By In Stuff

Ballot 23: Tim Wakefield

Tim Wakefield

Played 19 years for two different teams

All-Star won exactly 200 games in his career 34.5 WAR, 3.9 WAA

Pro argument: Great knuckleball pitcher of his time.

Con argument: His knuckleball got hit a lot.

Deserves to be in Hall?: No

Will get elected this year?: No

Will ever get elected?: No.

* * *

Knuckleballs are the closest thing to witchcraft that I know. As part of my research*, I have come to the conclusion that there are three basic kinds of performance magic.

*Don’t know if I mentioned this, but I’m writing a book on Houdini in today’s world.

First, there is the magic trick. This can be a simple or complicated trick, that doesn’t matter … what makes it a magic trick is the secret. The magician knows something you do not and uses that information through sleight of hand or misdirection or optical illusion, through mirrors or strings or elaborate machinery, to spark surprise and awe and happiness.

Good magic tricks ARE wonderful … that is until you learn the secret. Then, for most people, they lose their astonishment (OH, you had the deck stacked the whole time, well, what’s the fun in that?). This is why revealing magic is not just forbidden in the magic community, it’s plain wrong. It subtracts wonder from a world where wonder is already in short supply.

Second, there is magical art. These are bits of magic that become no less impressive even if you understand how they are done because it is the skill of the performer that makes it awesome. Teller of Penn and Teller does a gorgeous illusion with coins and goldfish.

This is such a beautiful trick that knowing the secret does not diminish it at all. Teller is like Yo Yo Ma on the cello or Louis CK at the microphone or Jennifer Lawrence in front of a camera or Francisco Lindor ranging left for a ground ball or Steph Curry with a split second to shoot. Even if we know HOW they do it, the act remains magical.

And then, third, there’s witchcraft. This is a different thing. Witchcraft happens when the magician can show you the secret — absolutely show you step by step by step how it’s done — but the thing itself still remains beyond your grasp. You still can’t do it. You still can’t understand it.

Tim Wakefield could take a round baseball with stitches of thread, the sort of baseball you and I have thrown all our lives, and with the simplest of motions make it dance so violently that a professional baseball player couldn’t CATCH IT much less hit it. There’s no way to comprehend that no matter how many times you see it, no matter how thoroughly you understand aerodynamics, no matter how many knuckleballs you try yourself (“Hey, I think that one moved!”).

That is witchcraft. Wicked witchcraft.

Yes, it’s true, Wakefield is not the only person who could it. There have been a few others. In the last 75 years, there have been, I would say, nine prominent Major League knuckleball pitchers.

1. Phil Niekro

2. Joe Niekro

3. Hoyt Wilhelm

4. Charlie Hough

5. Tim Wakefield

6. Tom Candiotti

7. Wilbur Wood

8. Bob Purkey

9. R.A. Dickey

There have been a handful of others who dabbled in the dark arts — Jim Bouton came back as a knuckleballer, Steve Sparks threw it, Gene Bearden, Steven Wright throws one now – but basically it comes down to those nine. In 75 years. I have thought about writing a fantasy book called “The Nine Knuckleballers,” in which wizards are born to use their great powers to change the world. Instead they use them to get batters out and make catchers look foolish.*

*Publishers can reach out to me here.

Wakefield began his life hating the knuckleball. It’s a sweet story. He and his sister Kelly always wanted to play catch with their Dad, Steve, who had promised himself he would never say no to a game of catch. Noble thought. Of course, as a Dad who has made similar promises to my own children, you still have to find ways to escape or else you will spend your entire life doing nothing but playing board games or watching “Friends” reruns. Steve’s way of escaping was to start throwing knuckleballs in those games of catch.

“Dad,” little Tim would yell. “Stop!”

“Dad,” he would scream, “Seriously. Stop. It’s not funny.”

“DAD! QUIT IT! THROW THE BALL FOR REAL!”

Eventually, Tim would say he’d had enough of knuckleball catch, and Steve would get to go inside and relax.

After a while, Steve showed Tim how to throw the knuckleball so that he too could irritate and infuriate his friends. Hey, my Dad taught me a couple of card tricks and how to juggle. It’s kind of the same thing. Tim had his own baseball life, a real baseball life. He was a hitter. At the Florida Institute of Technology, Tim hit a school-record 22 home runs his junior season. He was taken in the eighth round by Pittsburgh as a first baseman. He was going to be a big league slugger.

He just threw those knuckleballs to teammates to drive them crazy.

“Wake,” his Watertown manager Stan Cliburn used to tell him, “quit goofing off. Throw the ball right.”

It was a parlor trick, a fun illusion … that is until Tim Wakefield hit .189 with no power for Watertown in his first year. When you hit .189 with no power as a first baseman in low-A ball, well, the next thing that happens is you get released. And The Pirates were ready to release him. But then they had that quirky thought: “Hey, what about that knuckleball he throws around as a joke? Maybe he could do something with that thing.”

Wakefield did not want to give up hitting, of course. But, he quickly realized — hitting had already given up on him. If he wanted to stay in baseball he would need to harness that voodoo pitch.

In his first full year as a pitcher, in Salem, Virginia, he went 10-14 with a 4.73 ERA, which doesn’t seem all that good on the surface. But the Pirates were blown away. He had never thrown the knuckleball seriously, but already he threw it with so much movement that hitters often looked foolish. They weren’t bothered by the walks or the home runs allowed. They could see: the black magic was there.

Wakefield made it to the big leagues in 1992, and he was terrific. He started 13 games down the stretch for a Pittsburgh team in a pennant race, and the Pirates won nine of them. He gave up just 76 hits in those innings, finished with a 2.15 ERA. He even got a couple of first place Rookie of the Year votes even though he played less than half a season. He pitched twice in the National League Championship Series against Atlanta … and won both games. This was Harry Potter on the first day of flying lessons.

And then, well, like with any magical story, it all went horribly bad. One year later, the knuckleball betrayed him. He could not throw it for strikes. Hitters teed off on it.  Sure there were days when he commanded the disobedient pitch — he threw back-to-back shutouts to end the season, a five-hitter against the Cubs and a four-hitter against the Pirates. But there was s more dreadful days. The Pirates — the team that had discovered that Wakefield knuckler — lost faith. They sent him back to Buffalo, where he was dreadful. And then they released him. Wakefield was devastated.

Boston quickly signed him and put him on a program with the magical brothers act, Phil and Joe Niekro.

Wakefield would pitch for Boston for the next 16 seasons. It began in glory. His first year, the Red Sox won 18 of his 27 starts, the league hit just .227 against him, he had a 2.95 ERA and finished third in the Cy Young voting. He looked like he would be a star.

The next year, his ERA ballooned to 5.14, he walked 90, he gave up a staggering 38 home runs.

Hey, this is the story of a 66-mph pitch that dances to its own rhythm. Through 16 years, Wakefield saw fire and he saw rain. He saw sunny days that he thought would never end. He saw lonely times … well, hey, James Taylor is a Red Sox fan. He pitched more than 3,200 innings in his career — 3,000 of them with the Boston Red Sox.

He walked a lot of batters (1,205 — 51st all time). He hit a lot of batters (186 — ninth all time). He threw a lot of wild pitches (134 — 50th all time) and he singlehandedly caused SEVEN different Boston catchers to lead the league in passed balls at some point.

But he also won 200 games, struck out more than 2,100 hitters, and pitched until he was 44 years old. He pitched regularly for the Red Sox team that ended the drought. The only two pitchers who won more games for the Boston Red Sox are Cy Young … and the guy who won the most Cy Young awards, Roger Clemens.

Witchcraft.

As the years go on, you will sometimes hear a pitcher called the last knuckleballer, sort of like the last Jedi. Don’t believe it. The wonderful thing about the knuckleball is that a new wizard always comes along. Now it’s Steven Wright. Soon it will be someone else. This is the joy of baseball … and magic … and life. Someone will always come along to baffle the mind, pitch on the edge, drive catchers out of business and make us all believe again.

 

 

 

 

 

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46 Responses to Ballot 23: Tim Wakefield

  1. Patrick says:

    Doug Mirabelli should at least get an honorary plaque if Wake ever gets in.

    • SDG says:

      Wakefield shouldn’t get in, of course, but he had a cool career. I wonder if the knuckleball will ever be a pitch people take seriously. I have a theory – in the future, baseball gets rid of the starter and 4 or 5 people pitch most games. A premium is going to be on variety – surprising the batter so he won’t know what’s coming. This means there are going to be more pitchers, and plenty of marginal hitters with good arms (like Wakefield) who can’t throw 100mph are going to give it a try. At least a few years is better than nothing. This opens the door to all sorts of specialty pitchers.

      • Hudson Valley Slim says:

        I think you’re right on this. Had the thought myself. It’s definitely evolving towards that end.

        I’m a long time Sox fan who has watched, worried, and admired his unique skill. Incredible career, probably not far off someone like Pettite, who got more acclaim. (And probaly needed more vitamins…) Many teams like the Yanks will not carry a knuckler. Crap shoot perhaps. But the few good ones we see are inning-eaters, serviceable, and sometimes brilliant. RA Dickey won the Cy Young a few years ago.

        Decades ago I saw Wilbur Wood lose 2 games of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. What’s not to like?

      • JHench says:

        I don’t know much about cricket, but what you’re describing sounds a bit like the strategy involved in selecting bowlers.

  2. Anon says:

    Actually I count 8 Boston catchers since Bill Haselman and Scott Hetteberg tied for the league lead in PB in 1997 and both caught Wake that year – about an equal split.

  3. birtelcom says:

    33 pitchers have compiled more than 20 WAR (baseball-reference version) from their age 34 season on. Of those 33, the guys with the fewest WAR before their age 34 season:
    R.A. Dickey 0.3 WAR before his age 34 season
    Charlie Hough and Ellis (“Old Folks”) Kinder 4.4 WAR before their age 34 seasons
    Sal Maglie 7.8 WAR before his age 34 season
    Hoyt Wilhelm 11.5 WAR before his age 34 season
    Tim Wakefield 11.8 WAR before his age 34 season.

    Four of those six guys were, or are, knuckleball pitchers — Dickey, Hough, Wilhelm and Wakefield. Definitely an old guy’s pitch. The other two guys, Maglie and Kinder, for various personal and business reasons didn’t get significant opportunities in the majors until they were in their thirties.

  4. Dr. Baseball says:

    A magical piece Mr. Posnanski. One of my favorites of all time.

    YOU, sir, are a wizard with words. A true master.

  5. PS says:

    Another outstanding entry. 1) Have watched Wakefield pitch many times (both on TV and at Fenway), and I’ve never see a pitcher go from completely dominant to completely horrible so quickly. He could be rolling along inducing the most horrible swings for several innings, then BANG — multiple walks, loud hits, a crooked number on the board. Then back to dominant, if kept in the game. You captured this perfectly. 2) No mention of the Boone home run — interesting where that one pitch fits in the context of a very distinguished career. Even the greats and near-greats have moments like that!

    • Hudson Valley Slim says:

      “Completely dominant to completely horrible” is right on. Maybe the theater of the knuckler makes it compelling. It makes you watch every inning.

  6. invitro says:

    “a world where wonder is already in short supply” — You must not be familiar with the worlds of mathematics or physics :(.

    • james says:

      uncalled for comment–the world wonders little, though, as you point out, the wonder is certainly there…I don’t think Joe of all people is denying the wonder, just that the world rarely notices

      • invitro says:

        I don’t see how “a world where wonder is already in short supply” can possibly be interpreted any other way than claiming that wonder is certainly NOT there… it’s true though that precious few humans are willing to put in the tiny modicum of work necessary to be able to understand math & physics.

        • JHench says:

          I think he meant a “world” in the sense of the environment (not the environmentalists environment either, but closer to what the French word “environs” means). It’s not the physical world that is short on wonder, but the people in the metaphysical space of our collective day-to-day existence who are short on wonder.

          At least that’s how I understood it, without having to have it all spelled out in overwrought language like mine above.

        • billydaking says:

          “They are a mystery. And I am both terrified and reassured to know that there are still wonders in the universe and that we have not explained everything.”
          –G’kar, Babylon 5

  7. invitro says:

    The Indians faced Wakefield in a whopping four seasons. They were very happy to do so: Wakefield had a 13.50 ERA in those four playoff series.

  8. Otistaylor89 says:

    For years everytime I went to a Sox game at Fenway Wakefield was the pitcher and it was good or bad: A)The games he pitched were so much shorter than any other pitcher on the Sox staff and B) I saw some looong HRs given up by Wakefield.
    BTW, I used to ump college intramural softball games played by grad students and several of them pitched softball kuckleballs – true witchcraft.

  9. Rob Smith says:

    Like a lot of kids, I experimented with the knuckle ball & even threw it in games. Of course it was unpredictable & was actually better when it wasn’t a strike. A strike generally meant it didn’t do anything & was a batting practice pitch. But my Dad (the coach) didn’t want me throwing it all the time. So he put rules around it. I could only throw it with an 0-2 or 1-2 count (because it was either going to be a ball or a swinging strikeout) and with nobody on base (because of the wild pitch potential). So, I generally ran into that scenario 2 or 3 times a game. So you could pretty much guarantee (and the batter knew too) that it was coming. The great part about it, beyond the magic, was the psychological effect on the batter. It was almost better that they knew it was coming because it made them very uncomfortable. Even when I threw a lousy one that did nothing, they still didn’t hit it because they were so wigged out about the pitch. Bottom line: nobody ever got a hit off the pitch…. granted, I threw less than 50 of them during one season. But no hits. And since my Dad didn’t let me throw it with runners on base, no wild pitches.

    So, I always wondered why more pitchers didn’t invest some time into the knuckleball. With enough work to get some consistency, it’s really a devastating pitch. I think most guys who throw it get discouraged by some manager that just wants them to throw strikes. And I think there probably aren’t enough players out there that can coach it. Maybe that’s the new underutilized skill (moving on from OBP and FIP). Coaching the knuckleball & getting marginal pitchers to throw it right as their only shot at the bigs. All you need is one of them to get it right and fill a rotation spot, and you have a winner.

    • SDG says:

      Pitchers don’t invest in it because it leads to passed balls (and a higher BB/HBP rate?) and the thing most teams want is speed. You can throw 95+mph they don’t even care about control. That’s why slower pitchers who rely on breaking stuff and location are seen as oddities, so knucklers even more so.

      But I completely agree with you. It’s a way to stand out, and as the market grows for pitchers as a share of a roster, so will unusual pitchers.

  10. heaveecee says:

    Love this. Wakefield has been a favourite for a long time. Love the magic of the knuckleball and remember him coming in to eat up innings and possibly sacrificing a start during the drought ending playoff championship series against the Yankees.

  11. Paul White says:

    When my daughter was 2, we took her to her first baseball game. It was an interleague game between the Red Sox and Braves at Fenway. Greg Maddux was pitching for the Braves, and we were sitting two rows behind the Red Sox bullpen in right-center field. Decent game, tied at 2 going into the ninth inning. This was one of those years when Wakefield pitched out of the bullpen a good bit, and he was called upon to enter the game in the 9th. He promptly surrendered 2 runs, John Smoltz closed it out for Atlanta, and the Sox lost. Pretty disappointing for me, a lifelong Sox fan, who didn’t live in Boston anymore and didn’t get to Fenway regularly. Also disappointing for my son, who was 6, and had never been to a game in Fenway.

    But for my daughter, it was the happiest baseball experience of her life, and remains so to this day. See, as Wakefield was warming up to enter the game, he saw my daughter a couple of rows away. Tiny little blond girl in a Red Sox jersey, taking in her first game. When he finished his warmups, he handed the ball to Bob Kipper, who was the Sox bullpen coach that year, and said something to him. As Wakefield jogged to the mound, Kipper stepped up on the fence, tossed the ball to the guy sitting in front of us, and said “That’s for her”, pointing directly at my daughter. Her own personal gift from Tim Wakefield. He has been her favorite baseball player ever since.

    No, he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. But he was a good pitcher, a class act, and a good man, routinely the Sox’s nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award before he finally won it in 2010. And he’s my little girl’s favorite, which makes him one of mine, too.

    • SDG says:

      Aw. Reminds me of the story of Eri Yoshida. A Japanese knuckleballer and the first woman (at least in the recent era, I’m not an expert on these things) to play on male independent and minor league teams in here and in Japan. Apparently Wakefield was her favourite player and she taught herself the pitch by watching him. Then they had a chance to meet and talk about pitching.

  12. MCD says:

    I would add Dutch Leonard to the list of “prominent” knuckle-ball pitchers (3 of his 4 AS nods are within the 75 year threshold).

    Reading the story of Tim playing catch with his dad, reminded me of one of the rules from the “Book of Wilhelm”:

    – Don’t try to throw the knuckleball as an adult unless you threw it as a kid

    I don’t remember all the rules, but two others that stuck with me.

    – Don’t try to be a part-time knuckleball pitcher. There ain’t no such animal
    – Don’t panic if your knuckler isn’t working today. It will come back tomorrow.

  13. Brian says:

    Nice piece on one of my favorite players. You didn’t mention the experiment when Sox tried him as closer and he routinely gave us all heart attacks. Also, he will always be remembered as the guy who sacrificed himself in the 2004 ALCS throwing 64 pitches in the game blow out to save the rest of the pen, then throwing 3 more innings in game 5 keeping the game tied during extra innings. Sox HOFer for sure.

    • Hudson Valley Slim says:

      That’s it, Sox Hall of Famer. Hall of Very Good. Seems like like Hall of Human Very Good as well. (I made that up but will be crowd-sourcing this soon!) Remembering that he served as closer for at least one year.

      • invitro says:

        I don’t think you guys understand baseball at all. Wakefield played a whopping 17 seasons with Boston, and isn’t even in their top twenty players by WAR. Well, I dunno, maybe the Red Sox Hall of Fame has thirty players. And Wakefield has 3.9 WAA in nineteen seasons. That’s not Hall of Very Good. It’s not close. It’s Hall of Barely Above Average. It’s Hall of Long-Time Third Starters. I’m guessing you fellows’ knowledge of baseball history extends back about twenty years, if that.

        • Brian says:

          yeah, my baseball knowledge only goes back 20 years. That’s why I completely forget the times I went to Fenway and watched Rice, Lynn, and Yaz play. Perhaps you just don’t what it is to be a fan instead of a presumptuous downer.

          • Chris says:

            No, you have it right Brian. I’ve probably seen at least 100 better Red Sox players in my lifetime but I’m guessing as the years go by I will slowly forget about some of them and then more of them.

            I’ll never forget the first thing you mentioned. Eating up the innings in the game 3 blowout when he was the scheduled game 4 starter. The Red Sox don’t win the World Series if he doesn’t do that and all the stories that came along with those next few weeks never happen.

            It’s the kind of thing that will slowly get lost to history but I’ll never forget it.

  14. TWolf says:

    I do not believe that Bob Purkey fits in the list of prominent knuckleballers. The other eight pitchers had their greatest success when they relied exclusively or almost exclusively on knuckleballs. Purkey threw a variety of pitches in addition to the
    knuckleball.

    • BobDD says:

      Yea, Purkey had a very successful sinker and what today would probably be called a cutter. But I do remember that he was notorious at the time for the Knuckleball that he sometimes threw. But not predominantly a Knuckleballer like the others listed.

  15. Rob Smith says:

    Isn’t Eddie Fisher a legit knuckleball pitcher too?

    • BobDD says:

      Yes, most definitely Dutch Leonard – and Ted Lyons from same era.

      And Eddie Fisher too. He was on the White Sox the same time as Wilbur Wood, who was with the White Sox the same time as Hoyt Wilhelm.

      • Marc Schneider says:

        I thought Eddie Fisher was actually on the White Sox with Wilhelm. Am I wrong? As I recall, it was something special having two knuckleballers.

        • Tim Wright says:

          Yes, Fisher and Wilhelm were on the White Sox together from 1963 to 1966. (Fisher was traded to the Oriole during the 1966 season.) Wilhelm taught Fisher how to throw the knuckleball effectively. (In 1965, the two combined for over 300 innings, all in relief.)

          In 1967, the White Sox called up Wilbur Wood, and Wilhelm convinced him (and Sox management) to throw his knuckleball 90% of the time instead of every so often. Wood was a good enough student to average 79 relief appearances between 1968 and 1970, then start 224 games (and throw 1681 innings!) between 1971 and 1975. Wilhelm and Wood pitched together in 1967 and 1968, then Wilhelm got plucked away in the expansion draft.

          But if you want lots of knuckleballers on a team, check out the 1944-1945 Senators teams. Four knuckleballers, all starters (Haefner, Leonard, Niggeling, and Wolff); and surely traumatized catchers.

  16. BobDD says:

    There was also Barney Schultz, a relief pitcher that was the inspiration for Bob Uecker’s comedy riffs on knuckleballs.

  17. MikeN says:

    I curse those Red Sox relievers who cost Tim wins in his final years. It would have been nice if he could have finished tied with Clemens and Cy in wins.

    I was really expecting him to pitch another 5-10 years longer than he did.

    • Pat says:

      Echo this entirely. I remember that last season and the games he left with a lead, just hoping he’d get those extra wins, and then… well, it didn’t happen. (At least I got to see my favorite decision abbreviation of all time—the reliever who gives up the tying run before his teams retakes the lead is credited “BS, W”… and yeah, that is a BS win.)

  18. nightfly says:

    I got to see one of Charlie Hough’s last games in Florida: http://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/FLO/FLO199407050.shtml. It went poorly. He was already down 3-0 when called upon to bat with the bases loaded in the home second inning… and he hit into an inning-ending DP. Then he gave up a homer to Kevin Mitchell that looked like it was headed to Disney World, but settled for a spot in the upper deck in leftfield, near where those goofy team banners were stretched out to cover the empty seats.

    Mitchell launched another impressive drive later; my memory insisted that he hit them both off of Hough, but turns out I was wrong.

  19. Scoop K says:

    Jim Bouton didn’t have much success with it, but he’s more famous for the year he threw the knuckleball than whatever he did with the Yankees.

  20. Brent says:

    I have always thought that the RedSox were on the right track the year that Wakefield split his time as a reliever and a starter Since throwing the knuckler is so much easier on your arm than normal pitching, I have always maintained that a team could save a spot in their bullpen by making a guy like Wakefield their 5th starter AND their long man. That way maybe you only carry 11 pitchers and you can have a pinch hitting or defensive specialist on your bench.

    • Pat says:

      Maybe the biggest baseball fan I ever knew once remarked breezily that he was still waiting for a left-handed knuckleballer who can pitch five days a week.

      • Tim Wright says:

        Wilbur Wood was almost that left-handed guy. In 1972, the White Sox played 154 games and their pitchers threw 1385.1 innings. Wood started 49 (31.8% of the total) of them and threw 376.1 innings (27.1%).

  21. MikeN says:

    I remember that first year, when Clemens was out, winning 3 games in 7 days, was considered a possible Cy Young winner, then Mike Blowers exploded his ERA, and he still made the list.

    • MikeN says:

      He was 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA, 131 IP, and 6 complete games before Blowers pushed his ERA over 2, and he lost his last 4 starts to push his ERA to 3. Still came in 13th in MVP and 3rd in Cy Young.

  22. Up2Drew says:

    Jennifer Lawrence in front of a camera?

    Are you kidding???

  23. Lundy says:

    I’m glad a couple of old-timers mentioned Dutch Leonard, who qualified in your timeline of 75 years as one of the best knuckleballers ever. He was part of a Washington pitching staff in the early 1940s that featured four knuckleball starters: Leonard, Roger Woolf, Mickey Haefner and Johnny Niggeling (great name for a knuckleballer).

    Who was the poor catcher? A guy named Jake early, who roomed down the street from me in DC. Shaking hands with him was like sticking your hand into a bag of peanuts.

    I saw Leonard pitch a lot after the war, because we both moved to Philadelphia, where he teamed with Schoolboy Rowe, another close-to-40-year-old over the hill veteran. Neither could pitch on regular rest between starts, so the Phillies woul pitch them in Sunday doubleheaders at Shibe Park. As it happened, I went to Shibe Park virtually every Sunday (A’s or Phillies) and they were dazzling! Leonard won 17 games for a second-division team, and Rowe went 11-4, leading the league in winning pctg.

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