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The Two Tim Wakefield's

It has been said many times but it deserves to be stated once again: Tim Wakefield has done it all for the Boston Red Sox. On his way to 200 wins, Wake has filled every role you can ask a pitcher to fill. In 1995 he was the staff ace, in 1999 he became the closer, in 2000 he was relegated to mop-up duties and for much of the time he has spent in Boston he has played the swing man, starting when needed then helping to sure up the bullpen when needed. On May 17, 2010, he was even brought in with the bases loaded to face lefty Randy Winn, essentially playing the LOOGY despite being right-handed.

In fact since 1945, Tim Wakefield is 10th in wins among pitchers who have pitched in relief at least 25% of the time. He is 5th in saves among pitchers who started 75% of the time. In an age of extreme specialization, Wake is a throwback to the days of old, when men were men, handlebar mustaches were not ironic and relief pitchers were starters. His flexibility has allowed the Red Sox to rest their bullpen arms when needed, bring young starters along at the right pace and to replace injured pitchers without trading away valuable pieces. 

Tim Wakefield the starter has been a remarkably consistent pitcher in his season to season statistics. His career ERA+ of 106 reflects that. When looking at large samples, Tim Wakefield has a virtual lock to be close to or slightly above the league average. On a game to game basis though, he is wildly unpredictable; if the knuckler is floating well, he might throw a no hitter, if it is flattening out, things can get ugly.

In his best regular season games with the Red Sox Wake has been unhittable. On May 6, 2008 against the Tigers, he allowed one hit in the first inning and did not allow another until the eighth, while strikeout six. He was even more dominate on September 11, 2005, when he held the Yankees to just one run on two hits in eight innings of work, striking out twelve, in a heartbreaking 1-0 loss. When he has that knuckleball floating, he is one the toughest pitchers in the game to hit against.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always float. On May 23, 2008, just a few starts after his dominating performance against the Tigers, Wakefield turned in one of his worst starts ever, allowing eight runs on eight hits including two home runs and walking four in five innings of work. Facing the Yankees on October 1, 2005, Wake managed just one strikeout in five innings of work, giving up seven hits, three of them home runs. Life with the knuckleball is never easy.

Wakefield, his beleaguered catchers, the team and the fans have all learned to live with the unpredictable nature of his signature pitch because Wake gives us the innings. Over his entire nineteen year career, despite shifting to the bullpen dozens of times and battling back and shoulder injuries recently, Wake’s 162 game average for innings pitched is 201. His pitch count is a non-issue. This season he has throw 119 pitches in a game at age 44. His 172 pitch total on April 27, 1993 is highest pitch count of any player since he broke into the majors. His highest pitch count as a Red Sox, 169, from June 5, 1997 is the second highest pitch count recorded during his tenure. After both of those marathons, Wake took the ball again five games later.

Tim Wakefield’s performance as a starter has been extremely valuable to the Red Sox, giving them a quality back-of-the-rotation arm capable of resting their bullpen when needed and keeping the team in the game. However, during Wake’s time in Boston, he has often shifted to the bullpen, either filling in for shortcomings there or allowing other starters a chance at the rotation. Surprisingly, Tim Wakefield the reliever is even better then Tim Wakefield the starter.

For his career, Wake has a better ERA (3.73 to 4.48), WHIP (1.25 to 1.36) and a better K/BB ratio (2.25 to 1.74) as a reliever.  Typically, we expect starters to get a bump in these numbers as they transition to the pen, but that is because they can throw fewer pitch types and with greater velocity. Those things don’t apply to Wake, who throws just the one 65mph knuckle ball more than ninety percent of the time. It may be that hitters have a hard time adjusting to the change of seeing 95 mph heat to waiting on a 65 mph knuckler, but regardless of the reason, Wake provides value late in games much in the same way that he does as a starter, with durability and a willingness to take the ball.

That willingness got its greatest test in 1999 when Tom Gordon injured his shoulder and the Sox were without a closer. Rather than using a young Derek Lowe to close out games, manager Jimy Williams gave the job to Wakefield. Much is made about the psychological make-up that is required to be a closer. It is a mentally taxing job when you are a guy like Jonathan Papelbon with a 94 mph fastball and a breakneck slider. For a knuckleball pitcher it requires a mystical transcendence of all worldly concerns.

Yet Wakefield succeeded admirably. He saved 15 games in 18 chances in 47 innings of relief work and upped his strikeout rate remarkably from 5.7 K/9 as a starter to 8.7 K/9 as a reliever. His ERA was much better in relief as well, down to 3.5 from the 5.87 mark he had as a starter. Underneath those stats however, Wake was much the same pitcher he had always been. His walk rate rose along with this strikeout rate and he remained vulnerable to the long ball. That Wake would even consider the taking on the stresses of closing games is a testament to his dedication to helping his team. His performance in that role is a reminder of just how good a pitcher he really is.

He was not justly rewarded for his selflessness however. In 2000, Wake made seventeen starts and while he did finish thirteen games, he received just one save opportunity that season as he was primarily relegated to mop up duty. Of his thirty games in relief, only eight of them saw him entering in a high leverage situation. After starting for three straight seasons and transitioning to closer, the move was a slap in the face and waste of resources. In what should have been his prime, Wake was not eating innings or pitching in the clutch.

When the current ownership took over, the team quickly stopped wasting Wake’s talents in garbage time. From 2003 to 2010 Wake was a permanent part of the rotation when healthy, starting thirty games in five of the six seasons from 2003 to 2009. When last season began, the forty three year old pitcher was the odd man in a rotation that featured three high priced veterans and two emerging young stars and once again he was moved to the bottom of the bullpen calling list.

The circumstances were very different then back in 2000, however. Wakefield had struggled with injuries in 2009 and was no longer capable of pitching 200 innings regularly. More importantly, the starting rotation was projected to be one of the game’s best. Wake was being moved to pitch in the bullpen as much as he was pitching in the bullpen to keep a sixth starter in close reserve. As it turned out he would not be need much in relief, pitching only 25 innings in that role, but he would top one hundred innings in the starters role as Beckett and Daisuke would struggle with injuries and ineffectiveness for much of the season. In the two combined roles, Wakefield managed to log the fourth highest innings total on the staff.

This season Wake has once again accepted the starter-in-waiting role and once again he has been needed. And how! Thanks to injuries to Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka and Andrew Miller's general ineffectiveness, Wakefield has once again reclaimed his spot in the rotation, ranking fourth in starters for the beleaguered Boston staff. With Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Erik Bedard also getting bit by the ravenous injury bug, Wake will no doubt start for the remainder of the season. As we finally celebrate his 200th win, every Red Sox fan should reflect on the selflessness with which he has accepted whatever role he has been asked to take. Throughout his career, Wake has taken the ball anytime he has been needed. He has gotten a career of nineteen years and counting and 200 wins as a result. The Boston Red Sox have gotten seventeen years service from a dependable starter and an equally dependable reliever as their reward for sticking with him. 

Congrats Wake! Go Red Sox!