From time to time, on early mornings commutes to work, I turn the radio to KNBR 680, the local 24/7 sports station. I don’t especially enjoy the radio personalities and it’s hard to believe that the “callers” live on the same planet (in the same town!) as I do, but something about the mindless flow of sports talk makes the commute a little saner. I’ve noticed that sports radio focuses like a sniper-dot on a topic, until it passes or is exhausted, and then it moves on to the next target. Over the all-star break, the Bay Area sports media took the topic of the importance of Tim Lincecum’s next start between its teeth and gnawed on it for the week.
From the Giants organization there were rumblings of this being the deciding start. “If he struggles again, he may get moved to relief or have a start skipped.” Everyone on KNBR agreed. As much as we all love him, the Giants cannot keep Timmy on the mound if he keeps getting knocked around. But after eight brilliants innings, eleven strikeouts and one walk, for one night Tim Lincecum was returned to mythical form. Thankfully, once again, no longer looking human*.
*So much about sports I love because I relate to the teams and players on a human level. The oscillation between the struggle and success of sports resonates with the ups and downs of my own life. But Timmy, to me, is a player that needs to be inhuman. The perfectly balanced delivery, his undersized frame, and the way his splitter looked hittable until the very last moment. A pitcher as unique as Lincecum should be otherworldly.
And after watching the start, I thought back to all the KNBR commentators who talked about the value of the second half; how it can give a player a chance to start over again. I found myself wanting to dismiss this attitude. Statistically, Lincecum was striking out too many players not to regress (progress) to the mean eventually. I almost convinced myself that I knew this would happen, that I was waiting for it. But the truth is, I bought completely into Tim Lincecum poor mental state. I knew something was wrong. I didn’t know what, but I knew it was more than bad luck.
I think the mental side of the game is too quickly dismissed in the sabermetrics community (even if it is overplayed in traditional baseball talk). There’s evidence for it; behavioral science strongly suggests that context affects human behavior. And baseball players should be no different. Perhaps the all-star break allowed Lincecum a chance to shift his attention from all the bad starts earlier this year and focus on the game at hand. I’ll never know. That's what bugs me—the not knowing. I love sabermetrics because it allows me to further explore the game. Batting average and RBI totals can only tell so much of a story; with advanced statistics I keep reading. When I start to consider the mental side to pro baseball, it's all speculation. There are a thousand possibilities for why Lincecum is struggling … and you can hear them all on KNBR.
So for now I’m going to have to accept the not knowing. Sometimes a player is unlucky. Sometimes he’s in a mental funk and as a fan I have to cross my fingers and hope he breaks out of it. And maybe that's why I like listening to all the wild theories in the morning. My logical mind rejects them, but part of baseball is the not knowing.