Tim Lincecum has been a revelation out of the bullpen to San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy this postseason.
In Game 1 of the World Series, that trend continued. The pitcher known as The Freak faced seven Detroit Tigers, struck out five and induced two groundouts in 2.1 innings of perfect relief work. He needed only 32 pitches to shut down the Tigers in relief of Barry Zito.
So far this postseason, Lincecum has struck out 14 against just one walk, one run and five hits in 10.2 innings as a reliever. In his lone start he allowed six hits, three walks and four runs in 4.2 innings of work.
As a starter this season, he had the fourth-worst ERA (5.18) among qualifying pitchers, the second-lowest quality start rate (39 percent) and the fourth-highest walk rate (4.35 BB/9).
After winning back-to-back Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, pitching the Giants to a World Series in 2010 and throwing like an ace again last season, it all came crashing down for Lincecum this season, though he did pitch better during the second half until his final two starts cost him his postseason rotation slot.
Why is he suddenly throwing better as a reliever?
The biggest difference appears to be that as a reliever he looks more relaxed and is throwing the ball very free and easy. Since he doesn't know when he's coming into the game and he doesn't take long to warm up, there's no time for him to over-think things.
The first inning was a big problem for Lincecum all season, and that continued in his lone postseason start when he gave up two first-inning runs to the Cardinals. Out of the bullpen, he doesn't have the same problems adjusting out of the gate.
Another big difference between Lincecum the starter and Lincecum the reliever is what general manager Brian Sabean calls pitch-to-pitch control. As a starter, he looks like his former dominant self against some hitters, but then he can't maintain his command, and things fall apart.
As a reliever, he's been able to consistently throw his fastball to both sides of the plate for strikes, which sets up his devastating changeup and slider. He maintains his command and control from pitch to pitch, and the results are just as terrific as they were when he was the best starter on the planet not too long ago.
There's no question in my mind that he could win a Cy Young award as a reliever because his arm is resilient enough to throw a couple of innings a few times a week.
Even with reduced velocity this season, he maintained an 11.3 percent swinging strike rate, which is right around where it was when he won his first Cy Young and higher than it was when he won his second. That proves that he still has swing-and-miss stuff even though he's throwing 89-92 MPH instead of 92-96 MPH.
The problem was that in between the swings-and-misses, he was either missing the zone entirely and walking people or making a location mistake within the zone, leading to hard contact.
Despite his problems starting this season, he's still a huge asset to Bochy and the Giants in the bullpen. With Guillermo Mota struggling and George Kontos lacking experience and polish, the Giants have needed a long reliever/swingman to bridge the gap between their sometimes-struggling starters and the back of the pen.
If not for Lincecum, the season probably would have ended in Game 4 of the NLDS at Cincinnati. In the bottom of the fourth inning with the Giants facing elimination and clinging to a 3-2 lead, Lincecum came on in relief after Zito had been knocked out earlier in the game.
With runners on first and second, he struck out Ryan Ludwick to end the threat and threw four more innings after that to allow the Giants offense time to pad its lead.
In Game 1 of the World Series, the situation was less dire when he relieved Zito with two on and two out and the Giants leading 6-1. Lincecum struck out hot-hitting Jhonny Peralta to end the rally and virtually seal the win.
Since he's owed $22 million in the final year of his contract, there's seemingly no chance that the Giants will leave him in the bullpen next year, as that is too much coin for a reliever. However, there's no question in my mind that he could win a Cy Young award as a reliever because his arm is resilient enough to throw a couple of innings a few times a week. His velocity would tick back up, and he would be dominant if opposing hitters only got one crack at him.
However the Giants plan to use him in the future, given his struggles as a starter, they're better served in the World Series using him as a long reliever in case a starter gets knocked out early.
Rather than wait around while the Tigers build a lead, Bochy can turn to his ace reliever to put out the fire early and allow his offense time to win the game, just as he did in the season-saving Game 4 of the NLDS.