How does this year’s Steven Wright stack up against 2016 All-Star Steven Wright?
Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (June 15, 2018 – Source: Abbie Parr/Getty Images North America)
Not all that long ago, the year was 2016 and the buzz felt at PETCO Park in sunny San Diego, California was palpable. David Ortiz still donned a Red Sox uniform, representing the team in the 87th All-Star game alongside Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Craig Kimbrel and, yes, Steven Wright, the knuckleball pitcher who had risen to prominence out of nowhere.
Wright, after spending years in the minors and two underwhelming partial seasons in the majors, had finally established himself as a successful MLB pitcher in the first half of 2016. Through that period, the knuckleballer logged 114 innings of 2.68 ERA ball and did what his kind of pitcher does best: induce weak contact. It was a storybook season for Wright until he started to struggle with right shoulder inflammation shortly after the All-Star break. He got shelled in the second half of the year, which remained the case in 2017 as well.
In fact, his ’17 season was cut short in May, as the 33-year-old had to have knee surgery. Wright was only able to provide the Red Sox a small taste of what he was capable of. The brevity of his success bred questions about how legitimate it was. Could Wright have been a mere flash in the pan, aided by luck? Considering he was a knuckleballer, a rather volatile profession, these questions were amplified. Expectations were relatively low for him entering 2018, coupled with a 15-game suspension for violating MLB’s domestic violence policy.
After serving the suspension and a brief rehab assignment (knee) was completed, he returned to the majors as a reliever. Reports indicated that he yearned to be a starter, but there was not room in the rotation to slot him in. Well, after dominating out of the bullpen, he was given an opportunity to showcase his value as a starter when the struggling Drew Pomeranz went to disabled list. It appeared to be more of a tryout than anything, given Pom’s woes.
His first start was an overwhelming success, logging 7 innings of 0 earned-run ball with just 2 hits against the Detroit Tigers. Honestly, that one start probably sufficed in convincing the Sox he was the superior starting pitching option over Pomeranz. It did not hurt, though, he has now done exceptional in three consecutive starts. In those games, he has accumulated 20 and 2/3 innings and allowed just a single run to cross home plate. Combined with his relief work, and the 2006 2nd-round pick sports a 1.23 ERA in 36 and 2/3 innings.
Despite the small sample, Wright has been excellent and, by run prevention, is having one of the best stretches of his career, if not the best. Comparisons between 2016 All-Star Steven Wright and this year’s version of Wright are being drawn. So, how similar is Wright to his past self?
Obviously, he is not allowing as many runs as he did in 2016, which is unfair because of the discrepancy in samples. The underlying statistics, especially at this point in his 2018 seasons, are more illuminating and interesting to look at. Currently, he possesses a solid 3.42 FIP (fielding independent pitching), which may be inflated by his rather unsustainable 0.25 HR/9 this year. In ’16, he posted a 3.77 FIP and struck out more batters (7.30 K/9) and walked fewer (3.27 BB/9) guys than this season. FIP takes into account only what a pitcher can control (strikeouts, walks and homeruns), possessing more predictive value than ERA, and dismisses anything defense-dependent (balls in play).
For a knuckleball pitcher especially, FIP can be a tad misleading because they are probably not going to be a big-strikeout guy and may post higher walk rates because of how hard it is to control the knuckler. By and large, it is a pitch designed to get weak contact. Consequently, let’s take a look at some batted-ball numbers. To start, there is an area this year that Wright is noticeably excelling compared to two years ago.
He is generating a 55.9 GB% (ground ball percentage), boasting a 1.79 GB/FB ratio on the year. This is an enormous leap than anything he has done in the past. The right-hander owns a career 45.2 GB% and in 2016 featured a 43.7 GB%. Knuckleballers want hitters to belt balls into the ground. Those are weaker-hit and more likely to be outs than line drives or fly balls.
It would be helpful to look at his heatmaps, courtesy of the lovely Fangraphs, of his 2016 and 2018 season to see if there is anything that would lead to the skyrocketed groundball rate. Here you go!
It appears he has a nice concentration of baseballs over the middle of the plate, with not too many low or high in the zone. In 2016, he did a wonderful job of keeping it down, even if there are some dark red zones in the middle. Knuckleball pitchers want to avoid leaving the ball up in the zone and he did that, for the most part, that year.
Well, this heatmap is certainly interesting and a major departure from what we just saw in the other graphic. More baseballs are being left up in the zone, but that is neutralized by his penchant to locate the ball down more so than in ’16. As a result, he is not leaving the ball over the heart of the plate like he did two seasons ago, with more balls down which means more grounders. He is, however, leaving baseballs high in the zone but a lot of them are close to being outside of the strike zone and some of them are out of the zone altogether. Perhaps the pitches are high enough where the damage is not as pronounced, although it is admittedly surprising his homerun rate is so low with where his pitch tendencies have been this year.
It would be neglectful not to mention he is running a truly unsustainable .202 BABIP, which is very far from his career .277 BABIP. Moreover, his LOB% (left-on base percentage of runners) is 90.4%, which is also very far from his career 72.0 LOB%. Both those numbers suggest there should be some regression to the mean for Wright and his ERA won’t stay sub-1.50.
Despite him yielding more balls in the ground, his hard-hit rate has increased from 2016 a bit to 29.5% this year. The quality of contact is not considerably different but hard-hit balls on the ground are much less potentially harmful than ones in the air or on a line.
He also has ramped up his knuckleball-usage considerably, throwing the pitch 88.0% of the time. In 2016, he tossed the offering 83.1%, mixing in the fastball more frequently. Since he spent time in the bullpen, this number may be distorted because he did not have to adjust to seeing hitters two or three times through the order. The more times hitters see a pitch, let alone one as unique as the knuckleball, they have time to make adjustments on it. This change in what Wright’s has thrown should not mean much but also could explain the uptick in grounders a tad.
From a peripheral standpoint (FIP), he is sort of the same pitcher in 2016 with a higher walk rate. Wright should start allowing more runs soon (sad, but true), however, he still stands to be a quality starter going forward. The main difference between this version and the ’16 version of Steven Wright is his groundball rate and his pitch location. More balls hit on the ground is inarguably a good thing for him, though, so it stands to reason he may be a better pitcher than he was in his All-Star campaign. Without question, though, he is a much better starting option for Boston than Drew Pomeranz and he should be an impactful piece for them all year and into the postseason.