Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright isn’t guaranteed rotation spot

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22: Steven Wright #35 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 22, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 22: Steven Wright #35 of the Boston Red Sox pitches in the first inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on April 22, 2017 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images) /

Steven Wright has been brilliant when given the chance this season but he’s not guaranteed a spot in the Boston Red Sox rotation when Drew Pomeranz returns.

Steven Wright has been a revelation for the Boston Red Sox pitching staff this season. First as a long reliever, capable of logging multiple innings to prevent the rest of the bullpen from being overtaxed. Now as a starter, with two turns through the rotation since replacing the injured Drew Pomeranz.

The knuckleballer blanked the Baltimore Orioles over 6 2/3 innings on Monday. That’s his second start in as many opportunities in which he hasn’t allowed a run. Dating back to his time in the bullpen, Wright is working on a 22 2/3 inning scoreless streak.

He’s now 2-0 with a 1.21 ERA and 1.04 WHIP this season. The Red Sox can’t take him out of the rotation as long as he’s pitching like this. If Pomeranz were ready to return right now he’d be in the bullpen.

Only Pomeranz isn’t ready to return yet and remains without a clear timetable. Once he’s deemed healthy he still needs to work out the kinks in his mechanics that led to his brutal results this season. It could be weeks before we see him back in Boston and Wright will be expected to hold down a rotation spot until then.

Whether or not Wright hangs on to that spot will depend on how he’s performing at that point, not how he’s looked through two starts. Can he keep this up long enough to hold off Pomeranz?

Well, he won’t keep a sub-2.00 ERA. He’s going to give up more runs eventually and there are warning signs that suggest a steep regression may be coming.

Wright would lead the majors in ERA if he had enough innings to qualify. However, he’s working with a much smaller sample size than the league’s elite starters and his time in the bullpen gives him an advantage.

His minuscule ERA may also be a bit of smoke and mirrors. Wright owns a 4.50 xFIP that would put him in the bottom 20 among qualified major league starters.

There are several reasons for the discrepancy between Wright’s ERA and xFIP. For one thing, Wright isn’t a strikeout pitcher. His 7.58 K/9 is above his career-average yet well below the major league average. Pitchers who don’t rack up strikeouts need to rely more on the defense behind them. Wright is allowing a .192 BABIP, well below his career rate and league average. It’s fair to say he’s been a bit lucky in that regard.

Wright has been far too lenient with the free passes. Only three qualified starters have a higher walk rate than Wright’s 4.85 BB/9. He’s walked three batters in each of his last three appearances, including one three-inning relief outing. That’s part of the danger of a knuckleball pitcher. He doesn’t always know where the pitch is going and can tend to get a bit wild as a result.

Perhaps the biggest outlier is that Wright has only allowed one home run this season. He’s averaged a tick over one homer allowed per nine innings throughout his career yet currently owns a ridiculous 0.30 HR/9. This is why xFIP sours on him most. This stat estimates the number of home runs the pitcher should have allowed given the number of fly balls they surrender while assuming a league average HR/FB percentage. Wright isn’t allowing significantly fewer fly balls than he usually does yet he’s keeping them in the park at an unsustainable rate.

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Wright’s ERA will inflate when the home run rate regresses toward the norm, while the walks and lack of strikeouts will eventually catch up to him. That doesn’t mean he’ll completely fall apart. Wright’s ERA could triple and he’d still be having a solid season. Certainly better than the Red Sox were getting out of Pomeranz this year.

Would he be better than the version of Pomeranz we saw last year? A pitcher who was arguably one of the ten best starters in the American League? If Boston can get that version of Pomeranz back then he’d have more upside than Wright.

Knuckleballers are notoriously difficult to project. They can be breezing along until they suddenly lose it on the mound. Take his last start for example. Wright dominated through the first six innings. In the seventh, he hit a batter, allowed a bunt single and issued a walk. It took a clutch strikeout from Joe Kelly to keep Wright’s shutout streak intact. Managers have to be ready with a quick hook for a knuckleball pitcher which may make Wright more suited for the long relief role than Pomeranz would be.

Wright has been outstanding and deserves to stay in the rotation for now but let’s pump the breaks on making it a permanent solution after only two starts. He will undoubtedly regress. He’s capable of producing a season similar to his 2016 All-Star campaign. Just don’t forget that Pomeranz is a former All-Star with a strong track record.

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Sticking with Wright in the rotation for the rest of the season will take some combination of his continued success and Pomeranz’ failure to bounce back. It’s too soon to count on either of those scenarios.