Boston Red Sox: Wright has earned rotation spot

Mar 22, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) throws against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 22, 2016; Jupiter, FL, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) throws against the Miami Marlins during a spring training game at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

Steven Wright has earned the open spot in the Boston Red Sox rotation.

The fifth slot in the rotation is available for the Boston Red Sox and Steven Wright has earned legitimate consideration – even if he had options available.

Wright is just chugging along and looking for a place to deposit his dancing knuckleball be it the bullpen or the rotation. At 30-years-old Wright is still a pup when compared to the legion of knuckleballers who came before him from Hoyt Wilhelm to the current leader of the K-Ball pack – R.A. Dickey.

Wilhelm didn’t make it to MLB until age 29 and stuck around for 21 seasons before retiring at 49-years-old. Fellow Hall of Famer Phil Niekro didn’t start his winning ways until his late 20s. Tim Wakefield was 44-years-old when he retired. Charlie Hough was still pitching at 46-years-old. Dutch Leonard was still tossing the knuckler at 44. The beauty of the pitch is that if you come close to mastering it you have an opportunity to play for a long – very long – time.

Wakefield was an accident. A light hitting first baseman who was to be released only to have fate intervene. A coach became aware of his mastery of the knuckleball and suggested to management he convertd to pitching and 200 wins later we see the results.

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Many pitchers find the K-Ball as a way of getting a career jump start and Wilbur Wood is a prime example. A Boston-area kid signed to a huge bonus by the Red Sox Wood did little to impress as a subpar fastball and inconsistency with other pitches had him on a doomed career path until he converted.

Wood could rack up innings as a starter with four consecutive 300+ seasons in which Wood won 20+ games each year and lost 20 one season and 19 another. And Wood had converted from the bullpen to starter – three times Wood had led the American League in appearances working out of the bullpen.

Wood personified one of the real baseball pluses of the knuckleball – really the fingertip ball – in that the strain on the arm is minimal and pitch counts can generally be ignored. The innings mean little as do the number of appearances. Your staff getting burned out? Look for the knuckleballer to post some extra innings and give every “normal” pitcher a breather.

Wakefield and Wilhelm – like Wood – could do multiple duty. Close? No problem. Long relief? No problem. Start? Again, no problem. The versatility is quite attractive, especially in the current pitching rage of regimented positioning.

Few can really master the pitch and what better example than another Red Sox K-Baller – Charlie Zink. Zink was 28-years-old when he pitched his lone MLB game and left with a career ERA of 16.62 and that brings up the one downside – the pitch can be a nightmare when it goes flat.

In Red Sox lore is the day Wakefield gave up six home runs and other such examples exist with knuckleballers of periods of disaster that could stretch from several starts or just be minimal to a few innings. Many of the practitioners had some reasonable pitching talent in their previous non-knuckleball life so the occasional fastball, curve, change can be tossed in, but that can all feed off the premier pitch and reliance on other “stuff” does not build a world of confidence for fans or players.

After the historic overview, it brings us back to Wright.

Wright in his brief MLB career has shown the usual ability to assume any role. For 2016 Wright can be in the mix for the bullpen or starter or both. A spot start is no great strain. Wright also – like Dickey – can toss in a few other pitches that can keep batters a bit off step. Wright tossed his specialty pitch 71.7% of the time with a curve and a mid-80s fastball taking up the bulk of remaining choices.

A knuckleball has a tendency to be a fly ball pitch and Wright has a career 45.4 GB%. Dickey sits at a similar 45.2% so expect balls to occasionally go out – way out. The other negatives of the pitch are well documented in passed ball totals for catchers, ease of swiping a base and hit batters.

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Wright appears to be the real deal even with such a small sample. If that is accurate you can expect some reasonable results such as 12-15 wins a year as a starter. Some losses will be excruciatingly painful and some wins will be remarkable performances of futility as batters flay away attempting to swap a butterfly pitch.

Sources: FanGraphs/baseball-reference