Tim Wakefield: Hitting His Stride or Hitting The Links?

Hitting His Stride

Tim Wakefield, my favorite baseball and Red Sox player, has been drawing raves around the league recently. After being reintroduced to the rotation full-time last year ago, Wakefield posted an ERA of 4.01. It was his first time pitching over 200 innings since 1998, the last time he was full-time in the rotation, too. Between 1998 and 2003, Wakefield fulfilled a valuable role on the Red Sox – that of the long man out of the pen, plus spot starter.

“Long man out of the pen?” you may say. “Wow, glamorous job. It’s usually reserved for one of the worst pitchers in the bullpen.” True. But this was a different kind of long man – this was one that was actually used, as he averaged 47.5 appearances out of the bullpen, 16.5 of those starts (which is incredibly rare for a long man) and a 4.31 ERA, which is misleading.

What follows is Wakefield’s ERA and lgERA for those seasons described above, and the difference.

Year ERA lgERA +/

1999 5.08 5.07 0.01

2000 5.48 4.97 0.51

2001 3.90 4.53 0.63

2002 2.81 4.42 1.61

Talk about hitting your stride! That’s not even factoring in this year, when Wakefield started and went 11-7 with 202.3 innings on his arm and a plus/minus differential of 0.62 with his ERA (4.09) and lgERA!

Hitting the Links

Tim’s 36! You talk as if you think he’ll pitch 20 more years and get into the Hall of Fame. News flash: He ain’t getting anywhere near the Hall of Fame and he’s got maybe five years left in him. The four most famous knuckleballers in history are Phil Niekro, his brother Joe, Charlie Hough, and Hoyt Wilhelm.

Wakefield’s baseball age (the majority of the baseball season he spends at a certain age) this year will be 37.

Joe Niekro only had four seasons (37 through 40) before he started tailing off, and pitched the remaining three years at less than stellar ERAs. Hoyt Wilhelm was a relief pitcher most of his career, and made a great living pitching in relief from ages 37 to 49 – at a general pace of 80 innings a year. Charlie Hough had ERA in the high threes and low fours from 37 through 45, and is eerily similar to Tim Wakefield throughout his career. He had a great year, but will never be considered for the Hall. Phil Niekro is the only one who had great success starting past age 37! And even then, he had ERAs in the high threes and low fours.

Hitting His Stride

Okay, so maybe it’s a reach to say Wakefield will make the Hall of Fame, but hitting the links in five years? Come on, all of those people pitched well into their forties. Maybe in ten years, we can talk about hitting the links. Until then, the man is going to pitch. And may I remind you, that he’s been steadily getting better over his career? There have been people everywhere saying “Fear Tim!”

Tim’s not going anywhere for maybe ten years. And in those ten years, he can do some serious damage. You say Tim is similar to Charlie Hough. A simple perusal of their career stats will bear that out to be true, yeah. After all, Tim’s winning percentage is .535, with a career average 4.24 ERA. Hough’s winning percentage is .500 with an ERA of 3.75. Hough started declining when he hit 41, and peaked when he hit his 20s, so it’s safe to say Tim’s ERA will probably approach Hough’s career ERA.

If you take a look at Phil Niekro’s career, it’s pretty similar to Charlie Hough’s! Which means it’s similar to Tim’s! Phil’s career winning percentage was .520 with an ERA of 3.35. He appeared in 864 games, 716 of those starts. Hough appeared in 858 games, 440 of those starts! Hough would have had a career just like Phil had he started more! If you look at Hough’s and Phil’s stats from ages 36 and on, they’re quite similar. It’s just that Phil pitched for better teams. Tim’s been in 392 games and has started 253 of those. That’s a lot, man! While Tim will obviously never reach the levels of Hough and Phil, mostly because of the five man rotation, Tim could quite easily reach 440 starts. After all, if he starts 33 games, he’ll reach 440 starts in his sixth season including this year, which is when Tim will be 42. Most people nowadays retire in their 40s, so Tim could definitely see that.

But wait – Tim’s been getting better over the past five years, remember? And he looks great this year, so he’ll probably be even better. Heck, if Tim’s just hitting his stride now, he could turn into another Phil Niekro. But if we assume he hovers in the high threes and low fours for the next decade … well, I don’t really see anything wrong with that. He provides us with innings, stability, personality, and leadership. He may not make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, but it’ll be a real shame if the Red Sox don’t retire his number.