Thursday, July 9, 2009

Wakefield's a worthy All-Star Cinderella, but a starter? That's madness

Tim Wakefield is waving hello to the All-Star Game for the first time. Photo from this site.

I’m a sucker for a good NCAA Tournament analogy, or even one that may not be all that good, so I’m figuring that when it comes to the All-Star Game, Tim Wakefield is the 17-12 BCS school to David Aardsma’s 28-4 mid-major.

Of course, this is just the All-Star Game, which provides a diversion for three days in the middle of July, and not March Madness, which allows overworked, underappreciated worker bees to stick it to the man for two glorious weeks, adds billions of illegal dollars to the American economy and generally gives us a reason to live as we count down the hours to Opening Day.

And Wakefield’s inclusion on the American League roster over the deserving likes of Aardsma (who converted 17 of his first 18 save chances with an ERA below 2.00) and others is merely fodder for barroom arguments (virtual and actual) and not borderline criminal, a la the annual screwing of the little guy to get the Big East or the Pac-10 yet another damn at-large bid.

Unlike Arizona, which has made the NCAA Tournament every year since the dawn of time, it’s impossible not to be happy for Wakefield, who earned his first All-Star Game berth in his 22nd professional season. But like Arizona, which responded to the criticism of its at-large bid in March by becoming the lowest-seeded team to reach the Sweet Sixteen, Wakefield did his part to silence any naysayers (heh, I always knew he’d make the team) last night by recording his AL-best 11th win and whiffing a season-high eight in leading the Sox past the Athletics, 5-4.

Aardsma, meanwhile, did a bang-up impersonation Wednesday of a mid-major who responds to an NCAA snub by getting smoked in the first round of the NIT: In his first appearance since the All-Star squads were announced, Aardsma was tattooed for four runs (three earned) without recording an out as he blew a three-run lead and took the defeat in the Mariners’ 5-3 loss to the Orioles.

Wakefield still wouldn’t be my choice as one of the eight best starting pitchers in the league, but he did produce a pretty impressive final kick in the weeks leading up to the All-Star selections (2-0 with a 3.04 ERA and a 14/2 K/BB ratio in his last four starts) and has improved his standing in most statistical categories. In addition to leading the league in wins, he’s tied for 24th in ERA (4.14) and tied for 25th in WHIP (1.38). He’s also increased his K/BB ratio from 1.34 to 1.65.

That said, SportsCenter grouping him in Wednesday night with Zack Greinke and Roy Halladay as candidates to start for the American League in St. Louis is lunacy. All three hurlers would be able to make the start on five or more days of rest, but Greinke and Halladay each rank among the top five in all three pitching Triple Crown categories and would be far more deserving of the start—whether in recognition of a remarkable comeback from the depression that threatened to Greinke’s career or, in Halladay’s case, as a nod to an impressive, nearly decade-long body of work.

Wakefield’s inclusion on the team is perfectly fine and a cool acknowledgment of a career defined by equal parts durability, perseverance and quiet nobility. Still, as an at-large honoree, he’s not quite the 1986 LSU Tigers, either.

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