Red Sox: Steven Wright is a home run cheapskate

Aug 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) in the second inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 5, 2016; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) in the second inning of the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox starter Steven Wright leads the American League with fewest home runs allowed per nine innings. No knuckleballer has done that since 1949.

The Boston Red Sox now have Steven Wright on the disabled list, thanks to one of the most astounding bonehead moves by John Farrell in 2016. I never thought it would top David Ortiz at first base, but Farrell decided to take arguably his best pitcher and place him in harm’s way. I have no idea where pitching coach Carl Willis was when this poor choice was made.

What is done is done and Farrell has certainly proven that managers can indeed lose games. A look at the “numbers” for Wright show two that jump out and grab my cataract infested eyes – complete games at four and HR/9 of 0.5 for fewest home runs allowed per nine innings. Both lead the American League and the HR/9 is especially intriguing considering Wright’s choice of pitch – the knuckleball that he has tossed an average of 80.8% for the season.

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The knuckleball has a notorious reputation for occasionally going flat and present the ball to the batter as if it was on a hitting tee. What sometimes is viewed as frustratingly unhittable is capable of reversing the trend and becoming quite hittable.

Wright has an exceptional FB% (Fly Ball Percentage) of 36.2% that is seventh in the AL with Michael Fulmer of the Tigers leading at 29.2%. In the comfortable confines of Fenway Park, Wright has an FB% of 36.2% versus 35.7% for on the road. The home run figures are five at Fenway and three on the road with a similar number of batters faced.

How does this compare with other noted knuckleballers?

First up is the other current practitioner and that is R.A. Dickey. Dickey has seen 26 balls leave the yard for a 1.6 HR/9 versus a 1.1 HR/9 for his career. Dickey’s FB% is 35.2, but the translation is the ball is leaving far more often than Wright’s.

Tim Wakefield once led the American League in issuing home runs (35) in 2005. Wake also had a display that is difficult to match when he allowed six in one contest – a game he also won. Wake finished up with a 1.2 HR/9 for his career.

Another K-Ball pitcher from my fading memory banks is Tom Candiotti, who never led the league in allowing home runs and finished at 0.8 HR/9. A second is Charlie Hough who finished 216-216 for his career with a 0.9 HR/9. Hough pitched until he was 46-years-old.

Hoyt Wilhelm pitched in the majors until he was 49-years-old. That a pitcher lasts into his 40’s is just not that unusual for a knuckleball pitcher. Wright at 31-years-old may be a youngster. Wilhelm finished with a 0.6 HR/9 for his career working mostly in relief.

The Niekro’s are the brother combination that frustrated hitters for decades. Joe Niekro checked out with a career 0.7 HR/9 and his brother Phil Niekro with a 0.8 HR/9. Phil also led three times in most home runs allowed, once lost and won 20 games the same season and led the National League in losses four straight years.

Wilbur Wood – like most knuckleball pitchers – transitioned from traditional to being a dancing pitch master. Wood finished his career with a 0.7 HR/9 and never led the league in issuing home runs despite routinely exceeding 300+ innings and in one remarkable season won and lost 20 games.

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My first exposure to a knuckleball pitcher was at Braves Field in 1952 and I looked it up to make sure of my fading memory. Dutch Leonard came in to pitch for the Chicago Cubs and a man sitting next to me mentioned Leonard’s specialty – the knuckleball. Leonard has a unique record with it.

In 1941 pitching for the Washington Senators Leonard posted a 0.2 HR/9 to lead the American League with fewest home runs per nine innings. In 1949 while pitching for the Chicago Cubs in the National League, Leonard again posted a 0.2 HR/9 to lead the NL.  Both Griffith Stadium and Wrigley Field are hitter’s parks so that makes the accomplishment even more noticeable. Leonard also finished his career with a 2.1 BB/9 – excellent for a knuckleball pitcher.

There is a site dedicated to the knuckleball and that will give the reader a historical reference on just who is credited with developing the elusive pitch.

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Wright is on the cusp of history if he leads the league in HR/9, but he also has Ryan Hanigan in the mix, too. Catching the knuckleball is a difficult task and Hanigan currently leads the American League in passed balls, so he may have his own “Title” thanks to Wright.

Sources: FanGraphs/Baseball-Reference