For a moment, imagine that you’re a major league hitter facing the Red Sox. Before each game, you’ll prepare for whichever pitcher is starting: facing fastballs, curveballs, sliders, change ups, maybe a sinker. And that helps you against the starting pitcher; he’s out of the game in the middle innings and you’re ready to tee off on Boston’s middle relievers. But wait. Out trots knuckleballer Steven Wright and all of your preparation has been in vain.
This could be the situation for many an opponent this year should the Red Sox start the season with Wright as the long man in their bullpen.
Wright, whom the Red Sox acquired in a minor swap with the Indians in 2012, is entering his third full year in the Red Sox organization. In that time, the 30-year old Wright has made the strides necessary to present himself as major league ready.
While Wright had success in Triple-A Pawtucket in 2013, he still wasn’t ideally suited for major league time. He did sport an ERA of 3.46 in 24 starts at the level, but his 4.3 BB/9 suggested that he had still not fully mastered the knuckleball. Last year, however, Wright lowered his BB/9 all the way down to 2.1 while also slightly lowering his ERA to 3.42 in 16 minor league starts (15 at Pawtucket, 1 in Portland).
The knuckleball is hard to hit regardless of who’s throwing it, so the only scouting really necessary on Wright is whether or not he can command the pitch. And with recent results suggesting that he can do that, it appears fair to deem the former second round pick major league ready after nearly a decade in the minors.
However, there’s no clear opening in the Red Sox’ rotation barring injuries. Joe Kelly did go down with bicep tightness yesterday, but he’s unlikely to miss time and should start the season as Boston’s fifth starter. Expect Wright to be the first line of defense for the rotation in the event of a more serious injury, but if the Red Sox want to get him started in a major league role immediately, the bullpen could be his home.
Plus, the huge change of pace from a regular starting pitcher to a knuckleballer reliever has the potential to throw opposing hitters for a loop. Just look at his brief major league stats as a point of reference. In the eight relief appearances in his major league career, he has posted a 3.49 ERA and 8.6 K/9, versus a 4.50 ERA and 7.5 K/9 in his two starts.
Regardless of where he pitches, though, Wright is ready for a major league role. He might not start the season with the Red Sox, but he’ll find his way to Boston before long if he can continue to limit his walks in Triple-A. And though nobody would ever wish for an injury, that might be what it takes to get Wright into a bullpen role for the long haul.