Come Back to Knuckleball Pitching, Steven Wright (When You’re Ready)

We’re hearing good reports of knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright’s progress, and keeping our fingers crossed that he’ll be in action again before this MLB season expires. Slow and steady wins the race, in this case. Wright acknowledges that he pushed himself and his post-op knee a bit too hard, too fast when he returned to the game this year. Not that gauging just the right amount of exertion on your way back to peak condition is an exact science.

“I think it’s a surgery that nobody’s rehabbed before,” Wright told MassLive. “It kind of sucks because a lot of it is trial and error. I came back, and I was throwing the ball well. But I just think the workload was too much, too soon as far as being a starter and trying to go out there seven innings. But it was something that we just didn’t know.”

“When you’re throwing the ball well, you keep going out,” Wright added. “It’s easy to look back and be like, ‘Maybe shouldn’t have done this. Maybe should have done this different.’ ”

Indeed, Wright was throwing extremely well until the relapse that got him back on the disabled list.

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TheAthletic.com is taking a look at Milwaukee Brewer Erik Kratz’s pitching this season, noting that he is responsible for three out of the 52 times so far that a position player has taken over the mound in 2018.

Kratz allowed two runs (one earned) in his first appearance against the Cincinnati Reds, and since he has thrown two scoreless innings, striking out two batters. His fastball cocks in at 77.8 mph, so it’s not like he’s throwing gas. But he’s been effective, thanks in large part to his knuckleball.

That’s right. Kratz, a catcher, throws a knuckleball. A pretty good one, too.

The August 18 article is behind The Athletic’s pay wall. We posted about Kratz in July of this year and in April 2016.

Fans have noticed Kratz’s versatility. On one Reddit thread, commenter ahendler says, “My little league gave out the Jamie Moyer Award to the best pitcher and the Erik Kratz Award to the best hitter. Maybe they need to just name both the Erik Kratz Award.”

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At his web site, Bill James, guru of Sabermetrics—a kind of refined analysis of baseball stats designed to extract Moneyball-type insights into performance—answers readers’ questions. Recently a reader wanted to know whether there is a pitcher so skilled in a range of pitches “that the usual expectations about what pitch was likely to come next have successfully been thwarted in the minds of batters? Or is this kind of thing actually common among top-flight pitchers?”

In response, James noted that in the 1920s and 1930s, “pitchers threw a much wider variety of pitches than they do now.” Later, greater stress was placed on throwing only those pitches which one was best at, so that pitching repertoires became more limited. What kind of pitcher is the most limited of all? James cites Tim Wakefield as an example of a pitcher with a single-pitch repertoire.

A few years ago, probably ten years ago, I developed a method to measure the variety of pitches thrown by each pitchers, a “repertoire index.”  A pitcher like Tim Wakefield, who just threw knuckleballs on every pitch, had a repertoire index not much above 1.00, while most pitchers had repertoire indexes in the range of 2.20 to 2.60.

Seems very limiting (until you look at Wakefield’s career). James is slightly inaccurate here, though. Like most effective knuckleball specialists, Wakefield also had a few other pitches up his sleeve.

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In 2016, Wakefield had this to say to Henry McKenna about Steven Wright’s knuckleball, which Wake had helped hone:

“Just the consistency of the violence in the strike zone is truly amazing…. He’s more consistent. He corrects his mistakes quickly within an inning. When I say that, you throw a couple bad ones, you gotta figure out really quickly why you’re throwing bad ones, and change your mechanics, change your delivery to not allow that to happen. Because obviously with a knuckleball, throwing it with the speed you’re throwing it, if it’s not working, it’s going to get hit pretty far.”

“His knuckleball is really good,” the Red Sox Hall of Famer added. “I mean it’s really good. It’s very violent in the strike zone, and that’s the ideal way to throw it.”

Let’s  see it again soon, Steven Wright (when you’re ready)!

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