Here’s to You, Mr. Wakefield

Tim Wakefield wasn’t the best pitcher in Red Sox history (that’s Pedro Martinez), nor was he the most entertaining (guys like Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Luis Tiant and yes, Pedro, have that territory marked), but what he was one of the Nation’s favorites. For 17 years, he pitched, and acted, with the same stoicism. He never put himself above the game, and was always, always ready to take the ball, be it the top of the first, the bottom of the fourth, or the top of the 12th. He is set to announce his retirement today, but his legend will live forever.

Lest we forget though, his legend didn’t originate in Boston, but rather in Pittsburgh. Or, to put a finer point on it, Welland, Ontario. It was there that Wakefield began his transformation from banjo-hitting infielder to knuckleballer extraordinaire. The early results were promising — a 3.40 ERA in 18 appearances for the Bucs’ Low-A affiliate. Two and a half years later, he was in the Majors. He would finish third in the 1992 National League Rookie of the Year voting, despite not making his Major League debut until July 31. He built on his impressive two months in the postseason, winning two of the Pirates’ three games in the National League Championship Series against Atlanta, with both victories coming against Tom Glavine.

Over the course of the next two seasons, Wakefield would lose his foothold in the Pirates rotation. In fact, after July 7, 1993, he only made five more starts for Pittsburgh. When the Pirates released him in ’95, the Red Sox wasted little time in snapping him up, and after a short stint in Pawtucket he was back in the Majors, this time for good. If you thought you have experienced Linsanity this past week or so, you would do well to remember the summer of ’95, as Wakefield-mania gripped Red Sox Nation with a feverish intensity. But Wakefield would have nothing of it. After he ran his record to 10-1, with a 1.63 ERA on July 24 by holding Minnesota to one run over 7 1/3 innings, Wakefield pleaded with reporters that he was nobody special. “I don’t think you can call a knuckleballer an ace,” he said. “Put me as a third, fourth or fifth starter.” While Wakefield was certainly correct, it was refreshing to hear even amidst his great run, and endeared him to fans even more.

Of course, if you’re not from New England or western Pennsylvania, the moment you probably remember Wakefield for is serving up the walk-off homer to Aaron Boone in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. That has always been unfair. A quick glance at Boston’s pitching stats shows that Wakefield was easily the team’s best pitcher that series. He started Games 1 and 4 against Mike Mussina, and the Red Sox walked away winners in each contest. ESPN noted that he was a shoo-in to win series MVP had the Sox hung on to win. That he was even entered Game 7 was a testament to his flexibility. Yet he felt so bad afterwards that he apologized to Red Sox fans for letting them down.

The next season, the Red Sox would get a modicum of revenge, and they never would have achieved it without Wakefield. In the top of the fourth in Game 3, he entered with the Sox trailing 9-6. And while he couldn’t stem the tide, he was able to soak up 3 1/3 crucial innings for the bullpen, a bullpen that would end up being taxed for all it was worth in that series. I’m fairly certain that chunks of Keith Foulke’s elbow were used to fertilize Fenway Park’s grass the following spring.

Wakefield’s star turn in that ALCS was still yet to come, however. Wakefield’s efforts in Game 3 became crucial in Game 4, when the game turned into a five-hour marathon, and it was the same story the next night as well. So when Game 5 went deep into extras, Wakefield was tabbed once again. Though this was the same season-on-the-line situation that Wakefield had failed in the previous season, he was unflappable, even when Jason Varitek boxed three knucklers to the backstop in the 13th inning, the final PB setting up runners at second and third with two outs. Wakefield simply reached back and struck out Ruben Sierra, who had very nearly won the game for the Yankees in the ninth. He set down the Yankees in order the following inning, and David Ortiz won it in the bottom of the 14th. Wakefield pitched three innings in total, and earned the win. The Red Sox would not trail again that October.

There are plenty of other classic Wakefield moments in his 17 years with the Sox, far too many to fit into one post. There was June 19, 2001, when Wakefield carried a no-hitter into the ninth in Tampa, before losing the no-no and very nearly the game. There was the time in 1999, when manager Jimy Williams asked him to be the closer after Tom Gordon went down, and Wakefield filled in with aplomb, saving 15 games before returning to the rotation. There was April 15, 2009, the night before which, Red Sox relievers had combined to throw 186 pitches, and even though it was early in the season, Wakefield knew the score. He told manager Terry Francona, “No matter what, don’t take me out,” and then made the point academic by carrying a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Even when the going got tough, like it did on August 8, 2004, when he tied a Major-League record by allowing six homers to the Tigers, he still found a way to come away with the win. And that really was the beauty of Wakefield. On any given night, his WPA might have been -.670 or .577 (both are figures he posted this past decade) — anything was literally in play. And that always made him fun to watch.

Wins are an imperfect statistic, of course, and that took a little bit of the shine away from Wakefield’s march towards 200 W’s this past summer. And while it would have been nice to see Wakefield pass Roger Clemens on Boston’s all-time wins leaderboard this season, Red Sox management is more concerned with winning ballgames, as they should be. They chose not to bring Wakefield back, and he chose to hang up his spikes. He finishes his career with the third-best WAR among Sox pitchers, but that is a misleading statistic. For one, pitching WAR only goes back to 1974, and many of Boston’s greatest pitchers — from Jim Lonborg, to Lefty Grove, Cy Young to Mel Parnell, “Smoky” Joe Wood to Dutch Leonard and Babe Ruth — pitched before then. Heck, even the first three years of Tiant’s career were before ’74. Looking at Boston’s single-season leaderboard, Wakefield’s best season only ties for 53rd-best in terms of WAR. In fact, if you look at FIP, you’ll notice that of the 40 pitchers to toss 1,000 or more innings in a Red Sox uniform, Wakefield’s 4.74 mark is easily the worst.

But whether good or bad, Wakefield’s career is one that can’t be captured in statistics alone, unless it’s statistics like eight — which was the number of times he was nominated for the Roberto Clemente Award. Or two — that is the number of people, Wakefield and Walter Johnson being the two — who won at least four games and threw at least 125 innings in 17 straight seasons. And while he was only worth more than three wins in three of those 17 seasons, it always seemed like he was a lot more valuable than that. He was Boston’s Mr. Anything and Everything, and for stretches of time, he was also the game’s only knuckleballer. He wasn’t always great, but he was always there, whether his knuckler was dancing or floating, and while the 2012 Red Sox are better off without him, Fenway Park won’t be the same with him gone.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Chris
Guest
Chris
4 years 5 months ago

Regarding the legendary 2004 ALCS, one of the more little known facts about Tim Wakefield was that he approached the coach and demanded the ball to soak up those innings in Game 3. Amazing effort. Legendary.

GTW
Member
GTW
4 years 5 months ago

My name is WAKEFIELD!

Blueyays
Member
Member
Blueyays
1 year 11 months ago

I got a box full of your toys!

J.B.
Guest
J.B.
4 years 5 months ago

good memories.

it’s a sad to see Tim Wakefield go. Let’s hope R.A. Dickey can continue to carry the knuckler flag until the next guy emerges (Charlie Zink?)

kick me in the GO NATS
Guest
kick me in the GO NATS
4 years 5 months ago

yep! I have real soft spot in my heart for a knuckleball pitchers. I root for them no matter for whose team they play.

AA
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AA
4 years 5 months ago

Charley Haeger is around too, and more in of the Tom Candiotti mold (actual ability beyond the KB)

Greg
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Greg
4 years 5 months ago

Wakefield’s .274 career BABIP, typical of knuckleballers, suggests you shouldn’t bring up FIP when you evaluate him.

Judy
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Judy
4 years 5 months ago

Successful knuckleballers are actually proof that pitchers can have BABIP skill, they just have to be able to control a nearly unhittable pitch.

Bill
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Bill
4 years 5 months ago

and a nearly uncontrollable pitch. It’ll be awhile before a pitcher like Wakefield comes along. Dickey is great, but he still looks like a pitcher. Wake looked like he was throwing catch in his backyard.

Eric
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Eric
4 years 5 months ago

He signed a lifetime contract a few years ago with the team option every year. I thought that was really awesome in this day in age

pft
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pft
4 years 5 months ago

Yeah, he delivered 35.4 million in value and got only 16 million before the Red Sox declined the perpetual option.

pft
Guest
pft
4 years 5 months ago

Since 1973, Wakes ERA+ ranked 19th among 37 Red Sox pitchers who pitched 50 games or more with at least 60% starts.

His career ERA+ with the Red Sox is 106, not quite up to ace Becketts 113, but not too shabby.

Don’t understand why folks use FIP to measure past accomplishments.

Wake was no HOF’er but he was a league average innings eater who could be used in basically any role. His biggest limitation was having a catcher who could catch him. Alas, his downfall may have been Salty could not handle his knuckleball very well which hurt him a lot last year with all the WP (career high) and PB (Salty led the league).

I would have liked to see how Wake did if he went to the AL West or Mets with bigger parks and impatient hitters, but he had nothing more to accomplish except with the Red Sox.

Maybe if he holds off on those retirement papers the Red Sox might be calling him in June.

Bill
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Bill
4 years 5 months ago

Yeah, he’s no HOFer, but it would be great to see him recognized in the hall in some way. Maybe as part of a knuckleballer exhibit or something.

James
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James
4 years 5 months ago

Plus he pitched most of his career in a high offense era. An incredibly solid pitcher, something that shouldn’t be taken for granted. I think if he started his career now in a field like Petco or Citi Field (R.A. Dickey style) he could have been even more valuable over the course of his career.

Ethan
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Ethan
4 years 5 months ago

I know you are trying to hype up Wake’s career and all, but that last stat is pretty bogus. There have been more than 2 players who have pitched 17 straight seasons with just 4 wins and 125IP. Off the top of my head, Cy Young, Greg Maddux, and Nolan Ryan all apply.

I think you could have let that fact about the Clemente Award stand alone to cap off the career review of Wakefield rather than promote one a hyper-specific fact that baseball is known for (similar to “this guy hit the most HRs on the third Tuesday of the month of April in NL history).

tcrondeau
Member
tcrondeau
4 years 5 months ago

I believe that he meant to say that Johnson and Wakefield are the only 2 players to reach those numbers with the same team. Maddux, Young and Ryan all achieved those feats while playing for at least 2 different organizations.

Franco
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Franco
4 years 5 months ago

I’m a little nervous that we only have one knuckleballer again. They’ve become real world Siths.

surferfromSD
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surferfromSD
4 years 5 months ago

Always two, there are. No more. No less.

Jeff Wise
Guest
4 years 5 months ago

I really enjoyed watching Wakefield pitch. He always seemed like an old school player who respected the game and gave it his all. He lasted a bunch of years and hopefully he saved his money to last the rest of his life.

Jason
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Jason
4 years 5 months ago

“And while he was only worth more than three wins in three of those 17 seasons, it always seemed like he was a lot more valuable than that”

It seemed like he was more valuable because he was. FIP based WAR is a completely unfair way to evaluate Wakefield’s contribution.

Bill Wallberg
Guest
Bill Wallberg
4 years 5 months ago

One of my fondest Fenway memories was at a 2002 late-season game in which Wakefield pitched against Tampa Bay. I had great seats near first base and a good, close view of Wakefield as he pitched. I took a number of “action” shots with my Canon digital SLR that captured the knuckler as it left his hand and danced toward the plate. In every shot, the seams of the ball are clearly visible despite the fact that I did not use a very fast shutter speed. I think I could have counted those seams as the ball headed toward the plate to baffle the hitters.

Wakefield may not have been Boston’s greatest pitcher. He may not have won the most games or struck out the most batters. But he is a class act who exemplifies true character and grit. He was an asset to the uniform, and an asset to Major League Baseball. Here’s wishing him the best on his retirement. He will be missed.

Bill
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Bill
4 years 5 months ago

That and he was fun to watch.

Justin Bailey
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Justin Bailey
4 years 5 months ago

I like to call him Wake Timfield.

TK
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TK
4 years 5 months ago

Greg Maddux crushes every variable in 4 wins, 125 innings, and 17 years.

Dan G
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Dan G
4 years 5 months ago

This might be the first season in 17 that there is not at least one Red Sox player whose last name is shared with a Massachusetts city or town. The 2000 team had three: Wakefield, Carl Everett and Sang-Hoon Lee.

Wake wins out over Bill Lee as best pitcher with the same name as a Mass. municipality; but I’d have to give Fred Lynn the nod for best hitter with an honorable mention to Mike Lowell.

There are three HoFers – Don Sutton, Jim Palmer and Billy Hamilton. Hamilton played for the Boston Beaneaters, an NL club in 1896-1901.

Judy
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Judy
4 years 5 months ago

There is a Lester in MA, they just spell it weird.

Judy
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Judy
4 years 5 months ago

And a Becket, too. Darn spelling.

Dan G
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Dan G
4 years 5 months ago

You mean Leicester which is next to Wooostah (spelled Worcester). And there is a Becket with one “t” not two. Both will have to do now that the Sox let Drew Sutton go to Atlanta hopefully they can trade for Derek Holland and get a starter and a town name.

BurleighGrimes
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BurleighGrimes
4 years 5 months ago

I’m just gonna echo what some commenters have already said and agree that FIP obviously sells knuckeballers short. Looking at both Wake and RA Dickey we see that they consistently put up lower than league average BABIPs. As a result of its reliance on FIP, fWAR credits knucklers a lot less (usually) than bWAR. It seem that at least in these exceptional cases we should be willing to at least mention that there are metrics that value guys like Wake more than others.

BurleighGrimes
Guest
BurleighGrimes
4 years 5 months ago

Although looking more closely, the disparity in WAR values seems to affect Dickey much more than it does Wake; fangraphs and bbref seem to really value Dickey differently. Of course, there is a lot more fluctuation in Wakefield’s career cuz it is so much longer than RA’s. Well, whatever, knuckleballers are cool, end of story.

Saltypeanuts
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Saltypeanuts
4 years 5 months ago

I thoroughly enjoyed the 1-2 punch of letting Wake pitch until the 7th-8th inning and then bringing in Delcarmen and watching those batters trying to adjust from a 49-57 mph knuckle to a 100+ heater.

Detroit Michael
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Detroit Michael
4 years 5 months ago

Of course, b-refWAR, not fWAR, is available for a much longer period. Given that you are looking at an entire career for a guy known to have an uncommonly low BABIP, it probably is a better measure of career quality anyway.

benk
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benk
4 years 5 months ago

“when he tied a Major-League record by allowing six homers to the Tigers, he still found a way to come away with the win.”

Oh come on. Am I still on FanGraphs?

Keystone Heavy
Guest
Keystone Heavy
4 years 5 months ago

I know, that sentence is the embodiment of eveything you would normally think of as anti-Fangraphs. Wakefield was an average pitcher. He just got alot of attention because 1) the novelty of the knuckleball and 2) him being on those “quirky” media friendly 2000s Red Sox teams.
And he is such a media darling that people are making excuses for his being mediocre by claiming he was “tough” or a “class act” or that he “gave it his all everyday”. Sorry, that doesn’t make him any better a player. I’m sure Mario Mendoza was all those things too.
And I don’t buy the idea that his BABIP makes FIP useless. His 6 K/9 and 3.4 BB/9 more than compensate for a .274 BABIP. SIERA was never a big fan of his either.

B N
Guest
B N
4 years 5 months ago

The slight difference being that Mendoza put up 0 or negative WAR over his career, while Wakefield put up nearly 40 WAR? Wakefield is by far not a HOF guy, but not very many pitchers put up 38+ WAR.

As his ERA+ notes, Wakefield was not an average pitcher but was a slightly above average pitcher across a very long career. He was also a guy who stuck with team-friendly contracts, making him an excellent value for building a contender. He basically put up around $80m in performance for about $35m in salary. With a surplus value of $55m and performance twice as high as his salary, he’s been one of the bigger bargains over the last couple decades.

By comparison, look at this (http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/best-value-players-at-each-position-1992-2011-part-2/) and you’ll note that Wakefield’s return on salary would fit in quite nicely with a guy like Edmonds who produced a 2x return. But hey, taking team-friendly contracts is like intangibles, right? Not like we can quantify those with numbers…

mcbrown
Member
mcbrown
4 years 5 months ago

Producing at a league average level for a long time has a lot of value – much more than you seem to realize. You are conflating “average” with “replacement level”, which is not at all the same thing.

Also, just because we can’t easily quantify the value of things like “able to provide league average pitching for long outings on short/no rest” doesn’t mean it has no value. How much would a playoff-caliber team pay to carry an extra reliever on their roster, even if that reliever could be no better than league average? In many ways having Wakefield was like having that extra roster spot, for 17 years! Replacing that attribute will be much harder for the Red Sox than replacing Wakefield’s statistics.

mcbrown
Member
mcbrown
4 years 5 months ago

(this was a reply to Keystone Heavy, not B N, with whom I agree completely)

Cricketer
Guest
Cricketer
4 years 5 months ago

Hate the sox but love this guy. Stay classy Wake.

Matt
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Matt
4 years 5 months ago

Favorite Tim Wakefield moment (and I think this is the right game – memory can be a fuzzy thing): August 7, 2005, when I watched him strike out Twins DH Matt LeCroy with three straight 70 MPH fastballs.

RC
Guest
RC
4 years 5 months ago

“In fact, if you look at FIP, you’ll notice that of the 40 pitchers to toss 1,000 or more innings in a Red Sox uniform, Wakefield’s 4.74 mark is easily the worst. ”

Wakefield has outperformed his FIP pretty much every year of his career. So using FIB based WAR is kind of silly with respect to him.

They guy has a career .276 BAPIP over 14K PA. He’s only had two seasons where his BABIP was over league average (.300 and .305.. average is .298). Its not random.

He’s also played most of his career in hitter friendly parks, and FIP correlates worse than ERA in those parks.

gonfalon
Guest
gonfalon
4 years 5 months ago

as a Pirates fan, I remember Wakefield’s rookie season (and postseason) well, and always rooted for him in Boston… thanks, Tim!

Bill
Guest
Bill
4 years 5 months ago

Should have brought him in to pitch the ninth. Curse you Stan Belinda.

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