There aren’t many better stories around the league than Steven Wright. I’m sure there are some — I don’t know the story of every player in Major League Baseball — but Wright’s out-of-nowhere success in 2016 is without question among the best. We all know it by now. He was traded for Lars Anderson long after being traded for Lars Anderson could’ve meant something. Then, he spent years as a Quad-A long reliever who only got a chance in this year’s rotation because Eduardo Rodriguez got hurt in spring training. Not many saw him sticking in the rotation this long, never mind unquestionably being the best starter on the roster and making the damn All-Star team.
Now with the second half upon us, it’s always natural to worry that these amazing first-half stories aren’t built to last. Is that a justified mindset when it comes to Wright?
Boston’s knuckleballer has thrown 120 innings this season and has pitched to a 2.78 ERA. That’s good for a 162 ERA+. For context, that’s really freaking good. Now, to acknowledge the obvious, there is some regression coming in Wright’s future. It is not fair to expect him to end the year with a sub-3.00 ERA. That is different from worrying about him being bad, though. There are enough signs in Wright’s amazing performance so far that show he can be a low-to-mid-3.00’s ERA pitcher, even if it’s unfair to expect him to continue to be elite.
In these types of situations, we would typically start by looking at the peripherals. In Wright’s case, the peripherals support the notion that he is merely good, not great. To this point in the year, he’s pitched to a 3.57 FIP, a 3.43 DRA and a 90 cFIP. The thing is, peripherals don’t work as well for knuckleballers, as they naturally create weak contact. This is pretty intuitive — no one knows where any given pitch is actually going, so it’s really, really hard to make solid contact. Sure, everyone once in a while a pitch stays up and it gets crushed, but often times those leave the yard, further hurting the opponents’ BABIP. There’s a reason Tim Wakefield allowed a career BABIP of .275, and R.A. Dickey’s allowed one of .279. Steven Wright’s .269 BABIP may creep up by a little bit and get his results closer to the peripherals, but don’t expect the typical normalization.
Obviously, keeping batters off balance is the name of the game for knuckleballers. It’s true of every pitcher, but it’s particularly true for pitchers like Wright. Normally, simply throwing their main pitch is enough to do that since even the pitcher has no idea where the ball is going. However, Boston’s newest ace is approaching things a bit differently in 2016, mixing in his fastballs a lot more. Now, Wright only throws in the mid-80’s, so it doesn’t seem like he should blow batters away. When you’re at the plate bracing for a mid-70’s mph pitch to float your way, though, 85 mph seems like it’s coming from Aroldis Chapman. Wright is taking advantage of that this year. Coming into this season, he’d thrown his knuckleball 88 percent of the time. This year, though, that usage is down to just 81. Eventually, batters may adjust to this change, but it’s working wonders right now, and Wright can always adjust back to throwing the most difficult pitch to hit in the sport.
Finally, we have the one stat that is showing how dominant Wright has actually been this year. I don’t know if this is universal, but I know when I think of the great pitchers in the game, I think of them inducing cringe-worthy swings on pitches out of the zone. Aesthetically, causing a whiff on a nasty breaking ball is the most pleasing result. However, inducing those same kind of whiffs on pitches in the zone appears to correlate more heavily with best arms in the game. When you think about it, it makes sense. These guys are so nasty that batters can’t even make contact on strikes. Looking at Baseball Prospectus’ plate discipline leaderboards, four of the top five pitchers in Z_Contact_RT (contact rate on pitches in the zone) are Max Scherzer, David Price, Clayton Kershaw and Jose Fernandez. Those are arguably the three best pitchers in baseball and David Price, whose peripherals still suggest is really good. The other pitcher in the top five? Well, I think you already guessed that it’s Wright. In fact, he’s in second place behind only Scherzer. Why would I write all this if it wasn’t him?
He’s not in the class of the other names on that list. This year, however, he’s been something close to that, which is legitimately amazing. I could go into the added movement on the knuckleball this year. I could show you clips of Ryan Hanigan — a good major-league catcher — having a fit trying to catch Wright’s knuckleball this year. Neither of those things really show how unhittable this pitch has been this year more than that leaderboard, though. It’s been arguably the most unhittable pitch in all of baseball in 2016.
As I said before, Wright is probably going to see his ERA creep back up into the 3.00’s at some point this year. That’s just a safe bet because of his lack of track record. With that being said, I’ve seen enough to stop expecting heavy regression from him. For one thing, the peripherals aren’t far off of his current pace given the typical tendencies from knuckleballers. When you also factor in his ability to keep hitters off balance with a new approach and his simply nasty stuff that batters can’t make contact with, there is a real pitcher here. The Red Sox still need Price to get back closer to his old self, and could use a strong transition from Drew Pomeranz. They can also continue to be confident giving Wright the ball every five days, though.