form of trades or acquisitions. Some are the result of surgery, such as Matt Cain, who had been impacted for for an unknown period of time prior to actually having his issues dealt with, or Tim Hudson, who decided to not let it impact his season from the beginning. Nothing guarantees that Hudson will be able to repeat his strong start of 2014, but there is much to ensure that he does not drop off so dramatically in 2015, as he did the second half of last season.

Add to them the return of Angel Pagan, and a World Champion Giants team of only five months ago, has already seen four significant upgrades that are not recorded on a team’s transactions page. Whereas conventional baseball wisdom dictates that a team must upgrade in order to be able to repeat, why don’t improvements which do not appear on the transactions page, count?

Did I forget to mention Hector Sanchez? In all of the excitement about an emerging Andrew Susac, Sanchez has been overlooked. Any analysis of this guy must begin and focus on his value behind the plate, particularly with Tim Lincecum. Buster Posey has the talent to carry the team in both departments, but if Sanchez can keep a steady hand on the backup catcher’s defensive responsibilities, then his teammates can help balance out the offense.

Jun 25, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum (right) celebrates with catcher Hector Sanchez (29) after throwing a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres at AT&T Park. The San Francisco Giants defeated the San Diego Padres 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Lincecum and Sanchez have teamed up since Hector arrived in the bigs. No one focuses on it and rarely does the subject of Timmy having his own private catcher come up, because no one will make it an issue. That’s not the way it works on the Giants. What works for the betterment of the team, works for everyone, and besides, Buster needs a break from behind the dish and this is the perfect excuse.

At the start of spring training, Lincecum was hot and cold, getting ahead of the count on the one hand, and giving up the big fly on the other. As he got closer to the finish line, he started to get his mojo back, and the result is the return of the sneer. It is as effective a tool in his bag of tricks, as the rough exterior of some of the more intimidating closers.

To see him sneer is to sense that he is sending a preview of coming attractions.

Timmy says, “Here’s my pitch-all you have to do is hit it. Oh, it bounced in the dirt? Weird.”

To even possess such a look bellows out that the wearer of such a grim visage, has no fear of the individual at the plate. That’s a great tool to have.

It’s what has helped make Lincecum such a fan favorite in San Francisco: his sneer and his unwillingness to get uptight. He stays loose, cracking jokes and intermingling with his teammates, unlike other starters, who keep to themselves on the day of a starting assignment. It is an endearing quality and it adds to his reputation as a big-game pitcher.

Let’s face it. This current group of Giants transcends all National League teams since the 1940’s, in terms of success, so there must be a plethora of reasons, one of whom is The Freak. Another is Hunter Pence, who just had his cast removed, and may be throwing in seven to ten days, and swinging a bat.

There is no one better when it comes to motivation than One Hunter Percent, even while on the bench. With Justin Maxwell coming out of nowhere to grab ahold of the last outfield position, the outfield would appear to be well-shored up for the short run. Getting Pence back is going to shore up the Giants for the long run.

When I think back to 2010, I remember the Fear the Beard slogan with great fondness. I would like to propose a replacement for 2015: Fear the sneer!

Here’s why: When the sneer is on, so are the Giants. 

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