Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Steven Wright.
The Question: Was Steven Wright’s 2016 performance a fluke?
Heading into last season, I was a big Steven Wright skeptic. I don’t think I was alone in that assessment. He wasn’t projected to be part of the Opening Day rotation, which was to be populated by David Price, Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Eduardo Rodriguez and Joe Kelly. Obviously, we know that things didn’t go according to plan and Wright was a member of that group. We also know that I was very wrong with my skepticism. He would remain in the rotation all year (when healthy), and was the team’s best pitcher in the first half. Wright was a big reason Boston kept winning even during some cold streaks by the team in early summer. However, he’s also a pitcher who leans on an inherently untrustworthy pitch and has little-to-no track record prior to 2016. Can we be sure that last season wasn’t just a fluke?
First, I think it’s easy to forget just how good Wright was last year. He threw 156-2/3 innings over 24 starts in 2016, and put up an impressive 3.33 ERA that was also mostly backed up by the peripherals. The righty posted a 3.73 FIP, which would seem a little worrisome until you remember knuckleballers regularly outperform their FIPs. Even more encouraging was his 3.12 DRA, which was the 14th best among all pitchers with at least 150 innings and sandwiched between Julio Teheran and Porcello. By just about every measure, Wright was outstanding last year and it all looked sustainable. However, we’ve seen pitchers do this kind of one-year breakout performance before. So, let’s look a little deeper at the key areas.
The first of these areas is control, which is where knuckleballers are most likely to falter. Clearly, it is an unpredictable pitch that is apt to dart out of the strike zone any time it is thrown. Despite that, Wright managed a barely-below-average rate of 8.7 percent. Even better, he was in the top 23 percent of Baseball Prospectus’ called strike probability and just outside the top 10 percent in terms of simple zone rate. The key was that he actually moved away from his knuckleball a bit, opting for more sinkers and curveballs. He lowered his called ball rate on both of those pitches in 2016.
What’s even more encouraging on this front is that there’s room for improvement with his walk rate. Despite relying on knuckleballs, Wright didn’t induce many swings on pitches out of the zone. His O_Swing rate, per BP, was nearly dead last among qualified pitchers. If he can find a way to get hitters to chase his knuckler more often — which is admittedly easier said than done given he rarely knows where it’ll end up — that should only help in preventing walks.
To go along with his solid walk rate, Wright improved his strikeout rate from 2015, putting up a 19.7 percent mark that is just about average for the league. Part of the key relates to what I just talked about in the previous two paragraphs. Hitters don’t like swinging at his pitches, an understandable trait when you consider his main offering. When you combine the low swing rate he induces and the high rate at which he hits the zone, strikeouts are a predictable side effect. On top of that, only Max Scherzer allowed less contact on pitches in the zone last season. This gif alone should explain why that was the case.
While the average strikeout and walk numbers are good steps — and a real improvement over his previous MLB experience — the key for Wright and all knuckleballers is the ability to limit hitters to weak contact. It’s the reason why they are able to consistently outperform their peripherals. Intuitively, we all know why hitters have a hard time squaring up his pitches. The damn thing dances around. It’s hard to hit something with no clear path. The numbers back it up, too. He allowed the lowest line drive rate among pitchers with at least 150 innings, and if he had qualified for Fangraphs’ leaderboards he’d have finished with the third-highest soft contact rate in baseball.
We all know how Wright’s 2016 ended up finishing, with John Farrell infamously calling on his knuckleballer to pinch run. Wright ended up hurting his shoulder diving back to the bag, essentially ending his year. Apparently, that injury is still hurting him, but at this point I’d still consider him a favorite to reclaim a rotation spot on Opening Day.
Wright may not be quite as good as he was for a bulk of last year, but there’s little reason to believe he’ll go back to being a below-average arm. His average strikeout and walk rates were backed up by strong plate discipline numbers, and they could even improve with some luck. More importantly, he was a master at inducing weak contact and his knuckleball should be just as good in 2017. There’s always going to be a little skepticism for Wright in the back of my mind, but the numbers say he should prove 2016 was no major fluke.