Saturday, February 18, 2012

Tim Wakefield's Place Among Knuckleball Pitchers

Tim Wakefield retired yesterday after a long career, most of it spent with the Boston Red Sox. Wakefield, of course, was a knuckleball pitcher and member of a small club of such pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. Knuckleball pitchers are an oddity and we baseball fans love them. Why though? Perhaps we love knuckleball pitchers because it doesn't take an elite arm to throw one. Such pitchers can pitch on little rest and seemingly, with little effort. Knuckleball pitchers can pitch well into their forties. And, of course, we have a Bob Uecker's wonderful description of how to catch one ("Wait until it stops rolling and pick it up").

Whenever a player has played as long as Wakefield has, we usually try to put such a career into perspective. And, no, Tim Wakefield is never going to be a candidate for the Hall of Fame. So we can't write that kind of post. After all, Wakefield's closest comps on are Chuck Finley and Livan Hernandez. Since knuckleball pitchers are a rarity, we can put Wakefield's career in perspective compared to other knuckleball pitchers over the history of baseball. That's what this post will do.

The hardest thing to do to compile such a list is first determining who the knuckleball pitchers were through history. Fortunately, such a list exists and was culled as the starting point of this little research project. Using this list of names and looking up all the careers of the players on the list, and going by accumulated rWAR, Tim Wakefield is the ninth best knuckleball pitcher ever. Here is the list:

  1. Phil Niekro - 96.8 rWAR
  2. Ted Lyons - 58.8 - 19.2 of his rWAR was accumulated before he started throwing the pitch in 1929.
  3. Eddie Cicotte - 49.7 - banned from baseball after the 1920 season for his part in the Black Sox scandal  of 1919.
  4. Dutch Leonard - 45.6
  5. Wilbur Wood - 45
  6. Hoyt Wilhelm - 41.3 - Only a starter one season. The rest was in relief.
  7. Tom Candiotti - 41
  8. Charlie Hough - 37.5 - Did not become a starting pitcher until his thirteenth big league season.
  9. Tim Wakefield - 31.6
  10. Joe Niekro - 30.2 - Also compiled some WAR before converting to the knuckleball full time.
  11. Bob Purkey - 26.5
  12. Hal Brown - 16.6
  13. Johnny Niggeling - 15.6

While we're at it, we might as well list the best pitching years ever by a knuckleball pitcher. Wakefield won't make this list. His best season was 1995 when he accumulated 4.6 rWAR.

  1. Wilbur Wood (1971) - 10.7 rWAR
  2. Ed Cicotte (1917) - 10.0
  3. Phil Niekro (1978) - 9.1
  4. Hoyt Wilhelm (1959) - 7.4 - His only year as a full time starter. And what a year!
  5. Bob Purkey (1962) - 7.2 - Amazing year for the Pirates that season.
  6. Joe Niekro (1982) - 7.1

Tim Wakefield had a productive career and being ninth all time among his pitching peers is pretty darned good. He was a fan favorite in Boston and his pitching of the last couple of seasons won't be missed, but he will be.

Spreadsheet and notes. Click on the the image to make it larger.


Ken said...

What is rWAR? This whole article presumes that this is some kind of common term. I cannot even find a clear explanation on Google.

Thomas Slocum said...

Even though Tim spent most of his career with the Red Sox (and, as a lifelong Yankee fan the Red Sox are oh, about #30 on my list of favorite major league teams), I always rather liked him. Somewhat because I actually saw him pitch for the Carolina Mudcats nearby when he was working his way back to the majors (to the Red Sox, as it turned out) in 1993. But mostly because he did everything his team asked of him and did it in a solid, steady way. Never a star, rarely spectacular, but always a player his team could count on. Tim Wakefield personified the term major leaguer in every way.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Ken, rWAR is Wins Above Replacement as calculated by fWAR would be the same Wins Above Replacement but the way that statistic is determined by It's a statistic that tries to calculate how many wins a player is better than a average replacement player. Hope that helps. If you Google, "WAR," you should find more information. Thanks.