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Entries in Tim Wakefield (3)


Tim Wakefield Tidbits

So long, Tim Wakefield. The 45-year-old has lobbed his last flutterball toward home plate, retiring after a 19-year career made possible by the knuckler. While he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting with the Pirates in 1992, Wake was left for dead after a disastrous 1993 during which he was demoted to the minors. Instead, he latched on with the Red Sox and went on to throw more innings (3,006) than any other pitcher in club history while placing third in wins (186), behind Roger Clemens and Cy Young.

Wakefield was rarely an ace-caliber arm, making just one All-Star team and finishing with a 105 ERA+, but he'll go down as one of the most beloved pitchers in Sox history. In honor of the knuckleballer, here are some Tim Wakefield tidbits:

- Some guys are likely hooting and hollering that no hitter will ever have the misfortune of facing Wakefield and his knuckler again. Here are the batters who had the lowest career OPS versus Wakefield (minimum 20 plate appearances):

Reed Johnson 23 .367
Cecil Fielder 30 .348
Jay Buhner 28 .334
David Newhan 22 .332
Denny Hocking 20 .300
Jeromy Burnitz 21 .297
Rocco Baldelli 28 .294
Jerry Hairston 28 .263
Doug Mientkiewicz 20 .205
Adrian Beltre 21 .095


- Other guys, meanwhile, are sad to see him go. Aaron Rowand and Vlad's chances of reviving their respective careers just got a little harder, and Kevin Millar certainly "Got Eeeeem!" when he faced his erstwhile teammate. Here are the hitters with the highest career OPS against Wake:

Aaron Rowand 25 1.782
Vladimir Guerrero 35 1.749
Dave Nilsson 32 1.679
Juan Encarnacion 20 1.676
Olmedo Saenz 20 1.538
Jose Lopez 20 1.45
Phil Nevin 23 1.378
Evan Longoria 25 1.362
Kevin Millar 37 1.361
Jose Canseco 27 1.36


 - Wakefield's knuckleball didn't just fool hitters. Since 2008 (the first year for which we have Pitch F/X data) to 2011, Wakefield's knuckler got called strikes on pitches thrown out of the strike zone 14% of the time. The league average for all pitches over that time is 10.5%. He got those extra calls on pitches thrown in the upper half of the zone:

Wakefield's called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches taken by batters, 2008-11 

- Wake's threw his knuckler at a bunch of different speeds, ranging from 54 mph up to 76 mph. Check out his distribution of knuckleballs by velocity:

VelocityPct. Thrown
60 mph or less 5
61-65 mph 35.4
66-70 mph 51.6
70+ mph 8


His really slow knucklers were most effective, while his "power" knuckleballs were hit the hardest:

VelocitySlugging Pct.
60 mph or less .358
61-65 mph .456
66-70 mph .392
70+ mph .472


- The element of surprise is key to the knuckleball. Hitters, Wakefield and his catcher had next to no idea where the knuckler would end up, and that's reflected in his percentage of pitches thrown to each region of the strike zone:

LocationPct. Of Knuckleballs thrown to location
Up and In 9.2
Up and Middle 14.5
Up and away 10.8
Middle and In 11.7
Middle and Middle 18.2
Middle and Away 13.6
Down and In 6
Down and Middle 9
Down and Away 7


- Wakefield's knuckleball and the element of surprise made his low-70s "fastball" -- which would be smacked into orbit under normal circumstances -- a decent pitch in small doses. Wakefield threw his fastball about 5% of the time from 2008-11, with hitters slugging .427 against the pitch. That's actually below the .441 MLB average over the past four seasons.


Is the end near for Tim Wakefield?

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

411 at bats, .268 with 8 homers and 36 walksWake 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

In 225 plate appearances, batters are hitting .302, walking only five times.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.


Wakefield Throwing Strikes

Tim Wakefield's (BOS) success as a knuckleball pitcher came from his ability to throw the pitch for a strike.  Sunday night's game against the Cubs showed off that ability well.

Tim Wakefield, pitch frequency on the knuckleball, May 22, 2011.That's pretty amazing that a pitch with an unknown movement can be so accurate.  One reason may be that Wakefield can throw the pitch a bit more predictably than you might imagine:

Tim Wakefield, pitch movement of the knuckleball, May 22, 2011.A high number of these pitches had a nice dip, down, in to left-handed batters, in to right-handed batters.  Note that there are many that have no relation to that movement, but that core is the movement on which Tim hits the strike zone.  Note that many of the pitches in the zone are high, so with that movement, the ball is falling into the zone, looking like it might be out of the zone at first.  Because of that, Tim induced swings at balls above the strike zone, and taken pitches high in the strike zone.

The movement graph also demonstrates that Tim can control the ball fairly well.  If he can get a consistent spin on the ball, it should really do the same thing.  He's not just tossing it hoping it will find the strike zone.  He's replicating the motion well enough that 38 of his 68 knuckleballs ended up in the strike zone, most of those with the movement you see in the concentrated area on the lower chart.  That's impressive control of a tough pitch.