In Scoreless Ninth, Sox Knuckleball Pitcher Steven Wright Picks Up Save Against Mets

A Rotoworld item notes Steven Wright’s performance in the Sox’s September 16 game against the New York Mets. The knuckleball pitcher

pitched a scoreless ninth inning to pick up a save against the Mets on Sunday. Wright walked one and struck out one… Wright was able to get his work in and also pick up a save in the process. It’s not only the first of the season for the 34-year-old knuckleballer, it’s the first save of his career.

Final score: Boston Red Sox 4, New York Mets 3.

Wright has been doing well pitching in late-inning relief. In Chris Smith’s Sept 11 Mass Live article about “The bad” and “The good” in the previous Sunday’s game, Sox versus Houston Astros, Smith placed Steven Wright in the category of

The good: Knuckleballer Steven Wright pitched a scoreless seventh and eighth. Craig Kimbrel (4.11 ERA, 1.37 WHIP after the All-Star Break) pitched a perfect ninth. He struck out both George Springer and Jose Altuve, then retired Alex Bregman on a lineout to center field.

After Wright and Kimbrel pitched three scoreless frames, Mitch Moreland blooped an RBI single to left in the ninth to lift Boston to a 6-5 walkoff win over the Astros.

Cora said before Saturday’s game, “We probably have to manage the bullpen a little bit different.”

Perhaps giving Wright higher-leverage situations is part of what Cora meant. The knuckleballer has allowed four runs in 20 innings of relief (1.80 ERA) this season. He always has pitched effectively in a Red Sox uniform when not dealing with knee and shoulder issues.

CBSSports adds, about the same September 9 game against the Astros:

Wright entered a tied game in the seventh inning against a good-hitting team while trying to prevent the Red Sox from being swept…. The situation, coupled with Wright throwing multiple innings for the first time since his most recent return from a knee injury, suggests manager Alex Cora trusts Wright in important situations.

As Chris Smith observes, Wright has been effective when unencumbered by injury. Last June, his pitching slid because of knee inflammation, interrupting a streak of excellent performances. He had apparently placed too much stress on his knee too soon. So he was sent back to the disabled list. Now that he has returned to the mound, Wright and the Sox are apparently calibrating the degree of his physical exertion a bit more carefully. And he has returned to form.

For example, last Wednesday:

Wright allowed a hit and a walk in a scoreless eighth inning in Wednesday’s [September 12] 1-0 win over the Blue Jays.

Wright has been used in key situations the last two times out, which is odd for a knuckleballer. However, Wright is able to get the pitch in the zone, and manager Alex Cora desperately needs someone to become a reliable eighth-inning bridge to closer Craig Kimbrel. Matt Barnes (hip) might be that guy when he returns, but it doesn’t hurt to have more than one setup man.

Is that the plan into the postseason? Wright as eighth-inning bridge?

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Knuckleball pitcher Mickey Jannis, currently with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, is discussed in Steve Sypa’s recent review of the Ponies’ 2018 season.

Mickey Jannis was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 44th round of the 2010 MLB Draft, but was released after the 2011 season and found himself a washout. Pitching in independent leagues and Australia, Jannis looked to rebound, but not as a conventional pitcher. Converting into a knuckleball pitcher, the right-hander posted solid results on various independent teams until he caught the attention of Mets officials in 2015, when he was playing with the Long Island Ducks—who just so happened to be managed by former Mets Hall of Famer Buddy Harrelson. Jannis was signed and was quite a hit in his first year back in professional baseball, posing a 3.55 ERA in 58.1 innings split between the St. Lucie and Binghamton Mets. He has since become a reliable workhorse for the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, leading the franchise in games started and innings pitched.

Unlike most knuckleball pitchers, Jannis actually has a halfway decent fastball, sitting in the high-80s, but his bread-and-butter is the knuckleball. The pitch has a large velocity range, as low as 70 MPH and as high as 80 MPH, and features mesmerizing, unpredictable movement as the knuckleball is wont to do. Also unlike many knuckleball pitchers, Jannis has demonstrated some ability to control it, posting a career 3.3 BB/9 rate in 398.2 career innings with the Rumble Ponies. Since becoming a mainstay in their rotation, he has actually improved his control of it, going from 4.9 BB/9 in 2016 to 2.8 BB/9 in 2017 to 2.3 BB/9 in 2018, all in a similar amount of innings. Likewise, his strikeouts have increased during that same time period, going from 5.3 K/9 in 2016 to 6.1 K/9 in 2017 to 7.2 in 2018.

We’re not sure that Jannis is so rare among knuckleballers in having a “halfway decent fastball.” Knuckleball pitchers will occasionally deploy decent enough fastballs and other pitches, in part to exploit the element of surprise. (Here’s an article about Wright’s fastball. Here’s one about R.A. Dickey’s fastball.) What is true is that if knuckleballers had always been top pitchers of the fastball as opposed to just halfway decent pitchers of it, they would have been less likely to turn to a pitch that few can throw with any consistent decency: the knuckleball.

In 2015, William Boor published an article at MLB.com about Jannis’s switch to the knuckleball. And click here for links to several previous IKA posts about Mickey Jannis.

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