It seems outrageous to discuss the Hall of Fame credentials for someone who has a 4.38 career ERA and only one All-Star appearance. Guys like Tim Wakefield don't get any attention in today's league, if only because there are so many pitchers out there who are definitely better.
But don't tell that to Robinson Cano.
The Yankees' star second baseman thinks Wakefield belongs in the Hall of Fame, even after the knuckleballer gave up five runs in 5.1 innings against New York last week.
Cano may not be alone in that assertion, either. Wakefield has lots of admirers around the league who are impressed by his longevity if not so much for his dominance.
Yet is there enough support for a Hall of Fame bid? Let's take a look.
The Career Path of a Knuckleballer
Wakefield, believe it or not, was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates (eighth round, 1988) out of Florida Tech as a power-hitting first baseman where he set single season records in home runs and RBI. He made the transition into a pitcher once he discovered that his bat wasn't going to be good enough to get him to the big leagues.
The knuckleball was instantly successful for Wakefield as he led all Pittsburgh minor leaguers in wins, innings pitched and complete games. He made his major league debut in 1992 at the age of 25 and promptly threw a complete game against the St. Louis Cardinals in his first professional start, striking out 10 and throwing 146 pitches.
Wakefield was so good that season that he won the NL Rookie Pitcher of the Year award from the Sporting News and finished third in official Rookie of the Year voting. He even nearly led the Pirates to a World Series appearance, out-dueling Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in Game 3 and Game 6 of the NLCS.
The following season Wakefield lost all control of his knuckleball and spent most of 1993 toiling away in the minors. The Pirates decided Wakefield was a lost cause and released him early during the 1995 season.
The Boston Red Sox scooped him up and, as luck would have it, Wakefield became the ace of their staff (Roger Clemens was also a member of that rotation). During a 17-game stretch Wakefield went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA. He finished the year third in Cy Young voting (behind Randy Johnson and Jose Mesa, but ahead of David Cone and Mike Mussina), he won the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award and he even received some MVP consideration.
This was certainly the high point of Wakefield's career. Over the next 15 seasons, all of them in Boston, Wakefield split time as a starter, closer, reliever and starter again. He did everything he was asked regardless of the role and received, in essence, an indefinite contract extension. So as long as he wants to keep playing, the Red Sox will keep writing him a check.
By the Numbers
It shouldn't be all that surprising that Wakefield is the active leader in almost every pitching category because...well, he's been around for a long time. This will be his 19th professional season and he's already atop the leaderboards in career wins, losses, innings, walks, home runs, earned runs, wild pitches and hit by pitch. He's also second in strikeouts and starts, and third in complete games.
At 44 years old he is also the oldest player in the AL, and has been for three straight years.
Not all of those stats are something to be proud of, and most of them (wild pitches in particular) Wakefield has no control over. But the consistency is amazing.
Wakefield has thrown over 200 innings five times in his career and he's made at least 30 starts seven times. But when you consider that in most years he wasn't even a full-time starter, his accomplishments look even more impressive.
In fact, Wakefield hasn't thrown fewer than 128 innings in a season since his rookie year in 1992. That's a stretch of 17 consecutive seasons, and it'll become 18 if he maintains his current pace in 2011.
Along the way he managed to save 22 games and finish an additional 55. He has made over 150 appearances out of the bullpen. Dennis Eckersley and John Smoltz made the starter-to-closer transition better than anyone ever, but neither did both at the same time. Wakefield did.
Barring a complete collapse, Wakefield will record his 200th career victory this season (he's at 196 right now). He's already surpassed the 2,000-strikeout and 3,000-inning milestones. He also has two World Series rings.
Is He Bound for Cooperstown?
There truly has never been a player like Wakefield in major league history. He finished in the top 10 in ERA just twice in his entire career, and never got any Cy Young attention after 1995.
The closest comparison may be Jamie Moyera lefty who threw over 4,000 innings over 24 seasons and only had one All-Star appearance to show for it. But Moyer was always a precision pitcher and didn't walk or hit nearly as many batters as Wakefield.
The best knuckleballer in history is, of course, Phil Niekro. The righty played 24 seasons and finished with 318 wins and 3,342 strikeouts. He even had more saves (29) than Wakefield. But Niekro was also the beneficiary of an era where it was acceptable to make 40 or more starts in a season, which made it easy for him to pile up stats like innings and strikeouts.
Is Wakefield the Phil Niekro of today?
It certainly appears so. Wakefield actually has a very comparable SO/BB ratio (1.77 to Niekro's 1.85). Niekro of course finished with a lower career ERA (3.35), but you could write a 2,000-page book on the improvements in hitting over the last two decades.
Niekro was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1997 after five years on the ballot. Wakefield will have a much tougher hill to climb, depending on when he retires. Some guys he'll be on the ballot with, assuming he's even on the ballot, are Moyer, Bartolo Colon, Andy Pettitte, Livan Hernandez and Kerry Wood.
However, none of those guys can truly compare to Wakefield and his knuckleball. He's a completely different pitcher, and for that reason alone perhaps a place should be reserved for him in Cooperstown.
How many other pitchers can say that the only thing stopping them from throwing a shutout on any given day is nature? Environmental factors like temperature and wind speed have more influence over the effectiveness of the knuckleball than Wakefield does.
Just last night Wakefield threw seven innings of four-hit ball against the Tampa Bay Rays. It's his fourth start this season in which he's thrown at least five innings and given up two runs or fewer.
Wakefield doesn't appear to be slowing down anytime soon and it's not inconceivable that he could keep pitching into his 50s. There will be a day when Wakefield is enshrined in the Red Sox Hall of Fame for everything that he's done for the organization and the Boston community.
But his name shouldn't only be remembered in the historic confines of Fenway Park. Wakefield is one of the best human beings to ever play the game and with so many players of questionable character dominating today's headlines (Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds) maybe it'd be a nice gesture for the fine voters of the Baseball Writers of America Association to let one of the good guys in for once.
Only time will tell.