The Boston Red Sox have gone through their fair share of pitching woes over the past several seasons. Despite signing a blue chipper in David Price last offseason, the 2016 season has still been one of inconsistency for their staff. While it seems there is still work to be done, the surprise emergence of knuckleball starter Steven Wright may end up going a long way towards fortifying the team’s starting rotation.
The 31-year-old right-hander has pitched in parts of four seasons with Boston since coming over from the Cleveland Indians in a 2012 trade. A second-round draft pick in 2006 who began his career with a more traditional repertoire, he ultimately switched to the knuckler after stagnating in the minors. His acquisition seemed like a good idea, particularly in light of the success fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield enjoyed in Boston for 17 years.
Until this year, Wright has been on a yo-yo between the big league club and Triple-A Pawtucket. To date, he has appeared in 29 major league games (14 starts), going a combined 8-7 with a 3.56 ERA. An injury this spring to young hurler Eduardo Rodriguez created an opening for him to begin the year as the team’s fifth starter, and he has run with it, going 1-2 with a microscopic 1.40 ERA in his three starts.
Rodriguez is nearing his return, and given his potential, should be back in the rotation. However, Wright has made a strong case that he should keep his job and be considered as a long-term option at starter. In addition to his strong start to this season, he has also been much more effective starting than coming out of the bullpen. His 3.36 ERA in his 14 career starts, along with 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings and 1.24 WHIP are all more than respectable numbers.
Truly successful knuckleball pitchers are few and far between. It’s a pitch that must be thrown with such feel and command that there aren’t many who can master the offering enough to translate it into a successful career, but it’s looking like Wright might be joining that exclusive club. Although approximately five out of every six pitches he throws are knucklers, he also mixes in other pitches that have made him a challenge to face. In addition to a curveball, he throws a fastball that averages about 83-85 MPH and is hard enough to warrant batters being sent a bottle of fine liquor after feeling its impact.
Poorly thrown knuckleballs can quickly translate into home runs, but what Wright has shown pitching at Fenway Park, a notorious bandbox, has been impressive. In his career, he has a 3.23 ERA and allowed a home run every 9.2 innings at home as opposed to marks of a 3.82 ERA and a home run allowed every 7.9 innings on the road.
What the Red Sox need is a dependable starter at the end of their rotation who can keep the team in games and give them a chance to win. Through the first 17 games, Boston starters have lasted at least six innings just nine times, and three of those efforts were turned in by Wright. The team is also second to last (ahead of only the Baltimore Orioles) in average length of starts (5.1) and in runs allowed per game by starters (5.13, ahead of only the Houston Astros). He is giving them exactly what you want to see from a fifth starter and has earned an opportunity to continue in that role beyond his current status as an injury replacement.
No matter how deserving, higher paid veterans and well-regarded prospects have a tendency to squeeze out lunch pail guys like Wright. In this case, there may be a developing path towards keeping him in the rotation. Joe Kelly has struggled mightily (8.2 innings in three starts) and was recently placed on the disabled list with shoulder trouble. It’s a tough way to get a job but at the very least it will keep him in the Boston rotation longer than originally planned.
Wright may not be a future Cy Young winner but if he keeps pitching the way he has to start the 2016 season he is setting himself up for a lengthy and successful career with the Red Sox and helping sort out what has been a problematic starting rotation. All he needs at this point is Boston to continue believing in him and handing him the ball every fifth day.
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