After trading Jon Lester and John Lackey in the summer of 2014, the offseasons for the Red Sox have been highlighted by quests for starting pitching. Prior to the 2015 season, Ben Cherington hedged against spending big money in the rotation, forgoing Lester and Max Scherzer in favor of guys like Justin Masterson and Rick Porcello. We all know how that plan ended, though Porcello obviously turned things around in 2016. The next year, with Dave Dombrowski taking the helm, the team splurged for the mystical True Ace, signing David Price to his massive deal. It’s fair to say this strategy had better results. Although it wasn’t always smooth, the rotation ended up putting together a solid season and was a big reason this team made its way into the postseason. Again, some of Cherington’s moves had an impact on this, but the end result is that the team won’t be desperate for rotation help for the first winter in recent memory.
As of right now, and barring any unforeseen trades, there is a solid base upon which this rotation can be built. David Price and Rick Porcello should be a solid one-two punch atop a rotation. Drew Pomeranz and Eduardo Rodriguez showed enough to be counted on as high-upside midrotation arms. Even Clay Buchholz built his stock up enough to be in play for starts in 2017. Forgotten in all of this is Steven Wright. The rotation really built up its stock in the second half, and Wright was largely absent from much of that stretch. As fans, we have a tendency to overrate post-All-Star break performances, particularly when they are positive. However, Wright was the best pitcher on the team for most of the first half, and should be part of the picture heading into 2017. So, let’s take a look back at his season as a whole and figure out what to expect from him in the coming season.
There is a logical tendency to downplay Wright’s performance when he was at his peak, both because knuckleballers are inherently worrisome and because he had close to no track record before going on his run. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that his performance was trending downwards before he was shut down for the season. His last two starts in particular were ugly as he pitched to an 8.10 ERA. However, he still showed flashes of brilliance in his final start before initially hitting the disabled list, throwing a complete game shutout with nine strikeouts against the Dodgers.
Overall, there are two ways you can look at Wright’s season. By ERA and FIP, he had a fantastic season finishing with a 3.33 ERA and a 3.73 FIP. The latter number isn’t super impressive, but it’s made better by the fact that knuckleballers generally out-perform their peripherals. On the other hand, DRA and cFIP weren’t as enthused, with the former viewing him as slightly better than league-average and the latter seeing him as slightly worse. Taking everything into consideration, my gut tells me the numbers are more than fine, but there are real concerns. More specifically, it looks like he’s right on the precipice of unacceptable walk totals. Wright walked 3.3 batters per nine innings, compared to a league-average of 2.96 from starting pitchers. Knuckleballers are certainly going to miss the zone more often than one would ideally like due to the random nature of their pitch, but there’s a limit to how many free passes one can allow.
The issue for Wright in this regard, though, isn’t that he’s missing the zone. In fact, among the 142 pitchers with at least 1500 pitches in 2016, only 15 hit the zone more often. The problem is that opponents weren’t chasing his knuckleball. Among that same crop of pitchers, only Chase Anderson induced fewer swings out of the zone. This does make some sense as hitters are more likely to expect a ball coming from the unpredictable knuckleball, making them more inclined to take any given pitch. As long as he’s hitting the zone at such a high rate, his walk rate should stay stable. While he’s been able to do so throughout his major-league career, it’s always a fine line with a knuckleballer.
The other interesting portion of his season was his ability to suppress success on batted balls. As I said before, knuckleballers are able to outperform their peripherals, and Wright was no exception by allowing a .279 BABIP. He does so because the knuckleball is very hard to barrell. While he doesn’t allow a ton of ground balls — his 45 percent ground ball rate is almost exactly in the middle of the pack — he makes up for that by inducing a ton of fly balls. Among the 144 pitchers with at least 100 innings, just 15 allowed fly balls more often. The result is that just one pitcher allowed fewer line drives on a rate basis.* This appears to be a sustainable skill. To illustrate how hard he is to square up, look no further than his swinging strike rate (31st out of 142) and his contact rate on pitches in the zone (third lowest). Wright was also helped by an outstanding outfield defense that should stay in tact heading into next season.
*That pitcher was Clay Buchholz, for what it’s worth.
So, with all of this said, I think it’s fair to mostly expect positive things from Wright in 2017. I think there will be some speculation about him being traded this winter, but I wouldn’t expect it to actually happen. The value any pitcher can fetch in a trade is intriguing, but one must consider the cost of acquiring a replacement. Although he almost certainly won’t be the Cy Young candidate he was for much of the first half, there’s enough evidence Wright should be a positive contributor. As long as he continues to hit the zone as much as he has in the past, he’ll be able to walk the fine line around free passes. The combination of the weak contact he allows and the strong defense behind him will allow him to continue to suppress opponents’ BABIPs. The end product is a strong addition behind Price and Porcello and a contributor to what should be another solid Red Sox rotation.
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