Can Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum Be a Dynamic Duo Again?


Some duos will always stand the test of time. Abbott and Costello, Simon and Garfunkel, Chuck D and Flavor Flav, Joanie and Chachi. The San Francisco GiantsTim Lincecum and Matt Cain once seemed destined to join that esteemed list, well, minus Joanie and Chachi (don’t worry guys, we’ll always heart you).

When Cain made his debut at the tender age of 20 and Lincecum just two years later in 2007, it was evident early on that the two could anchor the Giants’ starting staff for plenty of years to come.

And for the most part, that’s exactly what they’ve done. From 2008 through 2011, Lincecum was, without question, baseball’s best and most exciting pitcher. It wasn’t that long ago, but with Lincecum’s recent downfall it can be easy to forget just how untouchable the “Freak” was. Over those four seasons, Lincecum took home two straight Cy Young awards, posted an overall ERA of 2.81 and struck out an average of ten (!) batters per game.

His 2010 postseason performance only seemed to cement his status as a San Francisco legend, when he struck out 14 Atlanta Braves in his playoff debut and pitched spectacularly in the Giants’ historic World Series clinching game. Even in 2012, when everything that once made Lincecum so endearing seemed to vanish, he provided some of the best performances of the Giants’ 2012 title run as the team’s de facto “super reliever.”

Cain’s ascent into greatness was slow and steady compared to Lincecum’s. Now entering his 11th year in orange and black, Cain has always been the horse of the Giants’ rotation. From 2007 to 2012, Cain pitched over 200 innings every season, with his rookie season and his injury-riddled 2014 being the only ones he didn’t pitch in at least 184.1 innings or more. Oh yeah, and the guy pitched the only perfect game in the Giants’ storied history, so there’s that.

Those glory days are long gone though, even more so now that the Giants showed they don’t need the help of Lincecum and Cain to win another World Series with their most recent run.

Cain has always had a reputation for being one of the most durable starters in baseball, but that soon changed after a 2012 season that saw him pitch in nearly 250 innings including the postseason. After his first down year in 2013, Cain seemed to deal with injury after injury in 2014, eventually ending his season prematurely thanks to elbow surgery.

The story of Lincecum’s demise has been well documented. After a stretch where he was without question baseball’s best pitcher, Lincecum has arguably been baseball’s worst starting pitcher since 2012, posting a 4.76 ERA in 98 games pitched since 2012. With his violent delivery, it may not be so surprising to see Lincecum flame out so quickly. Pitchers with similarly wacky windups like Mark Fidrych and Dontrelle Willis also had spectacular starts to their careers only to see them fade away a few years later.

Despite going into the 2015 season as defending champions, the Giants have plenty of question marks. They’ll be without the heart of their team, Hunter Pence, for at least the first month of the regular seasonAngel Pagan’s back is acting up again, and to make matters worse their NL West rivals, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, completely revamped their teams and look like legitimate World Series contenders.

But the thing that might hold the Giants back in 2015 is the strength, or lack there of, of their starting rotation.

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Madison Bumgarner, much like Cain in 2013, will have to remain durable after pitching more innings than anyone in baseball last season. Tim Hudson is entering his age 40 season and coming off ankle surgery. Ryan Vogelsong had a decent season in 2014, but he’ll be 38 in July. Jake Peavy was great for the Giants but fell apart in the postseason. And while Yusmeiro Petit put up great numbers as a long reliever in 2014, there’s little chance the Giants will want to move him from that spot.

What was once the Giants’ greatest strength could be their weakness this season, but that depends on Cain and Lincecum. The two may never replicate their peak years again, but the Giants don’t need them to with Bumgarner now the unquestioned ace of the staff. What they will need them to do is perform up to expectations, expectations that differ greatly for each pitcher.

Despite coming off elbow surgery, Cain will be expected to return to All-Star form, if just a shade below that. Any time a pitcher comes off major elbow surgery, especially after the age of 30, there’s always some reasonable doubt as to what they can still bring to the mound. So far this spring, Cain has quieted skeptics, looking solid in every one of his outings. In his last appearance, Cain looked ready for Opening Day, striking out 6 batters in 4 1/3 innings and allowing just one run.

So far, all signs point to a rebound season for Cain. Although, even before his elbow injury Cain began to regress in 2013, posting a career-low in strikeouts and a career-high in home runs allowed per game. Those numbers only got worse in 2014, when he posted his worst walk rate in five seasons.

Even in 2013 though, Cain was dealing with nagging injuries for what seemed like the first time in his career. Now that those injuries are behind him, a bounce-back year seems like a good bet. He may not be the ace or even the horse anymore, but replicating something close to his 2007 to 2010 form, a stretch where he put up a 3.35 ERA overall, doesn’t seem all that farfetched.

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After Alex Cobb's near no-no, here are the last 4 SF Giants no-hitters
After Alex Cobb's near no-no, here are the last 4 SF Giants no-hitters /

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  • The road back to success will be a bit rockier for Lincecum. Lincecum became a forgotten man in the 2014 postseason, with his only pitching performance being a nice outing in garbage time during a game two loss in the World Series. Despite suggestions from fans and baseball pundits alike to put Lincecum in the bullpen, the former Cy Young award winner will be in the Giants’ starting five (as long as his health allows it).

    It’s hard to get excited about Lincecum after everything that’s happened over the last three seasons, but there is one reason to be a bit optimistic about his chances in 2015. That’s because Chris Lincecum, Tim’s father, worked with Lincecum all offseason to help improve his broken mechanics. Chris is the man credited for crafting Tim’s unique delivery, and now he’ll be sought to repair them.

    In a candid interview with Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle, Lincecum admitted he was wrong to stop seeking advice from his dad about pitching and sounded hungrier than ever to get back to form.

    "“I went to him. That was tough…It’s like a kid with a bad report card going home to his dad and saying, ‘I tried to do it on my own.’ They’re there to remind you that it’s never going to be that way…I feel I’ve got to re-earn my spot in the rotation, I didn’t finish the year that well at all. It kind of left a drive in me to get back and find out what went wrong.”"

    At the very least, improved mechanics and more confidence could have an effect on Lincecum’s feel for the strike zone. That change alone would be huge, as Lincecum seemed to lose his control completely over the last three seasons, averaging nearly four walks a game. If Lincecum’s father-son bonding helped improve his velocity remains to be seen, but this can only be viewed as good news for fans of the orange and black.

    Unfortunately, Lincecum is dealing with neck problems, so a chance for a comeback season might have to be put on hold briefly. Despite that, a bounce-back year from Lincecum would delight both fans and Lincecum’s wallet, as he enters free agency after the season.

    If Lincecum does leave San Francisco once 2015 ends, this year could be the last hurrah for what was once the best pitching duo in baseball. Asking for 2008 Lincecum or 2012 Cain is too much at this point, but somewhere in the middle would suit the Giants just fine.

    As it stands now, Bumgarner feels like the only sure thing in the team’s rotation, but with bounce-back seasons from Cain and Lincecum though, suddenly three fifths of the rotation could be very solid. That could be enough to put an end to the Giants’ odd year blues.