Welcome to BP Boston’s Roster Recap series! We continue to break down every player on Boston’s 40-man roster and many of the top prospects in order to provide a comprehensive overview of the roster’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as what we can expect moving forward. There’s no better time than the offseason to review the best (there was some best!) and worst (there was a lot of worst!) of the past year in red and navy. You can see previous editions of Roster Recap here.
For me, Steven Wright is a really interesting part of the Red Sox roster. Given that he is likely to serve as a swing-man in Boston, going between the backend of the rotation and middle relief, or spend a chunk of his time in Pawtucket, it is easy to see why he would get overlooked. But the versatility Wright brings in taking on those fringy roles is why I think the 31-year-old Wright and his ever-developing knuckleball will have an important role in the coming Red Sox season.
Wright was selected 56th overall in the 2006 draft by the Cleveland Indians. At the time, he was a conventional pitcher featuring a fastball, changeup and a breaking pitch, but, simply put, the conventional approach was not working all that well. Look at his ERAs from the 2007-2010 seasons and you’ll find five of his nine stints end with an ERA over 4.50. Sure, some of those stints involve low innings-pitched totals, but, in general, the numbers show that he was wanting in effectiveness. The inconsistent and, for the most part, poor performance, led Wright to be bounced back and forth between starting and relieving in those seasons, and to him tinkering with the knuckleball at the end of 2010. He needed to add an out-pitch, found success with it and from then on worked as a knuckleballer.
Wright arrived in the Red Sox organization at the 2012 trade deadline as part of the swap with Cleveland for then-highly-touted prospect Lars Anderson. Since arriving in the Red Sox organization Wright has pitched well in the minor leagues (3.45 ERA, 2.1 K/BB in 313.1 IP), and posted mixed results in his opportunities with Boston that work out to a pretty decent line (3.95 ERA, 2.1 K/BB in 107.0 IP). It is not clear if he will be on the Opening Day roster, but regardless, Wright will need to remain flexible with his role if he wants to spend much time in Boston.
What Went Right in 2015
Wright split his time between Pawtucket and Boston last season. At Pawtucket he was used exclusively as a starter, while in Boston he started nine games and appeared in seven more as a reliever. Despite throwing a largely unpredictable pitch, Wright showed good control. Between the two levels he struck out 94 batters while only walking 42, which is a good ratio and indicative of his ability to throw strikes. But looking at things on a more granular level reveals just how well he controlled his knuckler. During his time in Boston last season – the stint for which PITCHf/x data is available – Wright fluttered over half of his pitches through the strike zone (54.8%). Wright’s in-the-zone rate was the fifth-best in baseball among the 190 pitchers who threw at least 70 innings last year, and much higher than the 2015 league average rate (47.8%). Wright’s level of strike-throwing last year was comparable to guys like Max Scherzer, David Price and Shelby Miller, but Wright’s mark is remarkable given that three quarters of his offerings were a knuckleball.
Throwing pitches in the strike zone is one thing, but doing so while not getting knocked all over the ballpark is another. Hitters tend to perform better when contacting pitches in the strike zone, so limiting contact is an important aspect of throwing in the zone. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs pointed out in an article last March, Wright has a history of being very good at minimizing contact on pitches in the zone. This ability continued in 2015, as his zone-contact rate (79.3%) was the third-lowest in baseball among that same group of pitchers who tossed 70 or more innings. He trailed only Max Scherzer (79.0) and Dellin Betances (78.7). Other players at the top-end of this list include Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Matt Harvey; those are cherry-picked examples but represent company worth keeping.
Having a pitch like Wright’s knuckleball that moves a lot but ends up in the zone and generally avoids getting hit seems like a good combination:
Wright’s knuckleball is ridiculous tonight https://t.co/Byaixnwbtb
— Sox Lunch (@Soxlunch) August 6, 2015
What Went Wrong in 2015
Despite controlling the strike zone and limiting contact within it, Wright was not exactly the elite pitcher I may have made him out to be in the previous section. Among those pitchers who threw at least 70 major league innings last season, Wright’s cFIP (113) was 38th worst and his DRA (4.11) was 98th worst, although right around league average (96 DRA-). These middling marks were driven, at least partially, by his good fortune in getting batted balls turned into outs. Good fortune is not something typically considered as “going wrong,” but it is in the sense that it clouds the interpretation of how Wright actually pitched. His BABIP-against last season in Boston was a paltry .252, which was much lower than was previously typical for him: .320 in his 34.1 major-league innings prior to 2015, and .297 in his 1005.0 minor league innings, which includes the .331 mark he posted for Pawtucket last year. An 80-point swing in BABIP across levels in the same season is huge and not really something we should expect Wright to maintain.
You may think that some of his fortune with batted balls was a result of getting weak contact. We know that he did well in limiting contact, so perhaps the contact he allowed was not all that great. It is a reasonable hypothesis, but one that ultimately lacks support. Again comparing him to those pitchers who posted 70-plus major league innings last season, Wright allowed the 14th highest rate of hard hit contact (33.9%). He had the honor of being at the top of that prestigious chart with teammates Joe Kelly and Rick Porcello, ranked third and 24th, respectively. In case you missed it, Red Sox pitchers were hit hard in 2015. Wright allowing hard-hit balls as often as he did makes the low BABIP-against all the more surprising. He was frequently allowing rockets, but as it turns out they were often hit right at somebody, which is just lucky. If those rockets start finding holes his slightly below league-average runs-allowed rate will quickly be considerably above league-average, thereby limiting his effectiveness. All told, the 2015 cFIP and DRA numbers offer a more realistic measure of what we should expect from Wright going forward.
While hard hit balls were a concern for Wright while he was on the mound, unfortunately he did not have a chance to make adjustments over the final six weeks of the season, as he was struck in the head with a ball in early August while completing his daily running drills during batting practice. He was diagnosed with a concussion and initially placed on the 7-day disabled list, however, his concussive symptoms persisted to the point that he was transferred to the 15-day DL and ended up missing the remainder of the season. The Red Sox training staff, and folks at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program ensured that Wright was not rushed back into the lineup. Instead they worked towards a goal of having him enter the offseason healthy and able to prepare for the 2016 season.
Outlook for 2016
Anticipating the performance of a knuckleballer with any certainty is for the most part a fool’s errand. They throw an unpredictable pitch that can be at the mercy of the wind, humidity or myriad other factors on the night it is thrown. However, Wright has shown an advanced ability to control the pitch, so he has the potential to be effective. The good news for Wright (and the Red Sox) is that he doesn’t need to be much more than league average. Even at his averagish cFIP and DRA marks in 2015, Wright was a positive contributor, accumulating 0.7 WARP. If Wright pitches at a roughly similar level but is used flexibly and as a result throws more innings, he could be a 1- to 2-win contributor. Wright can start, he can relieve, he can eat up innings to save a bullpen, and his primary pitch has a positive knock-on effect for the next guy to toe the rubber. For these reasons Wright can be an important piece on this team throughout the coming season.
Photo by Mark L. Baer/USA Today Sports Images