Red Sox: What’s wrong with knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright?

Apr 12, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) pitches during the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 12, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Steven Wright (35) pitches during the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports /

Boston Red Sox starter Steven Wright followed an underwhelming first outing with an absolute dud. Can he reclaim his All-Star form?

When you’re not Wright, you’re wrong. Right? Well, something is clearly very wrong with Boston Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright.

The knuckleballer suffered the worst loss of his career last night at the hands of an aggressive Baltimore Orioles lineup. The birds jumped on Wright for six runs in the first inning, digging a deep hole for the Red Sox before their own bats even had the chance to take a swing. After Wright sandwiched a routine ground out between a pair of solo homers in the second inning, manager John Farrell mercifully trotted out the mound to give him the hook.

Wright’s final line for the night was a horrific 1 1/3 innings in which he allowed eight earned runs, on eight hits. He hit the first batter of the game with a pitch and it all went downhill from there, concluding with as many home runs surrendered as outs recorded.

"“It was terrible,” Wright said after the game, per WEEI’s Ryan Hannable. “I felt pretty good in the bullpen and then I came out and obviously kind of shot myself in the foot with the first pitch of the game hitting Seth Smith. Then after that they wanted to swing and the knuckleball wasn’t doing anything and they capitalized on it. It was probably one of my worst games as far as my knuckleball and stat line. I think I gave up more home runs today than I did all of last year.”"

Not quite, although he wasn’t far off – Wright gave up 12 home runs over 24 starts last season. Through two games this season he’s already nearly halfway to last year’s total with five.

Not only was it the worst start of Wright’s career, it was the worst we’ve seen from any Red Sox pitcher in over a decade.

The pitcher we saw on the mound last night had no resemblance to the one that befuddled hitters with regularity during last year’s All-Star campaign. When Wright is at the top of his game, hitting his knuckleball is more difficult than trying to slice a mosquito in half with a sword.

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The knuckleball is meant to float through the air, dancing its way to the plate with unpredictable movement. Last night, Wright’s pitches were flat with very little movement on his knuckleball. He may as well have been serving up batting practice fastballs.

So what’s wrong with him? Baltimore has a powerful lineup, one that led the majors in home runs last season. Still, even against this offense, eight runs and four homers is tough for any pitcher to digest.

The initial reaction when a pitcher melts down is to question if they are healthy. Wright claims that the shoulder that he injured last August, ending his 2016 season, feels great and he felt no issues warming up in the bullpen prior to the game. It wasn’t until he stepped on the mound that everything fell apart.

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Was it the weather? A windy day in Detroit seemed to effect his knuckleball during Wright’s first outing, while the cool temperatures made it harder to get a good grip on the ball. That wasn’t the case last night though, when the game time temperature hovered above 50 degrees with little more than a mild breeze flowing through Fenway Park. Besides, it’s not as if cooler weather bothered him much last season, when he posted a sparkling 1.37 ERA in April.

Assuming Wright is telling the truth about his health, the reason behind last night’s shellacking is probably much simpler. In all likelihood, we can chalk it up to a bad night. It’s not uncommon for a knuckleball pitcher to go through rough patches, as the unpredictability of the pitch makes it difficult for even the pitcher to know where its going. Even the great Tim Wakefield showed these inconsistencies throughout his career, with his ERA often fluctuating drastically between seasons. The effectiveness of the pitch can switch on and off between starts, or even between innings.

It was never realistic to expect a repeat of last year’s breakout performance, when he owned a 3.01 ERA through his first 22 starts prior to the shoulder injury. However, it’s reasonable to believe he can still recover to produce a slight improvement from his 4.09 ERA from 2015. If the Red Sox can get that from their No. 4 or 5 starter, they’ll take it.

Last night may have been a sign that Wright isn’t right, or it could merely be a blip on the radar. Nobody will be surprised if he bounces back to shut down the Tampa Bay Rays next week.

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If the results don’t improve, Wright’s spot in the rotation could be in jeopardy. David Price is making progress and his eventually return will bounce someone to the bullpen. A best case scenario still puts Price’s return at least several weeks away, giving Wright plenty of time to get back on track. With little depth in the minors to fill in until then, the Red Sox need Wright to at least give them some innings when his spot in the rotation comes up so that they don’t burn their bullpen the way they were forced to last night.