Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Steven Wright.
The Question: Is Steven Wright really the sixth best starting pitcher on the Red Sox roster?
There’s been a lot of talk about the Red Sox rotation depth chart heading into spring, which makes sense considering how important the pitching staff is to this team’s success and how many injury questions there are here, even relative to the typical major-league rotation. Every team has to dip into their depth throughout the season, and we’ve long known that the Red Sox would be relying on their depth from day one. When said depth is discussed, pretty much everyone (myself included) has listed Steven Wright as the sixth starter on the roster. This has been backed up by pretty much every outlet and it indeed seems to be the Red Sox plan, but are we really sure it’s warranted based on talent and projections alone?
It’s really hard to be confident one way or the other with Steven Wright, and going back to look at his last two years of work is good confirmation of this. Two years ago, Wright entered the rotation and was one of the bright spots on a 2016 team that won the American League East. The knuckleballer made 24 starts that year totaling 154 2⁄3 innings and ended things with an impressive 3.33 ERA. His control was average-at-best, which is to be expected given the pitch on which he leans so heavily, but he got a solid number of strikeouts and proved impossible to square up. Then, in 2017, he got off to a horrific start with an ERA above 8.00 over five starts before suffering a knee injury that ended his season. Over the course of a year and a couple months, we saw both ends of the spectrum on which Wright can live as a major-league pitcher. The question, of course, is what the hell we’re supposed to expect heading into the 2018 season.
We should start by noting that Wright is about to start his age-33 season, though that is not nearly as much of a concern for him as it is for most other pitchers. As we’ve come to know in recent years, age isn’t a huge deal for knuckleballers. Of course, the knuckleball is inherently a pitch that we have no idea how to predict year-to-year or even game-to-game. If it’s working, it’s one of the true marvels of baseball and makes the game’s best hitters look like, well, me. On it’s worst days, any major-league hitter can destroy it.
This is part of the concern with pegging Wright for such a relatively important role on the roster. Sure, there is upside, and we saw it pay off in 2016. There is enormous downside too, though, and it’s no sure thing that he’ll make them glad they took the risk. While the knuckleball is impossible to predict, it’s worth noting that his main pitch has been trending downwards in terms of movement. Thanks to Brooks Baseball, you can see his year-to-year vertical movement here and horizontal movement here. I’m not sure how predictive that is, but it’s certainly worth noting. It should probably go without saying that, if the knuckleball isn’t knuckling, hitters are going to tee off. We saw that before his injury in 2017 when opponents increased their contact rate on pitches in the zone by 12 percentage points (from 76 percent to 88).
It’s not just the knuckleball and the downward trend we saw last year that should worry the Red Sox, either. That knee injury that prematurely ended his 2017 is still giving him trouble. He’s behind the other starters on the roster in terms of work this spring, having only thrown off flat ground. He still believes he’ll be ready for Opening Day — assuming he doesn’t get suspended by the league for his domestic altercation from early in the winter, of course — but Alex Cora has been open about assuming he will not be ready. If the knee is indeed still bothering Wright, it’s hard to not let that cloud our perception of who he could be in the coming season.
Ultimately, Wright is a major question mark, but it’s not as if he’s fighting off bona fide studs in this fake competition I’m making up for the sixth starter spot. Still, Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez have more recently been effective major-league starters and both are off to strong springs while Wright hasn’t even thrown off a mound yet. Given his veteran status and success in 2016, Wright will get another chance in the majors. The hope, though, should be that the Red Sox don’t feel obligated to give him an extended chance. I’m as intrigued by the knuckleball as anyone, but I also acknowledge how fickle the pitch can be. If he continues to struggle to get movement on the offering, whether it be because of his health or something else, they shouldn’t be afraid to move on. For as much as we presume Wright is the current sixth starter, the team should not be married to him in that role.