Armed with a knuckleball, Steven Wright has been a crucial and unexpected fixture for the first-place Red Sox—and one of MLB's best pitchers to boot.
Steven Wright didn't figure to spend the 2016 season in the Red Sox' rotation, let alone emerge as their most effective starter, but through the first third of the season, he's pitched like an ace. On Monday, the 31-year-old knuckleballer tossed his third complete game of the year, a four-hitter against the Orioles, and showed off the jaw-dropping movement of his signature pitch.
Wright allowed base runners in only the second, fifth and ninth innings via four hits and five walks, but only in the fifth did he yield runs; the Orioles plated two thanks to an inning-opening stretch of three straight hits and a sacrifice fly. Meanwhile, Wright struck out seven, generating a season-high 19 swings and misses, and the Red Sox' offense bashed out seven runs against starter Tyler Wilson and two relievers en route to a 7–2 win. At 31–20, they now lead the Orioles (28–21) by two games in the American League East.
This Vine of Wright striking out Orioles slugger Chris Davis in the second inning, meanwhile, went viral to the point that it's been looped more than 4.5 million times in the past 24 hours, and that's not including the number of views the clip has received on MLB.com:
As you can see, it was all catcher Ryan Hanigan could do to keep the ball in front of him. To borrow the famous quote from legendary broadcaster (and former catcher) Bob Uecker, “The way to catch a knuckleball is to wait until it stops rolling and pick it up." Hanigan was charged with his 14th passed ball of the season on Monday, 13 of which have come in the nine starts in which he's caught Wright; they've generally been in bunches, with four apiece in two starts and three in one other start. Blake Swihart had two passed balls in his lone turn catching Wright, and Christian Vazquez avoided being charged with one in a three-inning stint in relief of Hanigan.
Passed balls, wild pitches (six thus far, including two on Monday) and all, Wright has been very effective this year. Of his 10 starts, nine have been quality and three have been complete games; he's tied for first in the league in both categories and second only to Chris Sale in innings per start (7.0). Thus far, Wright owns a 2.45 ERA (sixth) and 178 ERA+ (third) and is also third in home run rate (0.4 per nine), fifth in innings (69 2/3) and ninth in WAR (1.8), striking out a respectable 7.9 per nine. That's not too shabby for a pitcher who before this season had made all of 12 MLB starts, including nine last year. Wright—a 2006 draft pick by the Indians who turned to the knuckleball in '11 and was traded to the Red Sox in '12—posted a 4.05 ERA in 72 2/3 innings in '15, finally demonstrating that he could at least survive at the big league level in his 10th professional season.
Though the Red Sox are only 5–5 in Wright's starts due to uneven run support (5.0 per game overall but with just eight runs in four of those losses), his success has been a critical part of Boston's season to date, and not just because he’s been able to give the bullpen a breather by consistently working deep into games. The Sox' rotation as a whole ranks 13th in the league with a 4.39 ERA; without Wright, it's 4.54, with a 44% quality start rate. Marquee free agent David Price has been cuffed for a 5.11 ERA, though his 3.09 FIP suggests he's pitched a lot better than that, and lately he's rounded into form, allowing a total of six runs in his last four starts. At the other end of the spectrum, Clay Buchholz (6.24 ERA) was just sent to the bullpen, and Joe Kelly (6.30 ERA in five starts) has been dreadful when he hasn't been injured. Rick Porcello has shaken off last year’s struggles to pitch to a respectable 3.68 ERA. Eduardo Rodriguez, who as a rookie made 21 starts with a 3.85 ERA last season, is set to make his season debut on Tuesday after starting the year on the disabled list due to a subluxation of his patellar tendon in his right (landing) knee; he's only recently gotten comfortable thanks to a knee brace.
It was Rodriguez's injury that opened up a spot in the rotation, one that Wright claimed and has maintained thanks not only to strong performances but also to the lack of success and availability of the team's other fill-in options. Prospect Brian Johnson sprained his left big toe in mid-March, then scuffled at Triple A and is now being treated for anxiety. Henry Owens, who made 11 starts for the Sox last year, was unable to find the strike zone in three 2016 starts, walking 13 in 12 1/3 innings, and Sean O'Sullivan was unable to escape being Sean O'Sullivan, owner of a 6.03 ERA in the bigs.
Like R.A. Dickey, Wright throws a hard knuckleball that, according to Brooks Baseball, has averaged 74.6 mph this year and maxed out at 82.1 mph. By comparison, Dickey is averaging 75.9 mph with his knuckler this year, down from 78.0 in his 2012 NL Cy Young-winning campaign, with a top speed of 86.0 in '13 and 81.9 this year. Tim Wakefield, who pitched for the Red Sox from 1995 to 2011, threw his knuckler in the 65–67 mph range from '07 onward, the era covered by PITCHf/x. Wright has thrown his knuckler 85.7% of the time this year, offsetting that primarily with a sinker, which he throws 10.4% of the time; the latter pitch averages a pedestrian 83.5 mph and has topped out at 88.6. Batters are hitting just .202 when they put Wright’s knuckler into play this year and slugging just .268 with two home runs.
With Dickey now 41 years old, in the final year of his contract with the Blue Jays and struggling along with a 4.64 ERA and a .415 slugging percentage against his signature pitch, the emergence of Wright offers hope that at least one practitioner of the maddening, fluttering pitch can not only survive at the major league level but also thrive. While knuckleballers haven't exactly been plentiful in the last half-century, the likes of brothers Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough pitched into or even through the 1980s. Hough, who spent most of his first 12 major league seasons (1970–81) pitching out of the bullpen, lasted until '94, his age-46 season, as a starter.
Since then, such pitchers have been sparse. Tom Candiotti enjoyed a long and successful career (1983–99), but Steve Sparks ('95–2004), Dennis Springer ('95–02) and Jared Fernandez ('01–06) only intermittently rose above replacement level, and Charlie Haeger ('06–10) and Charlie Zink ('08) rarely even managed that. Since Candiotti's retirement, Sparks's 1998 and 2001 seasons stand as the only ones with at least 20 starts and an ERA+ of at least 100 thrown by a knuckleballer besides Wakefield or Dickey.
With Monday's start, Wright is halfway to that goal. Here's hoping that he continues to thrive. Variety is the spice of life, and in the age of ever-increasing velocity, watching a pitcher who rarely breaks 80 mph continue to befuddle hitters—and catchers—is a rare treat.