When scouts overreact to an athlete’s struggles

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum delivers a pitch to the St. Louis Cardinals in the second inning at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on August 21, 2010.   UPI/Bill Greenblatt Photo via Newscom

Baseball scouts have long been waiting for Tim Lincecum to fall apart.

He’s too small.

His delivery is going to lead to problems down the road.

His hair is too long. (This one I actually agree with.)

I swear, every time his velocity drops from one pitch to the next, someone starts hammering away on their keyboard predicting that Lincecum’s arm is going to disintegrate on the mound one day.

There’s no question that the 26-year-old two-time Cy Young winner has struggled this season. I’ve written about his struggles here at The Scores Report, so I’m not going to make light of the fact that he went 0-5 in the month of August with a 7.82 ERA.

But I almost fell out of my chair when I read a recent column by FOX Sports.com’s Ken Rosenthal, who spoke to a scout that had this to say about Lincecum’s future:

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This Tim Lincecum just won’t do

San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Tim Lincecum walks back to the dug out after the second inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field in New York City on May 9, 2010. UPI/John Angelillo Photo via Newscom

Giants fans have been spoiled, I guess. Tim Lincecum goes out and wins two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons, yet many have found fault in his 11-5 record and 3.15 ERA heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Cubs.

What’s to be worried about? He’s only striking out one less batter per nine innings than he was last year and has the same walk rate as he did in his first Cy Young season.

He’s fine! Seriously, he’s fine.

We’re all fine.

Then Kosuke Fukudome hits a three-run, 416-foot blast into McCovey Cove off Lincecum in the first inning last night and you realize he’s not fine. He’s far from fine. He’s Kosuke-f’n-Fukudome-just-hit-a-towering-416-foot-home-run-off-him not fine.

There is no shortage of reasons why Lincecum is struggling right now: He’s getting behind hitters, his command comes and goes, he’s tinkering with his windup too much and his changeup often bounces two feet in front of home plate instead of finding Buster Posey’s catcher mitt.

He’s struggling. He needs a barber. He’s out of whack. He’s in a funk. Please cut that thing, Tim.

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Media overreaction or serious problem? Tim Lincecum is struggling.

When your run-of-the-mill starting pitcher suffers back-to-back poor outings, the media assumes he’s in a funk and usually nothing more is made out of it. But when the defending two-time Cy Young award winner suffers back-to-back poor outings, the media goes into a Mountain Dew-mixed-with-cocaine-like frenzy and poses questions such as: What’s wrong with Tim Lincecum? What’s wrong with Tim Lincecum! What’s wrong with Tiqiowehgoiwgh….

After giving up six runs in 4 2/3 innings on Wednesday night in a loss to the Nationals, all the talk in San Francisco yesterday was about Lincecum’s struggles. He also pitched poorly in a no-decision against the Diamondbacks in the start prior to his outing on Wednesday and has now walked five batters in each of his last three games after walking just 10 in his first seven starts combined. He has routinely fallen behind hitters early in counts and his main issue has been control.

But before this becomes national news, remember that Lincecum held the Astros to one run over eight innings on May 15 and also struck out 13 Marlins while walking just one on May 4. It’s not like he’s been in a season-long funk and the Giants have this huge crisis on their hands; he just needs to figure out what has ailed him over these last two games.

I’m not Dave Righetti, but it appears as though Lincecum’s struggles are mental. Early in the game Wednesday night against the Nationals, he allowed a runner a free 90 feet when he couldn’t handle the throw back from first baseman Aubrey Huff following a pickoff attempt. Those things happen when a player isn’t focused and it seems as though Lincecum’s struggles are getting inside his head and he’s pressing. The more an athlete fights his struggles, the more his struggles consume him and in my non-professional opinion, I think that’s what’s happening to Lincecum. Maybe he also has a small mechanical issue that Righetti can iron out, but it seems as if he’s suffering from lack of confidence more than anything else. (Not that he doesn’t have confidence, but maybe the seed of doubt has been planted in his head.)

Another underlining issue is the fact that the Giants paid him this past offseason (two years, $23 million), so now he has to deal with the pressures of trying to live up to a contract. If there’s one person that knows about that it’s Lincecum’s teammate and good friend, Barry Zito, who signed a $126 million contract with the Giants in 2007. Zito is living proof that the pressures of a contract can eat away at a player.

When things start to go badly for an athlete, he never feels like he’ll find success again. But Lincecum is an elite pitcher and it’s because he’s so good that people have already started hitting the panic button after two bad outings. During a 162-game season, the media has to talk about something and it has latched onto Lincecum after Wednesday night.

But he’ll be fine – everyone goes through these rough patches. Even two-time Cy Young winners.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

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