What are the possibilities of the Boston Red Sox assigning the closer role to Steven Wright? Knuckleball pitchers have a history of being the occasion closer.
If you decide to stay overnight in Boston for a Red Sox game you may choose to stay at a hotel virtually next to Fenway Park and that is the Buckminster, but it is also noted for a dark connection to baseball history. There is a plaque at the hotel commemorating the site of the formulation of the Black Sox Scandal and that leads to another connection – Eddie Cicotte.
Cicotte had the nickname “knuckles” and that was given since eight men out the righty was one of several credited with inventing the knuckleball. Cicotte pitched for the Red Sox early in his career as a starter and reliever who was 41-48 in four years with three saves while in Boston. Those could well have been the first saves by a knuckleball pitcher.
The Red Sox will need a closer and one option is the versatile Steven Wright. Wright has had more success (6-0, 2.99) out of the bullpen than as a starter. Last season Wright notched his first MLB save and just may be the next closer.
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A knuckleball can be frightening when on and even more frightening when off. Tim Wakefield once gave up six home runs in a game off his knuckleball but did win. And Wakefield did close for the Red Sox as noted with his 22 career saves, but his 1999 season saw 15 of those saves while three were blown.
The career saves record of 228 for a knuckleball pitcher is held by the remarkable Hoyt Wilhelm who did not make it to the majors until he was 29-years-old and then pitched for 21 seasons. A distant second is Eddie Fisher who notched 81 career saves. Third on the list is Charlie Hough with a mere 61 saves. Hough won 216 games and like most knuckleball pitchers pitched mostly as a starter.
Wright is now 34-years-old and for a knuckleball pitcher, that is midlife in baseball. Hough pitched until he was 46-years-old. Phil Niekro fluttered his way into the baseball Hall of Fame with 316 wins and was pitching into his late 40s. And brother Joe Niekro lasted until he was 43-years-old.
The beauty of a knuckleball pitcher is the minimization of wear and tear on the arm. Former Red Sox bonus baby Wilbur Wood won and lost 20+ games in the same season. Wood also once started both games of a double-header and from 1971-75 pitched 1,620.2 innings. Wright could pitch multiple innings with ease and has in relief.
A knuckleball gives a different look with movement and of course speed or lack of speed. After seeing assorted heat for eight innings the sudden change can disrupt timing for a pitcher advantage. Then there is saving the bullpen option.
Today baseball is rather structured with pitching assignments as a starter giving a solid five innings is fast becoming the norm. At that point, the marching to the mound begins with setup, bridge, closer and so on. A Wright can be a nice respite for a worn bullpen with his ability to pitch multiple innings with relative ease and then come back for more the next day.
Wright also followed a similar path of all knuckleball pitchers in that Wright was a traditional pitcher who mastered the knuckleball. Wright can throw other pitches and will toss the occasional slider, change, and fastball. Wright’s fastball also has some juice to it occasionally hitting the high 80s.
Scouts, fans, and management love heat and by the heat that means the fastball. It’s pitching sexy or is it? Mark Buehrle won 214 games with a fastball measured at the same velocity as Wright’s (85.9). Former Red Sox closer Keith Foulke would only touch the high 80s with a strong tailwind. What counts is location and changing speeds and Wright has mastered that.
With Wright, the issue is not his ability to pitch as the real question is will he be able to pitch? The history of Wright’s balky knee is well documented and last season it kept the righty on the shelf for much of the season. In September Wright returned and allowed just one earned run in 13.2 innings, but the knee concerns kept Wright off the playoff rosters.
The competition for a closer will be the must-see TV along with Dustin Pedroia this spring. Craig Kimbrel is apparently gone and the favorites would have to be Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier, but Wright could easily move into the front-runner slot with a healthy and productive spring.