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The curious case of Tim Wakefield

Posted by Andrew Mooney  August 24, 2011 06:12 PM

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Tim Wakefield has made a long career out of spectacularly average pitching. Sure, he’s first in Red Sox history in innings pitched and second in both wins and strikeouts, but he’s also the runaway leader in losses (by 43), runs allowed (by 608), home runs allowed (by 201), hits allowed (by 541), and walks (by 226). His place in history has been secured by longevity rather than standout performance.

Here’s a look at the average pitching statistics recorded over the span of Wakefield’s career, adjusted for the years and leagues in which he competed, compared to the production of Wakefield himself.

Average Pitcher, 1992-2011
.500 W-L%, 4.48 ERA, 1.408 WHIP, 6.35 K/9, 3.375 BB/9

Tim Wakefield, 1992-2011
.529 W-L%, 4.40 ERA, 1.348 WHIP, 6.00 K/9, 3.40 BB/9

Yet unless the baseball gods conspire against him, Wakefield will cross the 200-win threshold in the coming weeks, a feat accomplished by only 87 of the over 35,000 players to pitch an inning in the major leagues. History will regard him as one of the strangest of this group. He’ll be the seventh knuckleballer, and he’ll sport the second-highest career ERA of any pitcher with over 100 wins.

How has Wakefield managed to stick around so long and record so many victories with such modest numbers?

The answer lies in part in the manner in which he began his career. Wakefield entered the league in 1992 as a late-July call-up for the pennant-chasing Pirates and made an immediate impact, going 8-1 down the stretch with four complete games and a 2.15 ERA. This was good enough to place him third in the Rookie of the Year voting, though he had been in the majors for just over two months.

First impressions are all-important in baseball. In their 2000 study “Career Trajectories in Baseball," Teddy Schall and Gary Smith at Pomona College found a statistically significant relationship between first-year performance and career length. The rookie year is the hardest to survive, especially for players like Wakefield who lack can’t-miss talent. A productive first season can make the difference between a roster spot the following year and a career spent toiling in the minors.

If his first year had gone as poorly as his next two, a good chunk of which was spent in the minors struggling with severe control issues, he wouldn’t have garnered any interest from teams upon his release from Pittsburgh in early 1995. As it was, the Red Sox snapped him up, and, with some guidance from the Niekro brothers, Wakefield recorded the best season of his career, finishing third for the Cy Young (16-8, 2.95 ERA) -- and effectively cementing his place on the team for years to come.

The other factor underlying Wakefield’s success is simple good fortune; Wakefield has been on good teams, and that’s done wonders for his win totals. The accompanying chart shows Wakefield’s record as measured by traditional wins and losses, and by Baseball Prospectus’ Support-Neutral Wins and Losses, which presents a pitcher’s expected record based on the situation in which he left each start, given league-average bullpen and run support.

wakefield.png

Had Wakefield been stuck on middling teams throughout his career, we wouldn’t be talking about history. His 5.2 runs of support per start (MLB average over that span: 4.8) likely earned him an extra 15 to 20 wins, and his ten wins recorded in relief have all come with some offensive help -- his team must have been tied or losing at some point during his appearance in order for him to earn the decision. With lesser teammates, he might still be waiting to breach the 150-win mark.

Wakefield’s value lies in his status as a low-cost innings eater who can shuttle between the rotation and the bullpen with ease. It’s just so happened that the opportunities to step in have been plentiful, and with the help of potent offenses, he’s done a capable job and piled up the W’s.

So yes, let’s celebrate number 200 when it finally comes. Just remember that the real reason we should honor Tim Wakefield is not for his wins, but for his rubber arm, his adaptability, and his steadfast professionalism. The guy showed up for work every day, did what he was told, and lo and behold, the baseball gods smiled upon him to the tune of 199 wins, and counting. And while his numbers will never justify a bust in Cooperstown, Wake and his fluttering, dancing knuckleball won’t soon be forgotten by Red Sox Nation.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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