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2018 in Review: Steven Wright

A look back at the knuckleballer’s 2018

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do we come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players we’re using can be seen here, and if we are missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason (when applicable!) and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Steven Wright.

The Year in a Sentence

Steven Wright’s year started with a domestic dispute that resulted in an arrest and later a suspension and it ended with an injury that kept him out of the playoffs, and there was some solid pitching in between.

The Positives

On the field, Steven Wright was mostly good when he was able to pitch. If you read me often enough by now you realize that I mainly look at three numbers — ERA, FIP and DRA — to judge a pitcher’s impact, and Wright was outstanding by two of those three. For one thing, the knuckleballer pitched to a 2.68 ERA (albeit over just 53 23 innings) which was 63 percent above average when adjusted for park effects. DRA doesn’t think that was much of a fluke, as he put up a 2.72 DRA that was 40 percent better than the league-average pitcher after being adjusted for park effects.

As we try to figure out exactly how Wright was able to put up results this solid, the key becomes clear. As is always the case with him, and is generally the case for every knuckleballer, it comes down to his ability to keep the ball in the yard. We know there are times when the knuckleball is unhittable, and times when it’s flat and crushable. For Wright, it was the former more than the latter, and that was great for the Red Sox. After allowing a whopping nine homers in just 24 innings in 2017, Wright came back and only allowed five homers in 2018. Over his last four years his home run per nine inning rates have been 1.5, 0.7, 3.4 and 0.8. As long as he’s keeping that rate under one, he seems to have plenty of success.

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Finally, looking at a few of his splits, Wright excelled in some more specific areas. The ,ost important of these splits was that he was much better as a reliever than as a starter. The knuckleballer only made four starts so maybe the skew isn’t fair, although the inning total isn’t far off. Anyway, Wright was fantastic in a bullpen role. Over 29 23 innings he pitched to a 1.52 ERA in relief while holding opponents to a .618 OPS. Again, it mostly came down to keeping the ball in the yard, as he allowed one fewer home run as a reliever compared to his time as a starter despite throwing a little over five more innings out of the bullpen. This was a big deal at the time, particularly at the end of the year. Remember, in September the Red Sox were searching for a true number two behind Craig Kimbrel with Matt Barnes hurt and struggling a bit, and Wright appeared to be that guy heading into the postseason. Obviously, that’s not how things worked out, but there was a time when it appeared inevitable.

The Negatives

We have to start with Wright’s off-the-field issues here, and specifically that he was arrested as a result of a domestic dispute with his wife in Tennessee. Now, we don’t know what happened here and both Wright and his wife have denied publicly that there was any physical violence involved here. Still, things at the very least got bad enough that the cops came, and Wright was also charged with trying to prevent a 911 call. This, obviously, means that his wife felt in danger enough in the moment to call for help and Wright didn’t want that to happen. Even if he didn’t actually hit his wife — again, we don’t know either way — this was certainly more than a typical marital spat and isn’t something that should just be brushed aside when we talk about Wright. Technically, all of this happened at the very end of 2017, but it set the tone for his 2018 and resulted in a 15-game suspension from the league.

The suspension wasn’t the only reason Wright had to miss some time in 2018, either. As has been the case a little too often over the last few years, the knuckleballer missed big chunks of time because of injuries to his knee. This is an issue that has been affecting him for a couple of seasons now, and it caused him to miss time at the start of the year, too. He actually started the 2018 season on the disabled list after recovering from offseason surgery, and he didn’t begin serving his suspension until he was healthy. Those two factors combined to push his debut back to mid-May. Then, he’d get hurt again in June, this time keeping him out all the way until September. Of course, as discussed above, he then got hurt again and didn’t admit it until after Game One of the ALDS after he had been added to the postseason roster. Wright was removed, and didn’t come back for the World Series.

On the field, there weren’t a ton of negatives. He wasn’t great as a starter, but that was only four appearances and one of them was a game he got hurt and allowed ten runs in 3 13 innings. I’m not sure it’s fair to count it. You could point to his 4.40 FIP, which doesn’t match up with his ERA or DRA, but we know by now FIP doesn’t mesh well with knuckleballers. They tend to rely more on soft contact than your typical pitcher and control can be an issue, which hurts when walks make up a third of the metric.

Seattle Mariners v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

The Big Question

Is Steven Wright really the sixth best starting pitcher?

This was the assumption heading into the 2018 season, but before the year I wasn’t entirely convinced it was true. Now, with the season in the books....I’m still not really sure. Again, Wright’s numbers as a starter weren’t great but also were largely affected by one bad outing. He was the most trusted of any of the depth options this year at his best, but given his injury history that continues to pile up, I’m still not sure whether or not it’s fair to put him over Brian Johnson. If you guarantee health for everyone, I think Wright is probably the answer, but it’s still unclear from my perspective.

The Year Ahead

Wright figures to serve in a similar role in the coming season, though there could be even more spot starts to be had in 2019. Alex Cora, coming off a long season for his pitchers, isn’t going to take any chances with his starters and will give days off when necessary. I’m expecting plenty of six-man turns through the rotation, and I’m expecting Wright to get the majority of this chances. That is, assuming he can stay healthy, of course.

And.....that’s the end of our review series, just in time for the holidays. We won’t be totally quiet over the next week but we’ll be more much more quiet than usual and likely won’t be back until Thursday. Everyone enjoy the holidays.