Thursday, April 16, 2009

Tim Wakefield still has more Opening Day starts than no-hitters

Tim Wakefield had a close shave with history Wednesday. (Booooo!!! Terrible pun!!) Thanks to this site for the photo.

Tim Wakefield, already the architect of a career as fascinating as it is unlikely, nearly authored another unexpected chapter Wednesday, when he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the Red Sox’ 8-2 win over the Athletics in Oakland.

Watching it on NESN in upstate New York (bless you, Extra Innings, bless you), I couldn’t help but think after seven innings that Wakefield was going to make the history that ever-so-narrowly eluded the grasp of Curt Schilling in Oakland June 7, 2007. Wakefield threw just 54 pitches through six innings and got the Dustin Pedroia Special, albeit courtesy of Nick Green, when the journeyman shortstop made a lunging, over-the-shoulder catch in the seventh inning.

I was also impressed by how Wakefield, so often the picture of unwavering stoicism, seemed to be enjoying the hell out of his latest flirtation with a no-hitter (it was the fourth time he’s carried a no-hitter beyond the seventh inning). He flashed a huge grin after Green’s catch and mocked superstition by sitting around teammates in the dugout even as the no-hitter progressed. At 42, he seemed to realize the serendipity of the moment.

There was a certain sadness when Schilling lost his gem with two outs in the eighth. He was no longer the dominant workhorse of his youth or even of 2004, and it seemed unlikely he’d ever pitch into the ninth again, never mind carry a no-hitter that far.

It was still a bit disappointing when Travis Buck ended the no-hitter with one out in the eighth (thou shalt not root, but thou shalt not mind seeing a no-hitter, either), and sure, the odds are against Wakefield ever throwing a no-hitter, especially with the injuries beginning to pile up as he approaches his mid-40s. But he’s also a knuckleballer whose livelihood depends on the unpredictability of his signature pitch. So who knows? Maybe he’ll join the no-hitter club before he hangs up the spikes.

Wakefield’s impressive second start gives us a second chance to make a post I intended to make last Friday, before the Easter weekend and computer issues sent me to the sidelines for a few days (apologies for that, and hope you liked the segue). Wakefield, of course, is synonymous with the back end of the Sox rotation, and in 15 seasons with the Sox has never made an Opening Day start. He’s only made one Opening Day start as a big leaguer—way back in 1993 with the Pirates.

Of course, he has also been surrounded by some pretty outstanding company—Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling have combined to make 10 of the 14 Opening Day starts since Wakefield’s first full season with the Sox in 1996—and has been a solid, dependable pitcher far more often than not in Boston: He’s thrown at least 180 frames and won at least 10 games in nine of his 10 seasons as a full-time starter.

Yet Wakefield is also making a run at the franchise record for wins shared by Cy Young, the guy for whom the award honoring pitching excellence is named, and Clemens, the guy who has won more of those awards than anyone else. So I got to thinking: Is it unusual for a guy as decorated as Wakefield to have so rarely toed the rubber on Opening Day?

Short answer: Yes. Wakefield entered the season sixth among active pitchers with 178 wins. Yet his one Opening Day start ties him for 24th among the 30 active pitchers with at least 100 wins entering the season (active defined as those in a big league organization, which disqualifies the likes of Pedro Martinez, who is not retired but is not playing).

The five guys ahead of Wakefield—Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Jamie Moyer, Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz—have combined for 31 Opening Day starts. The only players among the active 100-game winners to not make an Opening Day start are Jon Garland, Kelvim Escobar and Darren Oliver, the latter two of whom have spent a chunk of their careers as full-time relievers.

In one of those fun facts that’s surprising at first but not so much at a second glance, it turns out Pettitte (215 wins entering the season) is the Wakefield of the Yankees with one Opening Day start. Pettitte’s teammates over the years, of course, have included the likes of Clemens (four Opening Day starts for the Yankees), Roy Oswalt (three Opening Day starts for the Astros), Johnson (two Opening Day starts for the Yankees) and David Cone (two Opening Day starts for the Yankees).

The full list of Opening Day starts by active pitches is below. Wakefield’s spot on it is interesting, at least to me, and a pretty neat summation of his career. He’s not a Hall of Famer, but he’s proved that consistency and reliability is, in its own way, almost as valuable.

Opening Day starts by active pitchers (through 2009)
Randy Johnson 14
Tom Glavine 8
Roy Halladay 7
Roy Oswalt 7
Mark Buerhle 7
Bartolo Colon 6
CC Sabathia 6
Livan Hernandez 5
Tim Hudson 5
Kevin Millwood 5
Jamie Moyer 4
John Smoltz 4
Jeff Suppan 4
Barry Zito 4
Derek Lowe 4
Johan Santana 4
Chris Carpenter 4
Mike Hampton 3
Jason Schmidt 3
Javier Vazquez 3
Freddy Garcia 3
Chan Ho Park 2
Shawn Estes 2
Andy Pettitte 1
Tim Wakefield 1
Tom Gordon 1
Russ Ortiz 1
Jon Garland 0
Kelvim Escobar 0
Darren Oliver 0

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