Lincecum set to join elite K company

Lincecum set to join elite K company

Lincecum set to join elite K company
SAN FRANCISCO -- Poised to join an elite contingent of strikeout artists, Tim Lincecum attempted to identify the club's existing members.

"Roger Clemens," Lincecum said the other day.

Wrong.

Lincecum tried again.

"Pedro Martinez."

Uh-uh.

A hint of desperation crept into Lincecum's voice.

"Randy," he blurted, referring to ex-teammate Randy Johnson.

No, no and no.

Lincecum was on the right track, given the prodigious strikeout totals of the pitchers he mentioned. But the parameters defining this group exclude most of the game's enduring strikeout kings while favoring the precocious fast starters.

IN THE CLUB
Pitcher K's after five seasons K's through career
Tom Seaver 1,155 3,640
Bert Blyleven 1,094 3,701
Dwight Gooden 1,067 2,293
Kerry Wood 1,065 1,538*
G.C. Alexander 1,036 2,198
Hideo Nomo 1,031 1,918
Mark Langston 1,018 2,464
* -- still active

Lincecum needs five strikeouts Monday night against Washington to become the eighth pitcher in baseball's modern era (since 1900) to amass 1,000 strikeouts in his first five Major League seasons.

Regardless of the standards, Lincecum's impending accomplishment is a remarkable one, mainly because it has been reached by so few.

Lincecum's predecessors are a mix of stars who will forever occupy Cooperstown's orbit (Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tom Seaver and Bert Blyleven) and supernovas whose flame diminished for one reason or another (Dwight Gooden, Mark Langston, Hideo Nomo and Kerry Wood). Due to injury or lack of innings, each of the greats Lincecum cited -- Clemens, Martinez and Johnson -- fell just short of earning the distinction.

There's no way to tell whether Lincecum is destined for Hall of Fame enshrinement or something less. What's certain is that his upcoming feat, along with his renowned ability, numerous accomplishments and undeniable charisma, further legitimizes him as one of the most singular performers of this era.

"It's an honor," Lincecum said of his imminent feat. "Hopefully it doesn't stop here."

Likely, it won't.

Lincecum, who will turn 27 on June 15, is still evolving as a pitcher. He began using his slider effectively only last year, giving him another alternative to the fastball that still approaches 95 mph, a darting curveball and a changeup that dives like a split-finger fastball, making it almost impossible to hit.

"You change with the times," said Lincecum, the National League's Cy Young Award winner in 2008 and '09. "Once guys kind of get a knack for seeing you and know what you've got, they're not going to swing at the same stuff that they used to. You have to work around that. It's about constantly making adjustments. You're constantly trying to improve yourself."

Despite the familiarity Lincecum referred to, he remains capable of confusing hitters with his long-striding delivery, which hides the ball from the hitter until the last possible instant. Nomo, with his twisting windup, also disrupted hitters' timing regardless of what the ball did.

Colorado Rockies skipper Jim Tracy, who managed Nomo during the Japanese right-hander's days in Los Angeles, comprehended the trait linking Lincecum and Nomo.

"Is there some deception with that? Maybe," Tracy said.

Tracy noted other similarities between Nomo and Lincecum, which happen to be qualities common to most elite pitchers.

"Both guys know how to pitch to different parts of the strike zone. They don't stay in one area," Tracy said. "They change eye levels. They throw the ball up, they throw the ball down, they throw the ball in, they throw it out. They're very, very unpredictable."

Interestingly enough, Lincecum is scaling the 1,000-K peak shortly after a stretch when his strikeout rate decreased. He had 13 in 21 2/3 innings during a three-start stretch spanning May 16-27. But Lincecum (5-4) won twice in that span, which included a three-hit shutout of Oakland. The right-hander struck out "only" six that night.

"He knows we don't want him going for strikeouts -- just get outs," Giants manager Bruce Bochy said after that game. "Keep pounding the strike zone. If they put it in play, fine. We don't want the mindset from any of our pitchers that we're going to try for strikeouts."

To a certain extent, Lincecum still equates strikeouts with effectiveness.

THE FREAK
Tim Lincecum
Career record: 61-31, 3.00 ERA in 135 games (134 starts)
NL Cy Young Award winner: 2008 and '09
NL strikeout leader: 2008-10
29 career games with 10 or more strikeouts
NL All-Star: 2008-10

"I always feel like I should be a strikeout-per-inning kind of guy," he said.

And there's no denying the strikeout's sheer efficiency.

"It means the batter doesn't put the ball in play," said Blyleven, employing unassailable logic.

That makes the strikeout an ultimate goal in particular situations.

"Say a guy's on third with no outs or one out. You want to get a strikeout or hopefully a well-placed ground ball," Lincecum said. "When you know you have the ability to get guys out in that fashion, it kind of makes the game easier on yourself."

In contemporary baseball, with every team slavishly following the gospel of pitch counts, managers and coaches espouse inducing quick outs on harmlessly batted balls. The masters of pitching, regardless of era or ERA, always have realized this.

"I came up at 19 and, of course, you want to strike out the world," said Blyleven, who exceeded 219 strikeouts in each of his first six full seasons. "But I think as time goes by and you get your innings in, you realize that strikeouts do take up a lot of pitches, and if you can get the guy out on one pitch, you're OK with it."

Even Wood -- the fastest in Major League history to reach 1,000 strikeouts in games (134) and innings (853)-- has distanced himself from the glamour of the strikeout. Now a reliever for the Chicago Cubs, Wood said, "Strikeouts are overrated unless there's two on and one out and runners at second and third and you need a couple strikeouts -- and then they're not overrated. It's just part of the game."

But when the count reaches two strikes, the strikeout suddenly becomes the most pitch-efficient method of retiring the hitter.

"I think you pitch to contact until you get to two strikes, and then you want the strikeout," said Blyleven, who finished his 22-year career with 3,701 K's.

Compiling strikeouts, as with virtually everything else in baseball, can be a state of mind.

"Even as I got older -- into my late 30s, or even at 40 -- if you got two strikes on the guy, yeah, you want to strike him out," Blyleven said. "That strikeout thing is still there. I think it's in everybody's mind."

It certainly is when Lincecum takes the mound.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.