Red Sox: Could knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright succeed as a reliever?

Apr 17, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) pitches during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 17, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) pitches during the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite a stellar 2016, Steven Wright isn’t guaranteed a starting spot. Could the knuckleball pitcher find success in the Boston Red Sox bullpen?

Knuckleballer Steven Wright is coming off one of the most unexpected seasons for the Boston Red Sox in recent memory.

The 31-year old had bounced around the Cleveland Indians’ minor league affiliates before landing in the Red Sox organization, and now it seems as if Wright has finally found a lasting home. Well, almost.

An All-Star appearance featuring arguably the best first half in the entire American League usually guarantees a pitcher a spot in next year’s rotation. Rarely does anyone see a 3.33 ERA hurler booted without at least going through some prolonged struggle first.

Yet, with newcomer ace Chris Sale now in the fold, the Red Sox have six quality major league starters for five spots. We know Sale, reigning AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, and David Price have their spots on lock. That leaves Drew Pomeranz, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Wright fighting for the back two spots.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports
Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports /

While we likely won’t know the official rotation until Spring Training is largely underway, let’s assume that Wright is the odd man out. It’s not entirely inconceivable: Pomeranz is also coming off an All-Star campaign, and Rodriguez arguably has the upside of a number two. Also working against Wright is that he makes his living off throwing the knuckleball, the most unpredictable pitch in baseball.

So let’s say Wright is banished to the bullpen (since he’s out of minor-league options, it’s highly unlikely that the Red Sox would risk another team claiming him off waivers by demoting him). He’s a knuckleballer, his fastball tops out at 86 mph, and he’s thrust into a high-leverage role throwing a pitch where sometimes even he doesn’t know where it’s going to end up. Makes no sense, right? Except it’s been done before, by Red Sox Hall of Famer Tim Wakefield.

Most fans likely remember the Boston mainstay from his starting pitching days, but from 1999 through 2002, Wakefield served mainly out of the bullpen with some starts mixed in. And against all odds, he found success.

Over 190 appearances in those four seasons, including, 66 starts, Wakefield posted a 4.28 ERA, and his 7.0 K/9 was above his career 6.1 rate. That ERA might not jump off the page at first, but considering the hitter-dominated environment that he pitched in, it amounts to a 112 ERA+. That is, Wakefield was 12 percent better than a league average pitcher at preventing runs.

Let’s take a look at his 2002 season in a vacuum, when Wakefield posted a 2.81 ERA, good for a 162 ERA+ (for comparison’s sake, the Giants’ Madison Bumgarner had a 149 ERA+ in 2016), across 30 appearances out of the pen and 15 starts. He showed admirable flexibility, throwing at least 15 innings in each inning between the first and the eighth. Between innings seven and nine, Wakefield held opponents to a .200/.272/.340 line, amounting to a 3.05 ERA. In situations defined as high-leverage, Wakefield allowed a meager .202/.286/.303 line. The knuckleballer could also be relied upon to get out of a jam, allowing 17 runs in 82 chances in two-out, runners-in-scoring-position scenarios.

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So yes, the knuckleball can work out of the bullpen. In fact, the nature of the bullpen can make the pitch even more effective. Over his 19 year career, Wakefield allowed a .716 OPS the first time through the batting order, before that number increased to .753 the second time through, and finally .790 the third time through. Point is, the knuckleball becomes even more unhittable the less hitters see of it, and in the bullpen, hitters usually won’t see it more than once per game.

None of this is to say that a Wright bullpen experiment would be an automatic success. The very nature of a knuckleballer is unpredictability, both in the pitch itself and in the results that stem out of it. But the fact that there is precedent, and precedent for success, is a comfortable if lofty goal to set for Wright.

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If we end up seeing Wright jog out from Fenway’s right field for the seventh inning, before paralyzing in fear at the thought of a knuckleball dancing around in a high-leverage spot, just know that another talented knuckleballer has done it before.