There hasn't been a new injury in the Red Sox rotation, but knuckleballer Steven Wright is set to make his first start in the majors on Tuesday night in Houston, anyway. It's easy to ask why he's getting that opportunity, but there are plenty of answers for the curious mind.
Wright's first big-league appearance was a disaster, as he gave up five runs in 3-2/3 innings in relief of Alfredo Aceves against the Athletics back on April 23. He went back to the minors after that, and didn't emerge once more until almost mid-July, when he was brought in to quell the Mariners' bats. He did just that, giving up just three hits and no runs over 5-2/3 innings of relief, in a game the Red Sox ended up winning 8-7. He repeated the feat a few weeks later, tossing three scoreless relief frames against the M's in a game the Sox would once again win 8-7, this time on a six-run walk-off ninth. Boston never would have had the opportunity had Wright not come in and kept the score the same and the bullpen fresh.
So, just based on major-league performances of late, you can see why the Red Sox would be curious about what he can do in an actual start. The Astros have the third-worst OPS+ in the American League, and are the only club in the majors with over 1,000 strikeouts on the season, so they're, at least relatively, a soft target for Wright to face. Some context: The Mariners, despite the awful offensive years leading into 2013, have actually been a capable offensive club this season, and have a 106 OPS+ that ranks sixth in the AL and 21 points of OPS+ ahead of Houston.
It also helps that Wright has shown improvement in his mechanics that should help him befuddle big-league hitters in the same way he's managed to put one over on their minor-league brethren. Manager John Farrell notes that Wright has been better with repeating his release point, allowing him to throw strikes more consistently. "Early on, when he would get into jams... he would just leap with his body. His body was out ahead of his arm too consistently. So when the inning would speed up on him, there was an inability or readiness to make those adjustments."
Wright concurs that this is the key to everything he does, via WEEI:
"Once I'm more compact and more fluid with my mechanics as far as throwing the knuckleball, it allows me to add or subtract a little bit easier instead of just trying to throw a hard knuckleball," said Wright. "If I just try to throw it hard, when I do try to change speeds, my release point is going to be different. But if I try to keep the same release point on every single knuckleball, it's easier to add and subtract."
He's been very effective of late at Pawtucket in addition to in his last two big-league outings. Wright has struck out just 6.4 batters per nine for the PawSox since June, but has kept the walks to a manageable -- for a knuckler, anyway -- 3.7 per nine in that span. Maybe most importantly, he's induced 1.5 times as many outs on the ground as in the air -- Wright is deceiving hitters enough that they're getting on top of his pitches and driving them downward, even if they're not swinging and missing at everything.
Of course, it's hard to know what a knuckler is actually capable of until you see him perform consistently against hitters in the majors -- as we covered in the spring, it's almost an impossible task to project a knuckleballer. Wright might have International League batters fooled, but the real test of his ability will come in the bigs -- the Red Sox would like to know what they have in Wright, and Tuesday represents an opportunity to come that much closer to an answer.
With Brandon Workman approaching his career-high in innings, the ability to lean on him as starting pitching depth is lessened -- he could stop being effective at 150 frames, or he could push all the way to 170 before being gassed. But the fact that no one is quite sure yet means backup plans besides just Workman are in order. With Franklin Morales having missed too much of the season due to injury, never quite getting stretched out to start, he's likely also off the table and is a bullpen-only arm. Allen Webster has shown he's still in need of Triple-A seasoning, Rubby De La Rosa could be wearing out late in the season in his first year back from Tommy John, and the less said about Alfredo Aceves at this point, the better. Wright is the possible next-in-line for spot starts or as an injury fill-in given all of the above.
As Ryan Dempster's on-and-off again groin issues and recent struggles have reminded us, along with John Lackey's almost-ankle-injury from Monday, something could go wrong at any time that necessitates plucking from the club's pitching depth. We've seen in the past what a lack of depth can do, even if we don't like to think about how 2011 ended in these parts, and anything that can potentially help keep that from occurring again deserves consideration. With Wright in possession of a 40-man spot in an organization where those are a precious commodity due to the sheer volume of prospects at the upper levels, it's important to know if he can be relied upon. And, as said, no one is going to know if he fits the bill unless he's given a chance to prove it.
So, let Wright pitch against the Astros, giving the rotation regulars what is in essence the equivalent of a scheduled off day. It gives them rest, and lets Boston see what Wright can do against major-league hitters in a situation with a bit more pressure attached than mop-up duty that the lineup turned into something more. There might be more opportunities in the coming weeks for spot starts or injury fill-ins, and feeling you know the answer to the question that is Steven Wright will help inform their decisions in those situations that much more.
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