Saturday, February 18, 2012

Wakefield Retires

Tim Wakefield, the 45 year-old knuckleballer, retired yesterday after 19 seasons, all but two of which he spent as a fan favorite for the Boston Red Sox.  He goes out with exactly 200 wins on his ledger, and was the active leader in wins, losses, innings pitched, earned runs, home runs allowed, walks allowed, batters plunked, wild pitches, and batters faced at the time of his retirement.  Wake made the right call.  He'd been a below average pitcher over the past two seasons, finishing with losing records and an ERA over five in back to back seasons for the first time since his 1999-2000 campaigns.  You could tell the Sox were letting him gun for that 200th career win, and unfortunately that display of sentimentality probably cost them a playoff berth since Wakefield ended 2011 with -1.2 bWAR, and Boston missed the postseason by one win.

There's no doubt Wakefield had a "unique" career path marked by a multitude of twists and turns, highs and lows.  Such volatility is to be expected though, when one relies on a pitch that he can't control once it's in flight towards home plate.  The Florida native was a slugging first baseman when the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him out of Florida Tech, but struggled in the minors and didn't seem to have much of a future in baseball.  Then he developed the knuckleball, pitched well down on the farm, and earned a late summer promotion to the Show as a 25 year-old rookie.   He made an immediate impact; debuting with a 146-pitch/ten strikeout complete game effort against the St. Louis Cardinals and going 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA over thirteen starts.  His strong pitching down the stretch helped push the Barry Bonds-led Pirates into the playoffs, where Timmy twirled a pair of complete game victories against Tom Glavine in the NLCS.  He was lined up to win series MVP honors, but Atlanta staged a dramatic comeback during the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game to steal the pennant from Pittsburgh.  He won the Sporting News NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year awardfinished third in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting behind Eric Karros and Moises Alou.  Despite being on the older side for a freshman, he was entering his prime years and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him.

But the league caught up with him next year.  He pitched so poorly that he lost his rotation spot and was demoted to Double A, then spent all of the '94 season in the minors.  On April 20, 1995, the Pirates released him, and Wakefield was out of a job.  Six days later GM Dan Duquette scooped him up off waivers, and all Wake did that season was win 16 games, post a 2.95 ERA/165 ERA+, finish third in the Cy Young race and help the Red Sox win the AL East.  Sporting News handed him AL Comeback Player of the Year to reward his resurgence.

That '95 season was probably the peak of his career, because his ERA and WHIP ballooned over the next three years as he entered his early 30s.  He still pitched well enough and often enough to average fourteen victories and 210 innings per year, helping bridge the gap between Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez.  Starting in 1999, when he replaced an injured Tom Gordon as the team's closer and saved fifteen games, Wakefield began to see extensive action out of the bullpen.  He still started around 16 games per year, but his days as a frontline starter appeared to be in the past.  Then, following a superb 2002 season when went 11-5 with a 2.81 ERA, 162 ERA+ and 1.05 WHIP, manager Grady Little stabilized a paper thin rotation by bringing the 36 year old back as a full time starter for the ill-fated '03 season.  Wakefield set a career high with 169 strikeouts, and was poised to win the ALCS MVP honors before Pedro's eighth inning meltdown preceded Aaron Boone's infamous walk-off blast in Game 7. 

A shell-shocked Wakefield walked off the mound in Yankee Stadium that night convinced he had become Bill Buckner.  Fortunately for him, Red Sox Nation absolved him of any blame and turned their guns on Little instead, running him out of town for leaving a fatigued Martinez in too long.  A year later, Wake was popping champagne with the rest of the Idiots in St. Louis.  He wouldn't have the bear the burden of his mistake for all of eternity.  He wanted to stay in Boston, and the front office did, too.  On April 19, 2005, Wakefield agreed to a $4 million, one-year "rolling" contract extension that gave the Red Sox the ability to keep Wakefield for the rest of his career.  That was the season he anchored the rotation in the wake of Martinez's free agent departure and Curt Schilling's recurrent ankle injuries.  He won sixteen games and completed over 225 innings.  Both he and the Sox struggled with injuries and disappointment the following year before returning to glory in 2007.  Boston won its second World Series in four years while a 40 year old Wakefield won 17 games.

He made his first and only All-Star team in 2009, becoming the second oldest first-time All-Star behind Satchel Paige.  Unfortunately Joe Maddon didn't use him, and he proceeded to miss six weeks with injuries to his lower back and calf.  '09 marked his last season as a full time starting pitcher and as an above average baseball player.  He shuffled in an out of the rotation in his final two years, stepping up when Daisuke Matsuzaka, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, and Clay Buchholz missed time with injuries.  For 2012, Boston offered its longest-tenured player a minor league contract and an invitation to spring training, but Wakefield wisely turned them down and decided it was time to call it quits.  He made his money, won his rings, etched his name in the history books.  No need to go Jamie Moyer on us.

Jason Varitek, typically replaced by Doug Mirabelli on days when Wakefield pitched, should do the same.  Two Red Sox fixtures going out together. 

In the context of Wake's stranger than fiction career, I think that would be a pretty good ending.

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