Prospect Retro: Tim Wakefield
Per reader request, here is a Prospect Retro for Boston Red Sox knuckleball expert Tim Wakefield.
Tim Wakefield was a successful college first baseman at Florida Tech, hitting 22 homers in 1988. Although his tools were considered mediocre, his power was enough for him to be drafted in the eighth round by the Pirates. He had a difficult time in his first look at pro pitching, hitting just .189/.328/.308 for Watertown in the New York-Penn League after signing. He did show good plate discipline and drew a lot of walks, but the swing that worked with metal bats was too long and slow for wood.
He began 1989 as a third baseman/third baseman, hitting .206/.254/.317 in 36 games for short-season Welland, and .235/.257/.353 in 11 games for Low-A Augusta. It became apparent that Wakefield had no future as a hitter in pro ball, but rather than bow to the inevitable pink slip, he decided to pitch instead. He could spin a decent breaking ball, but his fastball was just in the lower 80s,so he decided to learn the knuckleball as his main pitch. He took to it quickly, pitching 40 innings for Welland in the second half of the season, posting a 3.40 ERA with a 42/21 K/BB with 30 hits allowed.
Wakefield made 28 starts, throwing 190 innings for High-A Salem in 1990, winning 10 games with a 127/85 K/BB but with a 4.73 ERA. I didn't do prospect analysis for a living back then, so I don't know what my thoughts would have been, but nowadays I'd give someone like this a Grade C, noting that knuckleball pitchers are weird and don't always have consistent development paths.
Moved up to Double-A Carolina in 1991, Wakefield was much more effective as he gained command and confidence, going 15-8, 2.90 with a 120/51 K/BB in 183 innings, 155 hits. Although he didn't show up on Baseball America's Pirates prospect list, this was very credible performance, with a much lower walk rate compared to his debut season. I would probably give someone like that a Grade C+ now, maybe a B-.
Moved up to Triple-A Buffalo in 1992, Wakefield went 10-3, 3.06 in 20 starts, with a 71/51 K/BB in 135 innings, 122 hits allowed. The K/IP wasn't too good, but Triple-A hitters seemed to have a hard time with him. Promoted to the Pirates, he tore through the majors with an 8-1, 2.15 record in 13 starts, but again the K/BB was less than impressive at 51/35.
Although knuckleballers are weird, they are still subject to the same selection pressures as other pitchers: if you have poor component ratios, the league will eventually figure you out. Wakefield made 20 more starts with the Pirates in 1993 but was awful, going 6-11, 5.61. Sent back to Buffalo in 1994, he went 5-15, 5.84 with a 83/98 K/BB in 176 innings, with 197 hits allowed. His command was gone and his confidence was reportedly at a very low ebb.
Released by the Pirates, he signed with the Red Sox as a free agent in the spring of 1995. Boston coaches encouraged him to rely on the knuckleball was much as possible, using the occasional fastball and curve more sparingly. He worked with Phil and Joe Niekro, who helped him with both the physical and psychological aspects of knuckleball use.
The results were shocking: after four starts at Pawtucket, Wakefield returned to the majors and went 16-8, 2.95 in 27 starts, with a 119/68 K/BB in 195 innings, 163 hits allowed. Although he's never quite duplicated that performance, he has been a mainstay in the Boston pitching staff for the last 15 years, gobbling innings. Although he can be erratic from start to start, he's become a fan favorite and a bulwark of the Boston community with numerous charitable endeavors to his credit.
Similar Pitchers through age 42
Sim Scores: Jamie Moyer, Kenny Rogers, Charlie Hough, Danny Darwin, Charlie Root, Murray Dickson, Dizzy Trout, Dolf Luque, Guy Bush, and Rick Reuschel
PECOTA Comps: Phil Niekro, Kenny Rogers, David Wells, Gaylord Perry, Jamie Moyer, Charlie Hough, Don Sutton, Joe Niekro, Randy Johnson, and Roger Clemens.
Wakefield's longevity stresses comparisons systems, so you see power pitchers who lasted forever like Johnson and Clemens on the list, just because there aren't many 42 year old pitchers in major league history. But the expected knuckleballers and junk ball pitchers also show up.
Tim has been getting beat up this year and may be on his last legs, but overall it's been a career to be proud of: 190-166, 4.36 ERA, ERA+ of 107, 2008 strikeouts. This is a much better fate than being a failed A-ball first baseman.