SweetSpot: Tim Wakefield

Can Wakefield teach Flutie the knuckler?

February, 12, 2013
Tim Wakefield says throwing a knuckleball looks easy. It only travels 65 miles per hour. How difficult can it be, right?

"Everybody thinks that they can get up there and pitch," says Wakefield, the knuckleballer who played 19 seasons in the majors, including 17 seasons with the Boston Red Sox. "Until they try to throw a knuckleball to a hitter and throw a first strike, then it becomes more of a challenge."

On Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET "The Next Knuckler" will premier on MLB Network. The MLB Productions reality series will show just how difficult it is for even the best athletes to learn the knuckleball. Wakefield will teach the pitch to a group of former NCAA quarterbacks who will compete for an invitation to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks. It's an eclectic group: Doug Flutie (Boston College), John David Booty (USC), former major league infielder Josh Booty (LSU), David Greene (Georgia) and Ryan Perrilloux (LSU and Jacksonville State).

[+] EnlargeTim Wakefield
David Butler II/US PresswireTim Wakefield will attempt to teach his signature pitch to five former quarterbacks.
The quarterbacks had never tried to throw a knuckleball before so this made teaching them a challenge for Wakefield.

"There was one quarterback who had a pretty hard time," Wakefield said. "The reason why we picked quarterbacks though is because obviously they are good athletes. They were obviously great at what they did. The throwing motion of a quarterback is similar to my motion of how I threw [the knuckleball]."

Wakefield and Kevin Millar will co-host the reality series. Wakefield has worked with R.A. Dickey and Charlie Haeger, just like Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough mentored Wakefield.

"I've passed on little nuggets that helped," Wakefield said. "I think it's a pitch that can be taught. I think you have to have the athleticism to take the spin off of a baseball. Some guys can't do it and some guys can."

Is there a secret to throwing the knuckleball?

"Obviously the secret is to throw it without any spin," he says. "As long as you know how to take the spin off of it consistently I don't care if you hold it with four fingers or two. It doesn't matter. Once you get that feel of throwing it consistently without any spin on it then you go from there."

For the Diamondbacks, it's a little PR and the chance to find a hidden gem.

"We were thoroughly impressed with this concept when we first viewed a sneak peek of the show," D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall said. "This is tremendous exposure for our brand, but there could also be payoff on the field if the winner has actually mastered the knuckleball and can help our team. I know our players will be very interested in seeing his talent level firsthand, and even if he does not make our big league club, there is a strong possibility he could make our Double-A or Triple-A roster. This is a huge opportunity for these former quarterbacks as well."

Without the knuckleball, Wakefield never would have made the majors.

"I was actually drafted as a position player and once they put a wood bat in my hand and they were throwing a lot harder than I was used to in college I couldn't hit anymore," he said. "It was by luck that somebody saw me fooling around with a knuckleball and converted me into a knuckleball pitcher."

The winner of the competition will have a chance to pitch for the Diamondbacks in at least one spring training game ... and maybe have a second career as a knuckleball pitcher. Flutie may be 50 years old -- but, hey, that's almost prime age for a knuckleballer.

Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.

We drown in numbers and statistics these days, but here's one that sums up the crumbling state of the Boston Red Sox quite eloquently: Following Josh Beckett's implosion on Thursday night, Red Sox starters have now allowed five-plus runs in 14 starts; Nationals starters have done so once.

Here's another way. Fifty-three American League starting pitchers are qualified for the AL ERA title. Here's where Boston's five starters rank:

32. Jon Lester (4.29)
38. Daniel Bard (4.83)
46. Felix Doubront (5.29)
51. Josh Beckett (5.97)
53. Clay Buchholz (9.09)

OK, ERA can be a little misleading early in the season. Here's where those five guys rank among AL starters in strikeout/walk ratio:

27. Beckett
32. Doubront
41. Lester
48. Bard
51. Buchholz

The Red Sox are 12-19 for a lot of reasons: injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, Carl Crawford and Andrew Bailey; a slow start from Adrian Gonzalez; a couple bullpen implosions; Bobby Valentine using outfielder Darnell McDonald to pitch in a tie game.

Those are all factors, but despite the injuries on offense, the Red Sox are still second in the AL in runs scored; the bullpen has five losses, but 14 teams have more; and Valentine is more lightning rod than explanation.

No, the responsibility rests with the starting rotation. Bard and Doubront have perhaps predictably been mediocre, but they've actually been improvements over Tim Wakefield and John Lackey, so the blame falls on the supposed big three of Beckett, Lester and Buchholz.

Beckett started in Fenway against Cleveland on Thursday, his first start since April 29 and first since the infamous "he cares more about golfing than pitching" story leaked to the media. Beckett actually had pitched pretty well since his five-homer disaster in his first start, posting a 2.93 ERA over his next four starts. While I'm happy to report that I didn't see any greasy fried chicken stains on his jersey, his evening was yet another May disaster for the Sox.

In the top of the second, with one run already in, Jack Hannahan hit a 2-2 changeup to right field for a two-out home run. Not surprisingly, the Fenway faithful let go with more than a few loud boos. In third inning, Jason Kipnis crushed a 3-2 cutter over the bullpen in right-center. After Asdrubal Cabrera singled, Beckett got ahead of Travis Hafner with two strikes but then threw four consecutive balls. Shin-Soo Choo doubled to right on a 2-0, four-seam fastball to score Cabrera. Michael Brantley fell behind two strikes, then lined a double into the gap in left-center on a 1-2 curveball, scoring two more runs and knocking Beckett from the bump in what would be an 8-3 Indians victory.

You can see the issues here: Even when he got ahead of batters, Beckett was unable to put them away. He used the whole tool box -- changeups, four-seamers, cutters, curveballs; the Indians hit them all. Six of the seven hits off Beckett went for extra bases.

I blurted out on Thursday's Baseball Today podcast that Beckett is the most overrated pitcher of the past decade. That's probably unfair to a pitcher who has been good for a lot of years, a guy who had dominant postseason runs in 2003 and 2007 in leading the Marlins and Red Sox to World Series titles. Those playoff performances did inflate his reputation a bit, as his regular-season performances haven't been consistently at that level. He has received Cy Young votes just twice in his career (finishing second in 2007 and ninth in 2011). He hasn't exactly been CC Sabathia when it comes to durability, reaching 200 innings just three times and never topping 215. With the Red Sox, he's had two seasons of ERAs over 5.00.

Maybe 2012 is going to be one of those down years; Red Sox fans who saw Beckett and Lester collapse down the stretch expected leadership from Beckett, not reports on his golf swing.

Speaking of Lester, what has happened to the dominant left-hander of a few seasons ago? In 2009, he averaged 10.0 strikeout per nine innings, but that figure has dipped to 6.0 this season. His walks are up more than one per nine innings since 2009. His velocity is still fine; as Curt Schilling has pointed out, his command isn't, with Lester especially struggling in pitching to the outside corner against right-handed batters. Going back to his final 11 starts of 2011, Lester has a 4.16 ERA and a poor strikeout/walk ratio of 86/50. The stuff is still there, but we're going on 18 starts now of mediocre pitching.

Buchholz is an even bigger disaster, the worst starter in the majors so far. Unable to get the ball down in the zone, Buchholz has been pounded like a punching bag. Opponents are hitting .343 and slugging .613 off him. Essentially, the average hitter against Buchholz is David Ortiz. The Red Sox can't afford to keep sending him out there; he probably has one more start before a demotion to Triple-A or stint on the disabled list is necessary.

Eric Karabell made a good argument on the podcast: the Red Sox were 14-17 a year ago and only a historical collapse prevented them from reaching the playoffs. They're only two games worse now, he would suggest, so rationally they're far from out of it. Eric could also point out that Detroit and Arizona were both 14-17 after 31 games a year ago and won 95 and 94 games, respectively.

Eric is right, of course. The Red Sox aren't dead.

But with a 1-8 record in May and a starting rotation in shambles, they certainly look it.

Ron GardenhireHannah Foslien/Getty ImagesDoes this look like the manager of the worst team in baseball? Yes it does.

This is what will have American League pitchers and managers waking up in cold sweats all season long: Those stretches when Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder are both raking, eyes bulging as they pummel meaty fastballs over fences and into outfield seats.

Josh Beckett become the first pitcher to experience these forces of nature in action, as both hit two home runs off him in Detroit's 10-0 victory Saturday over Boston. Fielder hit one out to left field and a low, screaming bullet to right for his pair. Going the opposite way is nothing new for him; 11 of his 38 home runs in 2011 went to left or left-center. There were some concerns that Fielder would lose a few home runs moving from Miller Park to the more spacious environs of Comerica, so hitting one out to left is a good, early sign.

How dynamic is this pair? A season ago, Fielder hit .299/.415/.566 with 38 home runs; Cabrera hit .344/.448/.586 with 30 home runs. The last team with two players to hit 30 home runs with a .400 OBP? The 2006 Red Sox with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Twelve teams since 2000 have had such a duo (or in the case of the 2004 Cardinals, three players):

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonPrince Fielder waves after hitting the first of his two home runs off Boston's Josh Beckett.
2006 Red Sox: Ramirez, Ortiz
2005 Yankees: Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi
2004 Cardinals: Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen
2003 Yankees: Giambi, Jorge Posada
2002 Astros: Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman
2001 Rockies: Todd Helton, Larry Walker
2001 Cardinals: Pujols, Edmonds
2000 Cardinals: Edmonds, Mark McGwire
2000 Angels: Tim Salmon, Troy Glaus
2000 Astros: Bagwell, Moises Alou
2000 Mariners: Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez
2000 Giants: Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent

Of course, all of those pairs or threesomes did this during the high-offense steroids period. Six other teammates did it between 1995 and 1999. But before that? That previous team to have two such players was the 1969 Oakland A's with Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando. Throughout baseball history there have been only 34 such pairs. Here's another way to do this. Let's add OPS+ (adjusted on-base plus slugging percentage) as a third measuring stick. OPS+ adjusts a player's offensive production for home park and era. In 2011, Cabrera's OPS+ was 181, second in the American League. Fielder's was 164, fourth in the National League. Let's set a minimum of 30 home runs, .400 OBP and 150 OPS+.

This takes away some of steroids-era pairs and leaves us with 24 such teammates in baseball history. And six of those 24 were Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

And that, my readers, is the kind of company Cabrera and Fielder have the chance to join.

A few more notes from today's early games:

  • Beckett served up five home runs, sending waves of sweats and swears throughout Red Sox Nation. He became just the fourth pitcher to allow five homers twice in his career, joining Tim Wakefield, Pat Hentgen and Jeff Weaver. Gordon Edes had a good piece on Beckett before his season debut, detailing his motivation for 2012. Beckett is a bit of an enigma, a guy usually viewed as an ace due to his postseason heroics with the Red Sox in 2007 and Marlins in 2003. But the facts also don't lie: He's finished in the top 10 in his league in ERA only twice, including last season with a 2.89 mark. Beckett has been homer-prone at various stages of his career, most notably in his first season with Boston, in 2006, when he gave up 36. It's only one start, of course, but considering the spring training thumb injury he insisted wasn't an injury, it puts Beckett on the early "keep an eye on him" watch list.
  • Angels manager Mike Scioscia picked Game No. 2 to get disgruntled Bobby Abreu in the lineup, putting Abreu in left and moving Vernon Wells to center, sitting defensive whiz Peter Bourjos in the process. "I'm not calling this a day off for Peter, it's the second game, but it's a combination of that and trying to get some left-handed bats in the lineup," Scioscia told Mark Saxon of ESPN Los Angeles. I can't imagine a more defensively challenged outfield pair than those two. Unable to see this game since I had the Red Sox-Tigers game as my local Fox broadcast, I tweeted Angels and Royals fans to ask how many of the 11 hits Dan Haren allowed fell just out of their reach. The consensus seemed to be two or three, although @dblesky wrote, "There were really only a couple. And one was glaring." It will be interesting to see how often Scioscia runs out this lineup, essentially to placate Abreu. I just don't see the Angels being a better team with that alignment and Bourjos on the bench.
  • Zack Greinke had a dominant effort in the Brewers' 6-0 shutout over the Cardinals, allowing three hits in seven innings with no walks and seven strikeouts. I wrote this before the game, but here's why Greinke is a good Cy Young pick. Especially impressive were Greinke's economical 91 pitches.
  • Tweet of the day after Daniel Hudson and the Diamondbacks beat the Giants for the second consecutive game:

Season in review: Believe the impossible

November, 1, 2011
St. Louis Cardinals celebrateAP Photo/Eric Gay
The thing they tell you about baseball is that it’s a marathon and not a sprint. This isn’t a game for sudden changes, rash decisions or riding a hot streak for the whole season. This is a game where only collapses are noticed, and even then they are usually a long, drawn-out process.

Yet, on one late, rainy September night, the marathon all but finished, it’s those precious last few hours that will decide everything. Will the Red Sox and Braves complete historic collapses? Will the Rays and Cardinals complete miracle runs?

We believe we’re in for a wild night. We want to believe we’re in for a wild night. Even if such anticipation often ends in predictable disappointment, maybe tonight won’t, maybe the possibilities that are there will come to pass. Maybe the Orioles will beat the Red Sox (again), maybe the Rays will come back against the Yankees, maybe Craig Kimbrel will blow the one save that really matters. We believe because baseball tells us it’s OK to believe, because Kirk Gibson showed us that you don’t need both legs to hit, and Jim Abbott showed us that you don’t need both hands to pitch.

We believe because we can.

* * * *

The season starts in March.

That alone should be telling; in the 85-year history of the old Yankee Stadium, no game was ever played in March.* Three seasons into the life of the new Yankee Stadium, and a crowd wearing so many layers it ends up waddling more than walking, packs into the concourses before the NCAA has yet to crown a men’s basketball champion.

The Yankees aren’t the only team to open on March 31; it’s a new thing they’re trying this season so that maybe the World Series ends before Halloween, the way it used to when you were still a child.** Still, while they’re introducing the 2011 Yankees, there’s some feeling this is a second-place team -- they missed out on Cliff Lee, missed out on Carl Crawford and signed Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, Russell Martin and Eric Chavez. There isn’t the certainty here there is in Boston, or in Philadelphia.

It’s perhaps strange to think the biggest move of Philadelphia’s offseason was the acquisition of one single pitcher. Sign Cliff Lee. Keep everyone healthy. Win. It’s a simple formula, and it works well enough to produce the best record in the majors, the only team with 100 wins.

Boston, though, is a different story.

*There was supposed to be a March opener in 2008, but the weather intervened.

**Although the World Series has kept happening at a later and later date, November baseball itself first came about after a week of the regular season was lost in the fallout of 9/11.

* * * *

If you lose the first game of a baseball season, it’s no big deal. Sure, you prefer to start on a high note, but even the best baseball teams in history have lost close to 50 games. Things happen. A pitcher has a bad day, the offense struggles to hit in the cold damp of early spring. So when the Red Sox lose their first game, there are no alarm bells ringing, no bridges or ledges to check. If Carl Crawford goes hitless in four at-bats -- with the hat trick -- you shrug your shoulders and wait for tomorrow.

When you lose the next game, however, and the game after that, and the one after that, and so on until you’ve been swept in the first two series you’ve played, you’ve gone from unconcerned to outright panic. It takes a while in baseball to notice trends; sabermetricians and statistics buffs will tell you that the ultimate sin in baseball analysis is falling victim to the fallacies of small sample size. One good start cannot outdo a season of poor ones (ask A.J. Burnett), and one poor start cannot undo a season of good ones (ask Justin Verlander). Oh-and-one isn’t a concern, but 0-6 is, and by the time you get to 2-10, you’ve become familiar with the maxim: You can’t win a pennant in April, but you can lose one.

By the time Sept. 28 arrives, there’s one overriding question regarding the Red Sox: What if they had won just a few more games in April? What if they had won just one more game during those long nights?

* * * *

The Red Sox aren’t the only team to struggle out of the gate.

The season’s already seven games old by the time the Rays take their first lead.

* * * *

Ryan VogelsongAP Photo/Ross D. FranklinRyan Vogelsong returned to the majors for the first time since 2006 and went 13-7 for the Giants.

On April 2, Erick Almonte plays in a major league baseball game. It’s his first major league game since 2003.

He has four at-bats, and in three of them, he doesn’t reach base. The other at-bat is a home run.

Bartolo Colon returns from a year out of the majors. He pitches 164.1 innings for the Yankees (the team with the endless payroll signs him for just $900,000) and posts a 4.00 ERA. The last time he threw even 100 innings in one season? 2005.

If the Yankees strike gold with Colon, what do the Giants find with Ryan Vogelsong?

In the six years from 2001 to 2006, Vogelsong, pitching for the Giants and Pirates, had just one season with an ERA under 5.00, and just two with an ERA under 6.00.

In 28 starts with the Giants in 2011, the 33-year-old Vogelsong’s ERA will finish at 2.71.

It’s the fourth-best ERA in the National League.

* * * *

On April 30, for the White Sox, Adam Dunn is hitting .160/.300/.267, with two home runs. It’s a slow start, but other players have April slumps too -- Nick Swisher hits just .226/.340/.286 in the season’s first month.

Swisher will ultimately recover from his slump, and end the season with an .822 OPS. It’s not an All-Star season, but it’s perfectly respectable, the type of season some teams would kill to have from just one of their hitters.

Adam Dunn, however, does not recover.

His final line of .159/.292/.277 is, in some respects, worse than his April line, a historically bad season for a hitter, especially a player known for perennially finishing with 40 home runs ends the season with just 11.

* * * *

Dunn doesn’t hit home runs in 2011, but plenty of other players do.

Jose Bautista, as if to prove that he’s not a one-year aberration, does a Barry Bonds impression in the first half and finishes the season with 43 home runs. Curtis Granderson has 41. Mark Teixeira and Matt Kemp both have 39.

Everyone knows Derek Jeter will get his 3,000th hit in 2011, they just don’t know when. They do know, however, that the 3,000th hit won’t be a home run.

Except, it is.

What’s more, the fan who catches it, Christian Lopez, who can ask for the world in return for that ball, asks for absolutely nothing.

Then, on another night: Jim Thome hits his 599th and 600th home runs in the same game, giving his fans in Minnesota a lone night to cheer.

* * * *

Michael McKenry Julio LugoScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesA controversial 19-inning loss on July 27 began the Pirates' fade from first place.

The last time the Pirates finished a season with a winning record was 1992 -- when a man named William Jefferson Clinton was on the Democrats’ ticket for the White House.

The Pirates had a rookie pitcher that year who did quite well, with an 8-1 record and an ERA of 2.14 in 13 games started. His name? Tim Wakefield.

In 2011, when Tim Wakefield will notch his 200th win, there are three separate occasions in July, where, for a total of five nights, the Pirates go to sleep in first place.

The Pirates are undone by a 19-inning marathon with the Braves, a game that Scott Proctor actually wins, a game that, believe it or not, doesn’t have a position player pitching for either team, a game that sees a combined 39 runners left on base ... a game that ends on a blown call at home plate.

Pittsburgh fades into the quiet summer night. The Braves linger. For a little while, anyway.

* * * *

After losing 97 games in 2010 the Diamondbacks are branded underachievers. That young crop of Justin Upton, Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, et al, has failed to mature. The bullpen is so noxious that someone jokes that the next time the phone rings, the bullpen coach should just let it go to voicemail*.

Kirk Gibson, who might know a little something about believing, somehow figures it out. Or, rather, if he doesn’t figure it out, it’s under his watch that his players do.

Arizona starts to win, and then they win again, and again, and when San Francisco can’t overcome injuries to Buster Posey and Brian Wilson, the Diamondbacks sense an opportunity.

They bite.

*via @Haudricort

* * * *

Mariano RiveraAP Photo/Kathy KmonicekWith his 602nd career save, Mariano Rivera passed Trevor Hoffman to become the all-time leader.

After 2010, one might think the Diamondbacks learned their lesson about bullpens.

Relief pitchers are supposed to have short lifespans.

They are supposed to come up, throw fire, be untouchable for a season or two, be emphatic in their celebration, and then fade into a sort of obscurity, only being remembered for that one World Series they helped their team win -- or, more often, lose.

They are not supposed to stick around long enough for 600 saves.

Yet, on a September afternoon, in what has been an unlikely season for the Yankees, a season of roster patches and Curtis Granderson home runs, Mariano Rivera stands on the mound, notches save No. 2 602, the all-time record, and celebrates with a handshake and hugs with his teammates.

Jorge Posada has to push the Yankees’ closer back to the mound, and force him to enjoy the adulation he’s earned.

* * * *

If only the Red Sox had Rivera.

If only the Braves had Rivera.

On Sept. 5, the Red Sox (they don’t know it yet, but The Collapse has already started) have a seven-game lead over Tampa Bay for the AL wild-card spot. The AL East, with the Yankees leading by just 2.5 games, is not out of reach.

On Sept. 5, the Braves lead the Giants and Cardinals by 8.5 games for the NL wild-card berth. The Phillies are too good for the NL East title to be realistic, but the Braves have such a cushion on the wild-card that the playoffs seem inevitable.

Baseball, though, is a marathon, and no one sees trends right away. The Red Sox lose a game here, the Braves lose a game there.

It’s OK, though -- it would take a miracle for the Cardinals or the Rays or the Giants or the Angels to pose any sort of threat. The Rays waited too long to call up Desmond Jennings and Matt Moore. The Cardinals are too busy worrying about Albert Pujols’ impending free agency. It can’t happen.

You know it can’t happen. There’s no possible way. It’s just a September slump.

Until it’s not.

Until you look up one late September day and realize the Red Sox need the Yankees to beat the Rays, not just so that their cushion doesn’t get any smaller, but instead, for their very survival.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Cardinals might actually have an easier time beating the Astros than the Braves will have beating the Phillies.

Until you look up one late September day and realize that barely averaging three runs a game for a month, even in a year of depressed offense, isn’t going to cut it when the other team has Albert Pujols (and even when they don’t).

Until you look up one late September day and realize that the Yankees, having clinched everything there possibly is available to clinch in the regular season (playoffs, division, home field), the Yankees have nothing to play for except the pride of not seeing the Red Sox in the playoffs, and the Rays now have everything on the table.

Until you look up, and believe.

* * * *

Evan LongoriaAP Photo/Chris O'MearaSomehow, some way, Evan Longoria and the Rays beat out the Red Sox to win the AL wild card.

So we believe.

We believe even as the Braves are just two outs away.

We believe even though the Yankees lead 7-0 lead in the eighth inning.

We believe even though the Red Sox have the Orioles down to their last strike.

There’s no Kirk Gibson one-legged home run on this night, no Jim Abbott no-hitter, but we don’t need them.

We have 13 innings in Atlanta, 12 in Tampa and nine in Baltimore, maybe the most dramatic of all.

We get a two-strike, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth pinch-hit home run from Dan Johnson. We get a two-strike, two-out double from Nolan Reimold off Jonathan Papelbon.

We get a Robert Andino single, a Carl Crawford misplay, and an Orioles win, and then, not five minutes later, we get an Evan Longoria home run just to the right side of the left-field foul pole. A cheap shot, one might argue on another day. Not tonight.

This is the night of the baseball miracles. A month long in the making, a month long to notice, but tonight they’re here, right before our eyes.

We believe because it’s real.

* * * *

David FreeseJeff Curry/US PresswireDavid Freese's walk-off home run capped an epic comeback in Game 6 of the World Series for St. Louis.

Matt Moore has had one career start. Just one, and he’s tapped to start Game 1 of the ALDS for Tampa Bay, with his team on the road, with his team facing the offense of the Texas Rangers, at Arlington. The Rays can’t possibly win this game. Moore can’t possibly succeed with this sort of pressure.

Until he does.

One game won’t make a career, but we believe in courage.

Josh Collmenter’s a rookie, too. He’s a rookie, and he’s on the mound with his team down two games to none. Win or go home, kid, it all hangs on you.

Seven innings, two hits, one run, and the Diamondbacks will live to play another game.

We believe in hope.

Jorge Posada is not a rookie.

The last season of his contract has been an unmitigated disaster, on the field and, for a time, off it, but Posada battles.

His .429/.579/.571 batting line in the ALDS is the best of any Yankees’ hitter. Better than Robinson Cano or Granderson, better than Jeter or Alex Rodriguez, better than Teixeira or Swisher.

We believe in fight.

The Phillies sail through the regular season. Pitching and more pitching, a Roy Halladay-Cliff Lee-Cole Hamels starting three is a dream rotation; the Phillies get spoiled even further with Vance Worley and the best team ERA in the majors.

With that staff, the last image of their season isn’t supposed to be Ryan Howard clutching his ankle after rupturing his Achilles, but that’s what it is.

We believe in unexpected.

The Brewers aren’t afraid of Nyjer Morgan or Yuniesky Betancourt or Mark Kotsay, even when other teams shy away, even when the narrative is about Morgan’s character or Betancourt’s defense or Kotsay’s (lack of) hitting. They aren’t afraid to trade for Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum, even if it costs their entire farm system.

They have one season left to try to get Prince Fielder a World Series ring, the same Prince Fielder who hits a home run in the All-Star Game that will guarantee home-field advantage for whichever National League team makes it to the World Series.

If there is a season for the Brewers, this is supposed to be it.

We believe in going all-out.

Justin Verlander’s year has been so good that the debate isn’t whether or not he should win the Cy Young; it’s whether or not he should win the MVP. Yet, even with that performance, the move that puts the Tigers over the edge, that moves them from possible AL Central winners to probable American League contenders, is a trade for a pitcher who was 3-12 with a team that would go on to lose 95 games.

It isn’t Verlander to whom Leyland gives the ball in Game 5 of the ALDS; it’s Doug Fister.

We believe in second chances.

The World Series runners-up from 2010 have something to prove in 2011, and even while all the attention is on the Red Sox and the Phillies and the Yankees and the Brewers, the Rangers are still there, winning game after game.

This, we are told, is the Year of the Napoli. The Angels favored Jeff Mathis -- he of the career .194/.257/.301 batting line -- so Mike Napoli went to Texas instead, went to Arlington and posted a 171 OPS+ for the season, and then he kept hitting in the postseason, too.

Josh Hamilton’s story is such that if you pitched it as a Hollywood script they would tell you no, things like that don’t happen, that you can’t come all the way back from drug and alcohol problems to hit 28 home runs in the first round of the Home Run Derby in 2008 and then lead your team to the World Series in 2010 and 2011, that you can’t hit the extra-inning, go-ahead home run in the 10th inning of Game 6, and yet this is exactly what happens.

We believe in redemption.

The Cardinals are 10.5 games out in August and 8.5 back in September. Adam Wainwright doesn’t throw a single pitch for them all season. Ryan Franklin loses his job as the team’s closer and on June 17 Chris Carpenter is 1-7 with an ERA of 4.47. Matt Holliday loses his appendix and busts his finger; Albert Pujols breaks his wrist.

The Cardinals shouldn’t make the playoffs. They shouldn’t make the Phillies go five games, and then win because of Carpenter's complete game shutout (not when Tony La Russa’s managing, anyway). They shouldn’t beat the Brewers in Milwaukee, and they certainly shouldn’t have home-field advantage in the World Series.

They shouldn’t, but they do, and then they do more.

Albert Pujols echoes Reggie Jackson and Babe Ruth, hitting three home runs in one World Series game, arguably the best single-game offensive performance in postseason history.

In Game 6, the Cardinals are twice down to their last at-bat, twice down to their last strike, twice one pitch away from losing the World Series. Each time, the Cardinals come through, as though the idea of losing the game never occurs, and a team that loses its ace before Opening Day forces a Game 7 in the World Series.

Baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. This is what they tell you. One game can’t tell you anything, one game can’t make or break you, but this is what happens in the World Series. One game is all that stands between St. Louis and a World Series championship that few, if any, expected.

One game, and the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter on the mound.

We believe in impossible.

Rebecca Glass works for ESPN Stats & Information and is a contributor to ESPN New York's Yankees blog.
A movie review became the focus of the Wednesday edition of the Baseball Today podcast with me and Keith Law, but there were myriad topics discussed, including:

1. Did KLaw like "Moneyball"? Let’s just say you don’t want to miss his comments.

2. The New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox win and the Tampa Bay Rays do not, which is a bit more important than the numbers 600, 23 and 200. But we discuss them along with the recent exploits of wild A.J. Burnett anyway!

3. A Cleveland Indians fan makes us laugh, and laugh a lot. Find out what he wrote in his meow-inducing email.

4. What does it really mean to have a good or bad minor league system?

5. Two games on ESPN highlights Wednesday’s schedule, but we’ve also got our collective eyes on other pitchers and matchups.

It’s a packed Wednesday Baseball Today podcast, from Brad Pitt to Pod Troopers to Peacock, so please tune in and download!
One of Tim Wakefield’s teammates on the 2000 Red Sox was a veteran reliever named Steve Ontiveros, who once played with Tommy John on the 1985 A’s. John didn’t throw a knuckleball, but threw about as hard as a knuckleballer late in his career. John was a teammate of Early Wynn on the 1963 Indians and Wynn did throw an occasional knuckler. Wynn played with Bruce Campbell, who played with Charley O’Leary, who played with Ed Summers and Eddie Cicotte, the two pitchers widely credited with inventing the knuckleball, or at least popularizing it.

Such is the cycle of baseball, where we link Tim Wakefield back to a member of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox and a guy born in 1884 in Ladoga, Ind., who once won both games of a doubleheader.

Tim Wakefield won his 200th career game on Tuesday night, and while his knuckleball wasn’t dancing, he survived six innings, got plenty of run support and will happily take the win, especially considering it took him eight tries to achieve it. Heck, Justin Verlander won nine games in the time between Wakefield victories. Wakefield has more career wins than David Cone or Dwight Gooden or Sandy Koufax or Lefty Gomez or Dizzy Dean or Rube Waddell. No, Wakefield wasn’t as good as those guys, and, yes, we’re not supposed to care about wins for pitchers anymore, but on this night, take a step back and simply appreciate the iconoclastic, wonderful career of a former small-college first baseman.

As a rookie with the Pirates in 1992, Wakefield went 8-1 with a 2.15 ERA and won both of his playoff starts with complete games. He struggled in 1993, spent 1994 in the minors and the Pirates released him in 1995. They should have known better. Knuckleballers don’t hit their peak until they’re 35. One of his teammates on that ’92 Pirates team was Kirk Gibson, who played with Rusty Staub on the ’79 Pirates. Staub was a 19-year-old rookie on the 1963 Houston Colt .45s. A pitcher on that staff was an old guy named Hal Brown. Who threw a knuckleball.

Wakefield is a throwback. You see him throw the knuckleball and you imagine baggy, wool uniforms that haven’t been washed in three days and stink of sweat and liniment. You can imagine a time when the fields weren’t perfectly manicured and colorful advertisements covered the outfield walls and players looked old by the time they turned 30 from all the lines around their eyes caused by years of squinting in the sun.

Back then, a lot of pitchers threw the knuckleball. As Rob Neyer chronicled in “The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers,” in the late ‘30s through World War II, a dozen or so pitchers reached the major leagues with the knuckleball as their primary weapon. The 1944 and ’45 Washington Senators had four knuckleballers in their rotation. (I don’t think Jason Varitek would have enjoyed catching for that team.) After that, however, the knuckleballer slowly died out. Sure, there was Hoyt Wilhelm and Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti, but those guys became the exceptions.

Wakefield has played with Barry Bonds and Pedro Martinez. He gave up the famous home run to Aaron Boone in the 2003 ALCS. He helped the Red Sox win it all in 2004. He seemed old then and that was seven years ago. He won 17 games in 2007 when the Sox won it again. Red Sox fans are as comfortable with Wakefield’s knuckler as they are with the Green Monster and the sausage stands outside Fenway.

A rotation mate of Wakefield’s with the Pirates was Bob Walk, who pitched with Niekro in Atlanta and was a teammate of Steve Carlton on the 1980 Phillies. Carlton pitched with Curt Simmons with the Cardinals and Simmons pitched with Dutch Leonard on the 1948 Phillies. Leonard was one of the members of that all-knuckleball Senators rotation.

So, yes, Tim Wakefield is a reminder of another time. And maybe he’s the last of a breed. I hope not.

After all, we always need more 45-year-old athletes to root for.

Jose BautistaBob DeChiara/US PresswireEverybody look to your left. That's a baseball off the bat of Jose Bautista. Yep, there it goes.

Red Sox rotation frustrations

August, 21, 2011

On July 24, Tim Wakefield notched the 199th win of his career. He’s made the attempt to capture an elusive 200th victory five times since then. Two of those starts resulted in losses, the others were no-decisions.

I have a friend who’s a dedicated Red Sox fan who has been anxiously awaiting Wakefield’s 200th, and who will unfortunately be forced to wait a bit longer after Saturday night’s no-decision. Not every unsuccessful attempt between Saturday’s start against the Royals and his 199th win back in July has been Wakefield’s fault. While he did run into trouble in the sixth inning Saturday night, reliever Matt Albers was the pitcher who really caused the game to head south.

You don’t need to be a Red Sox fan to be a fan of Wakefield. When I was 13, I obsessively followed the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates and watched Wakefield closely when he joined the team on July 31 of that season. Not only was his first big league start impressive -- it was a complete-game victory against the Cardinals with no earned runs and six hits allowed and 10 strikeouts -- but he had a great personal story. A position player in the minor leagues, his lack of success led to the development of his knuckleball pitch. When he joined the Pirates, I had great admiration for someone who was willing to try everything possible just to achieve their dream of playing in the majors. Wakefield was the first knuckleball pitcher I remember watching, and I was mesmerized by the fluttering grace of his pitches. After the crushing loss to the Braves in the 1992 NLCS, Wakefield remained the one bright spot for me as a Pirates fan.

While Wakefield has struggled to hit the 200-win milestone, much of the Red Sox rotation has just plain struggled this summer. Even though John Lackey has an 11-9 record this season, he has an ERA north of 6 and surrenders an average of 11.2 hits per nine innings. When you sign a pitcher to a five-year, $82.5 million deal, you expect a bit more bang for your buck. At least Lackey is still healthy and pitching for his large paycheck; Daisuke Matsuzaka had Tommy John surgery earlier this year and will obviously be of no assistance as the postseason approaches. Another DL casualty is Clay Buchholz, who had a stress fracture in his lower back. Matsuzaka was inconsistent and at times quite bad on the mound. Buchholz, on the other hand, was having a solid season prior to his injury.

The Sox have tried to repair this problem. Erik Bedard, recently acquired from the Seattle Mariners, is sort of an unpredictable quantity. When he’s on his game, he has great stuff. Unfortunately, Bedard has spent much of the past few seasons on the DL. If he remains healthy and consistent throughout the remainder of the season, it could be a huge boost in place of the missing Buchholz.

Rounding out the rotation are Josh Beckett and Jon Lester, Boston’s two best and most consistent pitchers. Beckett has looked much more like the 2007 version (20-7, 3.27 ERA) than the 2010 edition (6-6, 5.78 ERA). Lester is having yet another solid season and is 12-6 with a 3.22 ERA; he surrenders an average of 7.6 hits per nine innings, fewer than his career average of 8.2.

Despite their rotation issues, the Red Sox are in a much less precarious position than some contenders. Though they’re currently locked in battle with the Yankees for first place in the AL East, they sit in a relatively comfortable position in the wild-card standings, 7.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay. In a playoff series, a 1-2 punch of Lester and Beckett would still be quite formidable, despite the issues with the rest of the rotation. The Red Sox also have one of the best offenses in baseball, as long as they don’t suffer from more injuries between now and the end of the season.

While it’s not ideal to rely on big offensive numbers in order to make up for pitching shortcomings, the Sox are still in a much better position than most teams to do so. They can hope that the weeks between now and October help them to sort out their rotation and bring back their injured players. And between now and then, you can root for Wakefield to win his 200th game. Given better support than he got Saturday, it’s a matter of time.

Jeff KeppingerThomas Campbell/US Presswire'Just out of reach' describes this ball past Jeff Keppinger and this ballgame for the Giants.
Stephanie Liscio is an obsessive Cleveland Indians fan and blogs about them at It's Pronounced "Lajaway," part of the SweetSpot network. She is also the author of Integrating Cleveland Baseball.

Pirates sink Red Sox to second place

June, 25, 2011

Not so long ago, you'd be hard pressed to come up with a less competitive-sounding series than the Boston Red Sox and the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Red Sox are one of baseball's premier franchises, a hegemonic power that competes mostly with the New York Yankees and leaves the rest of the American League in the dust, or so the story goes. The Pirates, by contrast, are perennial basement dwellers, relegated to a seemingly endless stream of losing seasons and quite probably sports' most hapless organization over the past decade and a half.

And yet, it's the Pirates who have taken the first two games of a three-game series, beating Boston 6-4 Saturday night. The victory guarantees the Pirates a series victory over the mighty Red Sox, and moves them to 39-37 for the season, good for a tie for third place in the NL Central, and just 2.5 games out of first.

For the Red Sox, the loss drops them out of first place in the AL East, with the hated Yankees taking a half-game lead in the standings. This despite Boston having won eight of nine head-to-head games against New York this season, and sweeping the Yankees in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium just two weeks ago. While the past certainly doesn't predict the future, you could forgive Boston fans for having flashbacks to 2009 when, despite winning the first eight games against New York, the Red Sox were unable to open a lead on the Yankees in the division. Those Red Sox, however, held a four-game lead in the AL East after June 25, two weeks after their eighth win in eight games against the Bronx Bombers. They would head into the All-Star break with a 2.5 game advantage over New York, but by the next series against the Yankees, Boston was behind 3.5 games to the pinstriped empire. After a brutal four-game sweep in Yankee Stadium, the division race was all but over.

Would that these Red Sox could be so lucky. Though they won't have to face the Yankees again until Aug. 5 (almost two years to the day after the start of that fateful four-game series in 2009), and despite winning 14 of 16 games before their current four-game losing streak, the 2011 BoSox have been unable to open any sort of a lead in the East. Despite their success against the Yankees and a 10-7 mark against the rest of the division, the biggest lead Boston has managed in the division at any point this season was a mere 2.5 games. At this point they're a fantastic 18-9 against AL East foes, yet sit in second place in the division thanks to a 26-23 record against non-division foes. In contrast, New York boasts a 29-19 record against everyone other than its divisional opponents, to go along with a 13-12 record against its division, though that mark is a whopping 12-4 if you exclude Boston.

So what's wrong with the Red Sox? Mostly their pitching hasn't been very good. Their staff's ERA of 3.98 ranks ninth out of 14 teams in the American League, and their xFIP of 4.08 is 12th-best in the junior circuit. Their starters' xFIP actually ranks second to last in the league at 4.27. Though Josh Beckett is having a standout season, John Lackey has been awful, Daisuke Matsuzaka is injured, Clay Buchholz has found that you can't maintain a sub-3.00 ERA while striking out less than seven batters per nine innings, and Jon Lester isn't quite as good as he's been in the last few years.

On the offensive side of things, Boston is mainly suffering thanks to a couple of obvious weak links. Carl Crawford, fresh off of signing his $140 million contract in the offseason, was hitting just .243/.275/.384 overall before landing on the DL (although he had finally started swinging the bat well before getting hurt). He hasn't been worth nearly as much on defense as he was over his career with Tampa Bay; he's been worth a meager 0.1 fielding WAR this season. J.D. Drew is hitting just .232/.333/.330, and looks like he's reached the end of his rope as a major league hitter, though his plate discipline and strong fielding have kept him somewhat useful.

That's not to say everything looks bleak for the Red Sox. Adrian Gonzalez, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis are hitting like MVPs, though the latter is proving to be a bit of a liability at third base. Jacoby Ellsbury seems to have finally put it all together as well, pairing a .306/.369/.458 line at the plate with above-average defense in center field to become one of the AL's most valuable outfielders. They've gotten roughly league-average production out of the catching and shortstop positions, a rather pleasant surprise for them. Though he hasn't hit for much power, Dustin Pedroia is sporting a robust .391 on-base percentage.

Still, the Red Sox have to be worried about how they've once again failed to capitalize on a great start against their most bitter rival. The Yankees have to be feeling quite fortunate to be in the position they're in given their poor performance against any division rival, let alone the Red Sox, and if history is any indication, they may not let such an imbalance in the rivalry persist much longer.

The Red Sox certainly has a lot going for them. They have an incredibly talented roster, they were overwhelming favorites to win the American League in preseason polls, and they've demonstrated an ability to win a lot of games against their divisional foes in baseball's toughest division. But they've also got plenty of flaws, manifested most clearly by the fact that they aren't even leading that division at the moment. By all rights, a team that's won twice as many games as it's lost against divisional opponents and eight of nine against its fiercest foe should have a healthy lead in the standings, but instead the Red Sox and Yankees are again locked in a tight duel.

I don't think for a second that the specter of 2009 isn't lingering in the minds of the Red Sox players who were there for that season. The only difference is that this year's Yankees are playing even better than those eventual world champions were at this point in the season.

Emmanuel BurrissCary Edmondson/US PresswireEmmanuel Burriss reinvents the term 'wormkiller' after a rough at-bat.
Brien Jackson is a contributor and editor at It's About the Money, Stupid!, an ESPN Sweetspot Network affiliate. You can follow Brien on Twitter, and follow IIATMS on Twitter and Facebook.
Wednesday's Baseball Today was one to remember for me, as Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt was the special guest in studio. Needless to say, this was not a short interview. Then again, I was also joined by SweetSpot editor/writer David Schoenfield. Wow, two Hall of Famers on one show! Here's why you should listen:

1. When Mr. Schmidt talks, perk up your ears. We talked about the current state of the game, the Hall of Famers that probably will not be joining him in Cooperstown, the kids that don't always listen and, of course, booing. Don't miss it.

2. The Dodgers unveiled a few future stars in Philly on Tuesday -- or will they be superstars? -- and Dave and I discuss Dee Gordon and Rubby De La Rosa ... as well as a fading Roy Oswalt.

3. Was Tuesday night the beginning of the end for the Yankees' Freddy Garcia? It's amazing how one outing can change opinions so quickly. On the positive side, the best is yet to come for a Boston pitcher.

4. The state of the Cubs is not a positive one. A beleaguered emailer searches for hope in a world that doesn't offer much for Cubs faithful. Though we did try.

5. Wednesday's ESPN game pits survivors Tim Wakefield versus A.J. Burnett, and each looks legitimate. However, tune in to see what we picked as the night's top pitching matchup, and whether there will be a bit of Bryce Harper-like retribution.

Plus: Excellent emails, Chipper Jones criticizes Jason Heyward, attendance problems, Vin Mazzaro, why hitting in the NL East is just awful, why Alex Avila is a stud, more stars versus superstars debate with a Jack Nicholson theme and really, so much more. Listen to Wednesday's Baseball Today!
If you're a Cleveland Indians fan you'll probably enjoy Monday's Baseball Today podcast with myself and energetic Mark Simon, but here are some other reasons to listen as well:

1. It's Power Rankings day, and we discuss the Indians sweeping their Ohio rivals, as well as other teams rising and falling. Plus, perhaps Asdrubal Cabrera really can keep this going.

2. The three-game soccer matches between the Phillies and Rangers are over, so now it's time for a few of their best hitters to return. Man, those teams really should feel good to be in first place.

3. We can't imagine what Cubs outfielder Marlon Byrd is going through after taking a pitch in the face, but we root for his return. Also, more on the Cubs-Red Sox series, and why it stinks one of those teams couldn't have gotten 10 hits!

4. Nice going, Fred Wilpon. A frustrated Simon discusses recent quotes from the Mets owner, and the effect they'll have on an already hurting baseball team.

5. James Shields as American League Cy Young winner? Don't laugh, don't look at his 2010 stats, just enjoy.

Plus: Excellent emails, Rafael Palmeiro's other place in history, how we'll remember Kirk Saarloos, what to watch on Monday night and really, so much more all on Monday's Baseball Today!
Eric Karabell and Keith Law discuss some injury situations, some bad pitching and some good matchups to watch on Tuesday's Baseball Today podcast.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka was awful Monday night. What are Boston's options? Is it time to rethink how good the Red Sox are?
  • Ryan Zimmerman heads to the DL. Who plays third base for the Nationals?
  • Rafael Furcal out four to six weeks with a broken thumb. Will we see prospect Dee Gordon get a shot?
  • Mailbag: More on Manny and PEDs, what college players should Mariners fans be watching, players who are wasted in the minors.
  • Tuesday's games: David Price versus Jon Lester; Chad Billingsley versus Tim Lincecum; Trevor Cahill on the mound with a new contract.
  • Keith's thought on the save.

Mets' Dickey keeps long streak alive

August, 14, 2010
As good as R.A. Dickey has been this season, he's not been good enough to save the Mets.

But his one-hitter Friday night does suggest, in sharp relief, that Dickey has single-handedly saved a streak that stretches back to (at least) the 1930s.

In 1938, 29-year-old knuckleballer Dutch Leonard joined the Washington Senators and went 12-15 with a 3.43 ERA, fourth best in the American League. Leonard would eventually win 191 games, pitching (as the best knuckleballers do) into his middle 40s.*

* Some of you might wonder why I'm beginning with Dutch Leonard in the 1930s, rather than with Hall of Famer Jesse Haines or near-Hall of Famer Freddie Fitzsimmons in the 1920s. Both pitchers were excellent, and both were widely known as knuckleball pitchers. I'm not starting with them because both seem to have thrown pitches that we would describe as knuckle-curveballs rather than true knuckleballs.

Why do I bring Leonard up? Because the same night Dickey threw a one-hitter, fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield also gave up just one hit ... but he faced just one hitter, and the one hit was a walkoff home run. On the evening of August 13, 2010, the torch was passed (however unwillingly).

Which torch? For some years, Wakefield was the only effective knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. Dutch Leonard began a long streak -- a streak of seasons in which at least one good knuckleball pitcher was working in the major leagues -- and Wakefield has, for some years, kept it going all by himself.

Here's the (short) list of knuckleballers who have kept the streak alive:

1938-1952: Dutch Leonard
1952-1970: Hoyt Wilhelm
1967-1986: Phil Niekro
1986-1998: Tom Candiotti
1995-2009: Tim Wakefield
2010-201?: R.A. Dickey

The key figures here are Wilhelm and Wakefield.

If Phil Niekro hadn't come along and put together his Hall of Fame career, his years would still have been covered by the likes of Wilbur Wood, Charlie Hough, and Phil's little brother. Similarly, Hough's career overlapped with Wakefield's.

But without Wilhelm and Kid '66, there would be significant gaps in the 1950s and the 2000s. Between Dutch Leonard in 1952 and Hal "Skinny" Brown (1956-1964), the only effective non-Wilhelm knuckleballer was Marion Fricano ... and Fricano was effective in just one season (1953). Between Candiotti in 1998 and R.A. Dickey in 2010, the only effective non-Wakefield knuckleballer was Steve Sparks ... and his last good season was 2001 (when he led the majors with eight complete games!).

We knew Wakefield couldn't pitch forever. Not so long ago, I had high hopes for the latest knuckleballing Charlies, Zink and Haeger. But while both are still young by knuckleballer standards, both also have seemed completely lost, unable to throw their mysterious pitches with any sort of precision at all.

Maybe Wakefield will come back strong next year. And maybe Dickey will regress next year. But I think there's a pretty good chance that we've got a sixth name for our list.

Pitchers' year? Not for these guys...

July, 15, 2010
For some reason, I've got a sick fascination with pitchers who are allowed to pitch and pitch and pitch, despite spectacular failure. I don't know if everyone below precisely fits that description, but here are the 10 guys with ERAs higher than 5 who have pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA rankings:

Even before tacking on 13 runs in five innings last weekend, Scott Kazmir's ERA was 5.98; now it's 6.92. Even during Kazmir's four-game June winning streak, he walked nearly as many hitters as he struck out. It's hard (for me) to say exactly what's wrong with Kazmir ... Except we know he's not throwing as hard as he used to, we know he's striking out many fewer hitters than he used to, and we know he's walking more than he used to. All of which could have been said last year, too. Which isn't an encouraging trend.

Like Kazmir, Nick Blackburn (6.40) pitches for a contender, which makes his continuing presence in the rotation that much more problematic. Blackburn's problem isn't that he's getting too few strikeouts; it's that he's not getting any strikeouts. I exaggerate, of course. But 34 strikeouts in 97 innings is nearly impossible. Blackburn's struck out 3.15 per nine innings; sinker-baller Aaron Cook is the only other ERA qualifier under 4 ... and he's at 3.97 Ks per nine. Blackburn's just operating on a completely different level, which would be cool if that different level wasn't that of a scrappy non-prospect in Triple-A. Fundamentally, he's better than this. Blackburn entered this season with a 4.14 career ERA, which was somewhat lucky but not wildly so, considering his 2.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio. You can understand why the Twins haven't given up on him yet.

Kevin Millwood's on the DL, so perhaps he shouldn't be on this list. But Millwood has started 18 games for the Orioles, and he does have a 5.77 ERA. Not exactly what management had in mind when they traded for Millwood, hoping his veteran presence would stabilize a rotation composed mostly of much younger pitchers. Granted, the Rangers are paying $3 million of Millwood's salary this season ... which still leaves (roughly) $9 million for the Orioles.

Next we've got a couple of twin Royals, Prince Kyle Davies (5.57) and Prince Brian Bannister (5.56) ...
    First Banny, then Davies:
    Even at their very best,
    Our closer figures to get
    A relaxing two-day rest.

The Royals aren't going anywhere and they don't have anyone better than Davies and Bannister, so they may as well keep pitching. And each is capable of doing better. Just slightly better, though. If the Royals ever get better, they'll have room for just one No. 5 starter.

Scott Feldman (5.32) is the one guy who really, really wasn't supposed to be on this list. Not after his 17-8, 4.08 ERA campaign just one year ago. Of course, Feldman's skills never really supported that season's record ... But then again, they don't suggest a 5.32 ERA, either. Feldman was mildly lucky last year, and this year he's been terribly unlucky, giving up a .343 batting average on balls in play. Feldman's going to win more games and post a lower ERA in the second half, which is good news for the Rangers and better news for Feldman (whose postseason role is now -- with the Rangers' acquisition of Cliff Lee -- highly questionable).

Cleveland's Justin Masterson (5.31) is another guy who just needs to keep pitching, and for two reasons: 1) His team isn't going anywhere anyway, and 2) there are some things to like here. Masterson throws hard, his ground-ball rate is high, and his strikeout rate is fine. He does walk too many hitters (and always has), but if he can cut his walk rate by 25 percent he'll be a perfectly fine No. 3 or 4 starter.

Everybody mentioned above suffers the disadvantage of pitching in the Big Boy League, with their better hitters and designated hitters and the like. To be fair, I could have focused on a league-neutral statistic like ERA+ or something. I didn't. I like numbers that start with 5. Sue me. But all this makes San Diego's Kevin Correia (5.26) really stand out, as he pitches in a pitcher's park in the National League. Just think how good the Padres would be if they didn't have the worst pitcher (ERA-wise) in the league. Correia looked pretty good last year. But he's 29, and in his career he's got a 4.54 ERA as a starter. Maybe he's just not quite good enough to pitch for a team with postseason aspirations.

Tim Wakefield (5.22), you can judge for yourself. I'm not saying anything negative about Kid '66.

And finally, we've got our second National Leaguer, Nate Robertson (5.10). Robertson is simply a place-holder, and the Marlins can hardly worry about his contract; they're paying him $400,000 this season ... while the Tigers are contributing $9.6 million. If you're a fan, enjoy Nate Robertson while you can. You might not see much of him after August.

Dear Rob ...

June, 11, 2010
From the "Dear Rob" files ...
Re: Galarraga -- Has anyone brought up the Pine Tar game? It seems that set the precedent for the Commissioner's Office to be able to change a mistake by the umpires. They nullified the final inning and replayed the end of the game months later. Selig could have done the same thing here ... only nullify the 28th out and reinstate the perfecto.

Walpole, Mass.

It's not really the same thing. In the Case of the Sticky Tar, the Royals lodged a protest regarding the umpire's interpretation of a rule. The American League office ruled in their favor, and you know the rest. But I don't believe that league officials have ever, in the history of the major leagues, overruled an umpire's judgment call, for the simple reason that no protest was, or can be, lodged.

They're just different things. Or they always have been, anyway.
I wanted to follow up on one of your "pitchers hitting" points. The reason I suspect pitchers don't work on hitting is that it's a staggeringly inefficient use of their time. A pitcher's only going to get 85-90 PA's a year -- and even a good-hitting pitcher who would be pinch hit for less would struggle to see over 100 -- which means the difference between a poor hitting pitcher (say .150) and a good hitting pitcher (Say .300) is what, 12-15 hits a season? What's the tangible value there, even if we factor in the benefit of not needing to go to your bullpen? Is it worth the time they'll take away from work on their primary job? And with that few plate appearances, luck plays a huge factor anyway. Dan Haren's hitting .405 this year with a .468 BABIP. Two years ago, he was .211 with a .258 BABIP.

Ithaca, N.Y.

Patrick, have you spent much time at the ballpark before the games? Starting pitchers have an immense amount of free time. They throw, what, once or twice between starts. The rest of the time they're shagging fly balls during batting practice, running the occasional wind sprints, and shooting the breeze with their pals.

I'm exaggerating, obviously. Starting pitchers do have things to do. Important things. But I'm fairly sure they could carve out a few hours per week to work on their hitting.
Wakefield's accomplishment is even more incredible given that the Pirates gave up on him! He pitched well and then one year he seemed to lose his skills and they released him. He's not only had a great career with the Red Sox, he resurrected his career with them. (I'm not sure that he had only one bad year with Pittsburgh, but I think so.)

Baltimore, Md.

It was the damnedest thing, David. Tim Wakefield was utterly brilliant as a rookie in 1992, going 8-1 down the stretch for the Pirates. In 1993, he couldn't get anybody out in the majors or the minors (after his demotion). He spent the entire 1994 season in Triple-A, and went 5-15 with a 5.84 ERA and with all the accompanying statistics you would expect.

So that was two straight lousy season, and you really can't blame the Pirates for giving up on him. What you can do is applaud the Red Sox for signing him. Wakefield opened 1995 with Triple-A Pawtucket, pitched well in four starts, kept pitching well after a promotion to the big club, and now he's the franchise's all-time leader in innings. Knuckleballers often come with good stories, but Wakefield's got one of the best.
Rob, I'm still waiting for a Ubaldo luck post from you. People are wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Jimenez' numbers right now. Because the guy has great stuff they assume he's every bit as good as his ERA. Everyone is neglecting to realize that this guy is having one of the luckiest starts to a season ever. Everyone is quick to say how lucky livan Hernandez has been and that he's a sham when in reality Ubaldo has been just as lucky. Livan has an xFIP of 2.69 next to Ubaldo's 2.58. I mean Phil Hughes has pitched just as good Ubaldo while doing it in the tougher division yet doesn't get the Bob Gibson 1968 love. Don't get me wrong, Ubaldo without the luck is still a stud but give me a little help here to get everyone ready for an ERA much closer to 4.00 than to 1.00 from here on out.

New York

Does anyone really think Ubaldo Jimenez is going to finish with an ERA around 1.12? Nobody that I know about. I'm not even sure if everyone thinks he's the best pitcher in the National League. I think most of the aficionados would give that title to Roy Halladay, and Tim Lincecum might get back into the mix, too.

Has Jimenez been lucky? Sure. Most pitchers with sub-1.00 ERAs are lucky, Exceptionally lucky. But it's also true, I suspect, that most pitchers with sub-1.00 ERAs are exceptionally talented. Yes, Jimenez is going to give up more home runs than he has. Nobody can maintain his pace. But he'll still be real good, and maybe one of the three best pitchers in the league.

Update: A Friend of the Blog points out, "In the last question in your "Dear Rob" post, the guy says that Livan Hernandez has the same xFIP as Ubaldo Jimenez. He was looking at Livan's BB/9, which is 2.85. Livan's xFIP is 4.96, same as always."

Wakefield sets Red Sox milestone

June, 9, 2010
Tim Wakefield set a new Red Sox record last night. Peter Abraham:
But pitching the most innings for a team like the Red Sox is an accomplishment that will stand the test of history.

"It's special because I had a pretty close relationship when [Clemens] was here. He kind of took me under his wing and showed me how to work hard and never give up. He showed me his work ethic. Just to be mentioned in that kind of company or to be able to pass a guy like Roger, who's a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my opinion, is very special," Wakefield said.

"I'm very honored and humbled at the same time to be able to last as long as I have to be able to pass some numbers he put up."

Wakefield is third among active pitchers in innings pitched, trailing only Jamie Moyer and Andy Pettitte. He is 131st all-time.

A cynic would say that that's only a sign of longevity. But do not dismiss longevity. To pitch that many innings for a team that is usually in contention is remarkable. It means that the manager had faith to send you out there. It's not like a team like the Red Sox lacks the means to find somebody else.

I'm no cynic.

Wait. Flip that. Reverse it. I certainly am a cynic.

Not about Tim Wakefield, though. I'm glad he has the record and I think it's awesome and I'm rooting, as much as anything else this season, for him to win enough games where he'll have a chance next season to pass Cy Young and Roger Clemens on the Red Sox' all-time wins list.

Still, his innings record says a lot about the history of the Red Sox, doesn't it? By the standards of team records, 2,777 innings really isn't a lot. That number would rank third on the Yankees (behind Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing), seventh on the Tigers (behind Hal Newhouser and five non-Hall of Famers), fifth on the White Sox (behind Billy Pierce and three Hall of Famers), second on the Twins (behind Jim Kaat, and not counting Walter Johnson), third on the Indians (behind Bob Feller and Mel Harder) ... well, you get the idea. It's just a bit of a historical oddity that nobody's ever pitched 3,000 innings for the Red Sox. Doesn't mean it's not a kick to see his name atop that list.