Wakefield Flutters to Surprising Milestones

(published July 25, 2011)

Who are the only two pitchers to strike out 2,000 or more batters for the Boston Red Sox?

You probably figured one was Roger Clemens.  Unless you were paying close attention yesterday, you probably didn’t think of Tim Wakefield as the other.

The ageless knuckleballer picked up the 2,110th strikeout of his career yesterday, when catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia snagged a foul tip off the bat of Mariners left fielder Mike Carp to end the Seattle sixth.  Putting aside the punch-outs he recorded in his two years in Pittsburgh, it was K 2K for Wakefield.

Saltalamacchia went up to him as they walked off the field, gave him the ball, shook his hand and said, “Congratulations.”

Wakefield looked at him and said, “Congratulations for what?”

For a moment, the Boston Globe reported,  the catcher thought, “Crap, did I get this wrong?”  But the scoreboard confirmed the big round number.

Another number looms.  Wakefield’s next W will make him the oldest pitcher to reach the 200-win plateau.

Nine days short of his 45th birthday, Wakefield allowed ten hits and seven earned runs in six and a third innings.  Boston led 11-7 when he exited after giving up a grand slam to Brendan Ryan; it wasn’t pretty, but somebody’s got to pitch those innings, and as usual, Wakefield was willing and able.

It’s been a curious career.  Originally drafted as an infielder by Pittsburgh in 1988, he exploded onto the scene with the Pirates in 1992, throwing a 146-pitch complete game in his first major-league appearance.  He went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA in the last two months of the season, and added two more complete-game wins in the NLCS against Atlanta.  He seemed certain to make a further splash in the World Series, but Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream put an end to that, bringing the Braves back from an 0-2 deficit in the bottom of the ninth of the seventh game.

Wakefield was 26 then, seemingly on the verge of stardom.  But mastery proved, and the next year he was sent to the minors in July with a 4-8 record and a 6.35 ERA; batters posted an .889 OPS against him.  He spent all of 1994 in the minors, going 5-15, 5.84 for AAA Buffalo.  No one was surprised when the Pirates released him in April of the next season, once the strike/lockout was settled.

Six days later, Boston threw him a lifeline.  Twenty-eight-year-old pitching washouts are hardly a hot commodity, but time was on Wakefield’s side; knuckleballers are exceptions to the loudly ticking clock that measures a player’s usefulness.  They are damned difficult to develop, but when they pay off, they do so for a long time.

He made just four appearances with Pawtucket before getting the call to the big leagues.  As he had in Pittsburgh, he came out blazing – though fluttering might be a more appropriate word.  Through his first seventeen starts, he was 14-1, with a 1.65 ERA.  He faded down the stretch (2-7, 5.60 in his last ten starts), but Boston was no doubt thrilled with its $175,000 investment.

Over the course of the next thirteen seasons, Wakefield threw fewer than 162 innings exactly twice – one of them a year when he was shifted to the bullpen and recorded 15 saves.  Excluding his exceptional 2002 season (11-5, 2.81, 163.1 IP, 121 H), he has been an always-ready, always-willing, slightly-better-than-average pitcher in his seventeen years with the Red Sox.   He has averaged a little better than two wins above replacement (WAR) per season, according to Baseball-Reference.com.

For all of this decent, durable innings-eating, he is paid well in recognition of his constant availability.  His endless-rollover contract, which added a new club-option year at $4 million each time the club picked up its option, has been replaced by an incentive-laden deal that guaranteed him $1.5 million in 2011, plus an additional $2 million added to the base because he threw more than 130 innings in 2010, plus $50,000 each for starts 11-15, $75,000 each for 16-25, and $100,000 each beyond that.  Sunday’s start was his thirteenth.

It’s startling, then, to see where all this just-better-than-averageness has put him on the Red Sox career lists.  He is third in wins with 185; he needs seven more to tie Roger Clemens and Cy Young at the top.  He is first in losses, walks, hits allowed and innings pitched; second in games and strikeouts.

Among all active pitchers, Wakefield is first in wins and innings pitched, second in starts (behind Livan Hernandez) and Ks (trailing Javier Vazquez – a pretty good trivia question if you’re looking to win a bar bet).  On the down side, he is first in losses, walks, earned runs, wild pitches, and homers allowed, and second in hits allowed (he and Livan are the only two active pitchers who have given up 3000 hits).

He did finally get to the World Series in 2004, starting the opening game against St. Louis.  It was not an epic performance; staked to a five-run edge, he could not get out of the fourth inning, giving up three hits, walking five and hitting a batter before leaving the game with Boston’s lead reduced to 7-5.  The Sox won the game, 11-9, and the Series in four straight, and Wakefield’s ring is just as big as anyone else’s.

Still, it has been an amazing ride for the one-time first baseman.  Like all knuckleballers, he has mastered the art of letting go, trusting his mechanics and the whims of aerodynamics to set his pitch on a path as unpredictable as the one he traveled himself, and to more often than not wind up in the right place after all.





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