It’s no secret to most here how I feel about knuckleball pitchers. My first season as a fan was 2003, one that notoriously ended on an Aaron Boone home run off of Tim Wakefield, noted knuckleball pitcher. To Wakefield’s credit, over 21 2⁄3 innings that postseason he pitched to a very respectable 2.91 ERA.
We don’t always remember the good results, and that’s especially true of 12-year-olds (as I was in the 2003 ALCS).
Before we get into why Steven Wright is deserving of a rotation spot, and how to rectify our (read: my) trust issues with knuckleball pitchers, we have to understand why a knuckleball is so temperamental, and their benefits in a major league context.
What is a knuckleball?
You could write an entire article on this topic alone, but for our purposes, it is a pitch that does not spin, and utilizes the principles of air flow to carry it. It carries on a laminar flow plane, and transitions into more turbulent territory mid-flight. This turbulence leads to the chaotic sensation of a ball seemingly having a mind of its own. It is relatively unpredictable, and as such, is hard for a batter to hit (ideally), hard for a pitcher to control, and a complete mess for a catcher to receive (which is why catchers wear special gloves when they catch knuckleball pitchers, to increase the surface area they can cover).
When done properly, a knuckleball is incredibly hard to hit, if not utterly impossible. At higher speeds, this difficulty is exacerbated, usually at the cost of a knuckleball flattening out, which makes it substantially easier to hit. For reference, Wakefield, a successful knuckleball pitcher, lived in the 59-62 MPH realm. Wright throws his around 76 MPH. You would expect this to make the knuckleball straighten out, but take a look at the pitch below:
At its best, the knuckleball that Steven Wright throws is in a class of its own, due to its velocity while also maintaining the properties that makes a knuckleball so hard to hit. This is of course, when all things are ideal. As seen in Friday night’s drumming, if the knuckleball is straight you are in for a bad time.
All of this also goes without discussing the health effects of throwing a knuckleball. Knuckleballs put significantly less torque on the elbow of a pitcher, and is a low-stress pitch that can be thrown similarly to the fastball as far as arm action goes. Because of this, a pitcher with a knuckleball can go much further in games than a typical starting pitcher. This makes them invaluable in preserving a bullpen, at least in the ideal world where the pitcher is throwing the pitch properly.
So why is Steven Wright deserving of a rotation spot, after Friday night?
There are two answers to this question:
- Last night was a bit of an aberration.
- There is nobody more deserving.
First, let’s tackle the aberration. Wright missed much of 2017, so we’ll be utilizing numbers from as far back as 2016 to make this case.
In the 220.2 IP since the beginning of the 2016 season, Wright has pitched to a 3.79 ERA. On its own, the numbers look acceptable. In reality, that number is actually better than David Price’s ERA in the 2018 season, and people are seemingly happy with that.
Additionally, however, we must consider when the runs scored, because he’s had a number of ace like outings, where he went 7 or 8 innings, and gave up 2 or fewer runs. For the purposes of this article, we’ll say any start where he went less than 3 innings, or gave up more than 5 earned runs a “disaster”, and any start where he gave up 7+ a total “meltdown”.
Since the beginning of 2016, in 33 starts, he’s had 7 “disaster” starts of which 3 can be classified as “meltdowns”. In only one of those meltdowns did he limit the home run total to two or less.
In the other 26 starts that were not disasters, he rattled off 19 quality starts (57.6 percent). For reference, the other starters on the staff, have rates of 53.3 percent (Price), 68.8 percent (Sale/Porcello), and 35.7 percent (Rodriguez) in 2018. Drew Pomeranz, whose numbers were likely effected by injury, will not have his 2018 numbers cited, but rather his 2017 numbers. He had a 53.1% quality start percentage in 2017.
The point I’m trying to make here, is that despite throwing an unreliable pitch, Wright himself has been fairly reliable over his tenure. Sure, there’s the disaster start sprinkled here and there, but the numbers support the following statement: Steven Wright is good enough to be the Red Sox number five starting pitcher.
Next, there’s the matter of his competition. After all, just because he’s capable of being a number five doesn’t mean there isn’t someone else who could be deserving of that spot. If two people are deserving, may the best man win.
The problem is, Wright really doesn’t have much in the way of competition. Brian Johnson, Hector Velazquez, Jalen Beeks, Chandler Shepherd and Justin Haley are the only depth options that are healthy and able to pitch more than 3 innings. Once Pomeranz is back, perhaps that’ll change, but I’m of the opinion that Pomeranz will have to earn his way back given how poor his start to the season was.
You can probably eliminate Beeks as competition, because he’s only had one major league start and it went poorly. With so many out-of-options players on the roster, the odds Beeks takes one of their jobs until they are officially cut is extremely low. He’s a good option for a 2019 replacement, but for the purposes of 2018, he’s out too.
This leaves Velazquez and Johnson. Johnson is hardly a world-beater out of the bullpen this season, so I find it unlikely that they’d shift his role to the rotation so easily. He’s relatively untested as far as major league starting goes. He’s had exactly 7 major league starts, and now, he’s 27 years old. In those 7 starts, he’s had 3 quality starts. One of which was a shutout. In my mind, that also eliminates Johnson as competition, as right now he’s also one of the two lefty options in the bullpen, which Alex Cora may not wish to upset.
Velazquez becomes the measuring bar to which we hold Wright. This season, he’s been very successful, which just continues the trend we saw last year. I think there’s an argument you could make for Velazquez being the #5 guy, and Wright being in the pen, due to his knuckleball reducing wear and tear, and being usable on any given day. This is a concession I will grant. I will just posit that this current arrangement is better, because at present, you know every 5th game, your catcher will be prepared to catch a knuckleball, as opposed to any given day where Cora decides Wright is needed.
Wright isn’t a perfect pitcher. I don’t trust him, just like I’ll never trust another knuckleball pitcher. Despite throwing an unreliable pitch, though, he’s been surprisingly reliable, and you really can’t ask for anything more out your number five starter.