I can't help but sense that we are seeing the final weeks of Tim Wakefield's career. As the Boston knuckleballer keeps trying for win #200 (Tuesday against Toronto will be attempt number eight), you have to wonder how much more he can contribute.
We know knuckleballers have great longevity because in large part there isn't a large strain on the arm, but there are other factors that have a mitigating effect on their ability to pitch at a quality level. It was two years ago that Wake was on the DL with back pain and stiffness that eventually led to postseason surgery for a herniated disk. You always have to wonder if his back, after a long season like this, just feels a little stiffer at 45 than it did 10 years when he was pitching for the Sox or 20 years ago when he was a rookie with the Pirates.
Knuckleballs are baseball's anomalies. The great Charlie Lau said, "There are two theories on catching the knuckleball...unfortunately, neither of the theories work." But I always liked Richie Hebner's description of hitting against Hall of Famer Phil Niekro, "Hitting Niekro's knuckleball is like eating soup with a fork."
One of things I wanted to do here is compare Tim's knuckleball from the first half of 2009, when Wake made his only All-Star team versus the knuckler of the second half of 2011 and see if we could see a difference in results.
First half of 2009
Wake was all over, and around, the strike zone with very few pitches in the hitting zone. One of the axioms for hitting a knuckleball is "if its high let it fly, if its low, let it go." On pitches high in the zone, batters hit .304. On low pitches, they hit .265. But the effective nature of Wakefield's pitches could really be seen on pitches in the middle part of the plate. Batters were so befuddled, they hit just .236.
The second half of 2011
You don't need to read the stats to see the stunning difference. Wake's pitches are no longer floating out harm's way; they are in the zone. High in the zone, hitters are hitting .317. Low in the zone, .313. And while the number in the middle is better, .286, he's given up five homers in just 98 at bats when the pitch is sitting there. The difference in slugging from 2009 to 2011 is .453 vs. .542.
The walk differential
in 458 plate appearances in 2009, Wake walked 36 batters with his knuckleball.
He has faced 225 batters in the second half of 2011, approximately half as many batters. Consequently, I would expect 17 or 18 walks. He has walked just five this second half on the knuckler.
I attribute the great walk differential to a pitch that is simple not moving, dipping, and diving enough. With pitches that are no longer floating like a butterfly, Wake is getting stung like a bee.
I hope he gets win #200 before the month is out, because I think he is running out of time.