Goodbye, Tim Wakefield
Tim Wakefield wasn’t the best pitcher of his era nor is he very likely to make the Hall of Fame. But Wakefield is one of the most interesting players of the last 20 years.
Start with the fact that he was drafted as a first baseman by the Pirates in 1988. After posting a lower slugging percentage (.308) than his unimpressive on-base percentage (.328) his first professional season in low-A, and during an even worse second pro season (.216/.255/.330), the Pirates’ organization tried him on the mound.
He posted a 3.40 ERA in 18 games that season, 1989, and gave up hitting for good during in time for the 1990 season and beyond. That season, his first full season as a pitcher, he posted a 4.73 ERA but struck out 6 batters per 9 innings. The Pirates liked what they saw and promoted him to Double-A in 1991. He worked his way up to Triple-A that season and was in the majors on July 31, 1992.
In 13 major league games during the 1992 season, he posted a 2.15 ERA. He also won two postseason games, throwing complete games in each of those two starts in the NLCS against the Braves. For fans of the knuckleball, it was the most exciting year since Phil Niekro retired.
In 1993, however, Wakefield’s knuckler lost its flutter. In the majors that season, he ended up with a 5.61 ERA and the Pirated demoted him to Double-A. He didn’t fare much better there, posting an ERA of 6.99 in 9 starts. It seemed the magic was possibly over. In 1994, he stayed in Triple-A, never getting a call from the big club thanks to a 5.84 ERA.
The Pirates released Wakefield in April of 1995 and the Boston Red Sox signed him six days later. After just four games in Pawtucket, the Sox called him back to the majors, and he took full advantage of the new lease on his baseball life. In 27 starts he posted a 2.95 ERA. In Roger Clemens’s last season with the Sox, Wakefield was the best pitcher on the staff.
From 1995 to 2009 Wakefield never posted an ERA+ under 93. In 12 of those 15 seasons, he posted an ERA+ over 100. His ERA+ over that span was 110, averaging 181 innings a season.
Durability is not shocking for a knuckleballer, as the knuckleball obviously puts less strain on an arm than fastballs and sliders. And while he really only had two or three of noticeably above-average seasons (in 1995 he posted a 165 ERA+, in 2002 he posted a 162 ERA+ and in 2002 he threw 225 1/3 better-than-average innings), he never really had a season much below league average over a span of 15 seasons.
Wakefield would be a poster child for a baseball Hall of Famous or a Hall of Interesting. Unlike fellow knuckleballer Phil Niekro, who was the best pitcher in his league a couple of times and was one of the top ten pitchers in his league 11 times (according to Baseball-Reference’s wins above replacement), Wakefield seemingly had to grind out a quality big league career. After failing as a professional hitter, he made it as a pitcher with the most unique pitch in the game, failed, then came back strong to pitch 17 more major league seasons.
Baseball was a more fascinating game over the last 20 years because of Tim Wakefield.