Lincecum in Motion

Tim Lincecum’s precisely choreographed pitching sequence goes like this: First, his eyeballs slide all the way down into the left corner of his eyes like a shark’s. Then, right leg planted, he winds up and starts a huge sweeping stride forward with his left leg—nearly 7 and a half feet, or 129 percent of his height, as compared to 77–87 percent for most other pitchers—as his right arm drops behind his back perpendicular to the ground. From there, it’s a full-on launch, a twisting, coiling release of energy that explodes from the ground up, a fury of carefully calibrated torque. (Watch it in slow motion to see a futurist painting come to life.)

When Lincecum releases the ball, his right leg describes an arc around and behind him as it fully extends to the sky, foot high over his head like a ballerina’s and keeping an opposing symmetry with his pitching arm slicing down in front of his body. Meanwhile, the ball screams over the plate at up to 101 miles per hour and thuds into the catcher’s mitt, the batter swinging desperately at a blur he barely saw.

 
Photo by: Dirk Hansen

For all his power, Lincecum, the San Francisco Giants’ ace pitcher—he won Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, led the team to World Series victory in 2010, and recently recorded his one-thousandth strike out—is just 5’11″ and 165 pounds. One of Lincecum’s nicknames is the Freak, and watching him at work you observe a startling series of motions you’ve never seen before. He sports the feline agility and wiry physique of a gymnast, rather than the thick limbs and solid torso of many of his fellow Major Leaguers. Shoulder-length dark-brown hair wisping out beneath his cap, head slightly cocked toward first base, the lanky right-hander looks younger than his 27 years. His pitch is unself-consciously dedicated to its result, and gorgeous as a side effect. If it existed divorced from the business of pro baseball—just something this guy did in his backyard—its modernist carving of space, coupled with its efficiency and purity, would be reason enough to admire it. Visually, its fluidity has more in common with the architecture of the Bauhaus, the choreography of Martha Graham, and the industrial design of Marcel Breuer than with striking out batters and winning ball games. Lincecum’s pitch is modern art disguised as 
athletics, the epitome of great design.

The one-of-a-kind pitch—a Venn diagram of physique, athletic ability, and mechanics—was developed in the 1950s by his father, Chris Lincecum, a retired Boeing employee. The set of motions Chris created for himself compensated for the limitations of his small size by improving his mechanical advantage. “Little League didn’t have separate teams for younger kids back then,” Chris says, “so when you were eight you had to try out for the same team with the twelve-year-olds. But my dad saw that I could throw pretty well, so he thought, Let’s try pitching. I developed my pitch through his eyes. He observed and corrected my mechanics to be the same each time so I could get a feel for them. The strongest, most athletic kids tend to become pitchers because they can throw the ball the hardest; big guys have the momentum created by increased inertia. Since I wasn’t big, I had to learn to deceive them with my curveball rather than overpower them.”

Chris first taught his sons, five-year-old Tim and his nine-year-old brother, Sean, how to pitch in their backyard in Renton, Washington. Most coaches teach mechanics from the top down, with the player’s shoulders square to the target, pitching arm raised high overhead, pulling the ball downward. But Lincecum’s pitch relies on the energy created by the mechanical leverage of ankles, knees, hips, back, and shoulders working in sequence from the ground up to generate enormous torque and velocity. To the observer, it appears as a seamless flow that uses the entire body, rather than a series of individual motions developed separately and strung together. “The leverage created doesn’t isolate the arm—we let it come along for the ride, loose and twisting on the same plane as the shoulders, almost an afterthought,” Chris says. “It’s like winding up a rubber band and then releasing it all at once. When a pole vaulter’s pole hits the slot, energy is arrested at the bottom and flows up to the top. Tim releases the ball at the height of a parabola. With most pitchers, their arm and ball describe a circle, but the elliptical shape creates more leverage and power.”

 
Photo by: Brian Rothmuller
 
In the late 19th century, Eadweard Muybridge’s frame-by-frame images enabled motions too fast to be seen by the human eye, like a horse galloping, to be broken down into individual components. His work set the stage for sequential-motion study, which can isolate everything from manufacturing processes to golf swings in order to pinpoint and correct inefficiencies. The emerging field of motion design also played a crucial role in the industrial revolution. In 1913, Henry Ford created the machinery for his Model T as well as the sequential motions necessary for the factory workers to put the cars together. These movements, at the heart of the assembly-line process, were designed to be learned quickly by anyone. Could Lincecum’s mechanics be taught to other pitchers, in the same way his father taught him and Ford taught his workers? Could we build a nation of Freaks?

Chris Lincecum says yes, but Tom House, who pitched for the Atlanta Braves in the 1970s before becoming a coach and writing four books on pitching mechanics, sees things differently. “Arm speed, velocity, arm slot—the natural way a person is inclined to pick up a ball and throw before anyone shows him how: These are all genetic. Our ancestors were out throwing rocks at rabbits to eat. The kids who were good at this way back when are now the kids who are Major League pitchers.” Certain pitching skills can be learned and perfected through practice, though. “Repeatability, or muscle memory, comes from being strong and flexible enough and achieving correct kinematic sequence, and all of that can be taught,” House says. “But Tim is like a perfect storm of all factors converging in one point. His length of stride puts him that much closer to the batter—just before his right leg hits the ground, he launches on tiptoe with the pushing foot about eight to ten inches. That lunge toward home plate makes him a little guy who throws like a tall guy. Since one foot of distance equals a three-mile-per-hour increase in perceived velocity as seen by the guy at bat, Lincecum’s pitch seems to be coming at you even faster than the actual speed of the ball.”

 
Photo by: Brian Rothmuller
But apart from the mechanical advantage it gives the small-framed Lincecum, his pitch is also beautiful, as streamlined and direct as a Brancusi sculpture. Its visual appeal is due in large part to its symmetry. Athletes who make their work look smooth or effortless tend to be highly symmetrical in their movements. Because the human body is bilaterally symmetrical, our brains automatically recognize this property wherever we encounter it. “Your eyes can trick you,” House says. “Michael Jordan looked like he could stay in the air longer than anyone, but it was because his arms were still moving up even while his body was moving down. Tim works easy to throw hard. His left side mirrors his right side; his upper torso parallels what his lower body is doing.”

Lincecum’s mechanics—raw grace optimized by science and practice—put him in the company of a few athletes, such as Tiger Woods, who command our attention through the beauty of their movement. The architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Beauty is not easy to define, particularly in an age that resists it as simplistic and sentimental. The writer Karrie Jacobs has suggested that in architecture it involves the element of surprise, the unanticipated encounter that gives unexpected pleasure and delight.” This holds true for baseball as well. Tim Lincecum’s meticulously engineered pitch, created to trick a batter into swinging at thin air, unfolds in a matter of seconds into something entirely unexpected for us too. As he winds up and fires off the baseball, sports transforms before our eyes into something very much like art.



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