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Let’s get one thing straight right off the top, shall we?
Using traditional criteria, Tim Wakefield did not necessarily deserve to be in the All-Star Game. Sure, he is tied for the American League lead with 10 wins, but we all know that wins are one of the most over-rated statistics in baseball, if not all of sport. Wake’s ERA, a much better indicator of a starting pitcher’s effectiveness, is only slightly better than the league average, and his ancillary numbers such as batting average against and WHIP (walks + hits/inning pitched) are less than spectacular.
Two starting pitchers in particular probably should have been selected ahead of Wakefield on a purely statistical basis. Texas Rangers ace Kevin Millwood is currently 8-5, with an ERA of 2.80 (5th best in the AL) in 119 innings pitched (3rd). The Indians’ Cliff Lee has only 4 wins, but he has the 11th best ERA in the league, and is second in innings and quality starts.
So, why did Tampa (Devil) Rays manager and All-Star skipper Joe Maddon pick Wakefield for the team? My sense is that Maddon, an old school guy with a well-deserved reputation for making the unconventional move, saw the justice in making Wakefield the second oldest first-time All-Star, right behind the inimitable Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. It is what it is, to borrow an overused phrase, a lifetime achievement award, like Paul Newman winning an Oscar for The Color of Money, instead of Absence of Malice, The Verdict or The Hustler. It is a way to recognize a true professional for a career that is more than the sum of its parts.
I emphatically endorse his selection to the team.
Numbers don’t tell the whole story with a pitcher like Wakefield. First of all, he held the pitching staff together in April (1.86 ERA in 29 innings over 4 starts) when erstwhile aces Beckett and Lester were getting pounded. In addition, his numbers are skewed by the vagaries of the knuckleball. Like the proverbial little girl with the little curl, when he is good, 2.29 ERA in 66 2/3 innings in his 10 quality starts, he is very good, but when he is bad, 8.00 ERA in his 6 other starts, he is horrid. He only has one pitch, folks, when it doesn’t work he is helpless.
It is, in fact, that one pitch that makes me appreciate Wake so much. Unlike Josh Beckett or Brad Penny, Wakefield doesn’t have tremendous “stuff.” He can’t overpower hitters with a 96 mile per hour fastball, or mesmerize them with an exploding slider or knee-buckling curveball. What he can do, is make the best hitters in the world look ridiculous with a trick pitch that is quite a bit slower than a batting practice fastball.
Few have ever mastered the knuckleball on par with Tim Wakefield—Phil Niekro, Wilbur Wood and Hoyt Wilhelm come to mind—because it isn’t “sexy” and demands tremendous dedication to the craft. That being said, whenever I watch him pitch, I think to myself, “I could do that!” I can’t, of course, but as I get older, Wakefield is the easiest guy on the team for me to identify with. He doesn’t have otherworldly athletic ability. What he does have is a great work ethic, tenacity, and dedication. Simply put, he does the best he can with what he has.
We can all do that.