The news has it that John Lackey is headed to the disabled list to find what he has lost or let his elbow strain heal, whichever version you believe. Headed back into the rotation is the 45-year-old Kid ’66, Tim Wakefield. It seems like the simple, every-day transaction that a contending team has to go through in the course of a season. For the player, though, there are interesting possible ramifications for the move.
Contractually, of course, it may not make much of a difference. The Red Sox and their pitcher tore up his perpetual option in 2009 and replaced it with a two-year deal. Wakefield said he’d retire when that deal ended at the end of the 2011 season, and his performance so far this year, while being Wakefieldian, has not quite been of the variety that would require the team to re-evaluate its decision. With the end of his career in sight, it’s only natural to try and place Wakefield in the pantheon of knuckleball pitchers. It also makes sense to see how Wakefield stacks up within the history of the Red Sox, since he’s been with the team since 1994.
Sitting pretty at 193 wins, Wakefield is still a whopping 125 wins short of Phil Niekro‘s knuckleballer benchmark in the category, and even 28 wins short of brother Joe Niekro’s more modest mark. Wakefield is, maybe amazingly, forty-plus wins ahead of Hall of Famer Hoyt Wilhelm, but that’s mostly because of the feat of longevity – the Red Sox’ pitcher has gone 800 more innings than Wilhelm. And Wilhelm has all the rate stats – ERA (2.52 to 4.39), FIP (3.06 to 4.71), K/9 (6.43 to 6.03) and BB/9 (3.11 to 3.39) all outshine the newer version’s numbers in the categories. Then again, even Tom Candiotti (3.73 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 5.73 K/9 and 2.92 BB/9) has better component numbers than Wakefield.
A plot line emerges once you check out these numbers. Only the Niekros (separately) have managed to put up as many innings as Tim Wakefield. Even in a group known for their longevity, Wakefield has distanced himself from the rear of the pack by compiling inning after inning. It might be of no surprise, then, to learn that he already owns the Boston Red Sox team record for innings pitched. Unless Roger Clemens (2776 IP) comes back to pitch for Boston, Wakefield’s number (2874 2/3 IP) should remain atop the board for the forseeable future – Derek Lowe is the active silver medalist (1037 IP in the uniform) but his total is unlikely to embiggen.
Check the rest of the counting stat leaderboard for the Red Sox and Wakefield is right there. He’s second in strikeouts (1964), first in walks (1056) and first in wild pitches (110) – of course. He’s got the record for losses (161) and hits allowed (2792) as well. Teams don’t usually celebrate when a pitcher gives up his 3000th hit or loses his 200th game, however. Even once Wakefield wins seven more games (200 for his career), there might not be much fanfare.
But there is one record that may still have some juice for the old knuckler. Wakefield is just 13 wins shy of the tie between Roger Clemens and Cy Young atop the Red Sox leaderboard (192 wins). It might take a year-long injury for Lackey, and even then Wakefield would have to be a little lucky to win 13 more this season. He did win ten in 2009, and only in 129 2/3 innings. His performance has remained mostly unchanged since then, and give him four and a half months of a regular workload, and Wakefield might even better that innings total. That means 13 wins is technically in reach.
Scanning the FIP- and ERA- sections of his player card, it seems that Wakefield hasn’t shown an ERA or FIP better than league average since 2009 — and even among mediocre strikeout rates, his current 4.24 K/9 sticks out in a bad way. At the same time, his swinging strike (10.2%) and contact rates (79%) are better than his career averages there. If his back holds up and all the creaks stay silent and Lackey’s injury is a season-ending one, then maybe Tim Wakefield can use his longevity to stake a claim to the top of the Red Sox’ wins leaderboard.
That’s a lot of ifs. And it may be irrelevant, since the story of the former first-baseman’s winding way to the mound, appreciation for his luck in life, perpetual options and loyalty to the team that gave him glory have made him a fan-favorite no matter where he lands on that leaderboard. You gotta wish the Kid some luck anyway.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.