Sox Knuckleball Pitcher Steven Wright Is Back as a Starter, for Now; PLUS: Famed 45-year-old Knucklers

Comeback Kid Steven Wright, once again excelling as a knuckleball pitcher after a year away from baseball, will be serving as a starting pitcher at least for the moment. (See our last post, “Though Starting as a Reliever, Steven Wright May End as a Starter.”) WEEI’s Rob Bradford reports that Wright is getting a chance

to once again experience life as a starting pitcher, even if for just a brief moment.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora said before his team’s game Sunday night that Wright would be getting a spot start Tuesday night against the Tigers at Fenway Park. The move allows the rest of the starting rotation to get an extra day of rest, with the Sox scheduled for an off day Monday.

“We’re going to push everybody back,” Cora said…. “I think it’s good for him and also I think pushing everybody back is going to be beneficial for us in the long run.”…

Despite his late start—due to the recovery from knee surgery and a 15-game suspension due to his domestic abuse arrest—Wright has become a valuable piece of the Sox’s pitching puzzle. During Sunday’s media session, the role was compared to that of Julian Tavarez during the Red Sox’ world championship season of 2007.

Given how well things have been going with Wright, Cora says he expects to keep making the knuckleballer’s role “a little bigger and more important.”

The problem with his knee that knocked Steven Wright out of the 2017 season has mostly faded. “[I]t doesn’t hurt,” he told Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. “It’s just it’s different. Because it’s new…. Sometimes it just gets a little bit more achy, which they say could last for the next couple years if not for the rest of my life. As long as when I go out there, I’m able to just compete.”

Mastrodonato likes Wright’s number so far in 2018.

The numbers have looked mighty good. Wright has thrown 231 knuckleballs this year and only allowed five singles, three doubles and one homer while opponents are hitting .167 off the pitch, according to Brooks Baseball.

The average exit velocity off the bat against him is a career-low 85.6 mph, according to Baseball Savant, which is the same exit velocity off the bat against Clayton Kershaw and ranks 56th out of 455 pitchers with at least 25 batted balls.

UPDATE June 6: Steven Wright pitched seven scoreless innings today and helped deliver a 6-0 win for the Boston Red Sox over the Detroit Tigers. Not a bad start as a starter this season. The knuckleball was in full form, apparently. (And see this instant-hit video of one of those knucklers.)

Tigers manager: “You need a tennis racket to hit those things sometimes.”

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Knuckleballer Josh Turley, of the Toledo Mud Hens, says he likes the wind’s impact on his pitch. “I think the most fun climate to throw it in is when the wind is blowing in your face,” he tells the Toledo Blade. “The ball just takes off and you really don’t know where it’s going to go, but the movement is absolutely crazy. People think I’m crazy for saying that because it’s a hitter’s advantage with the wind blowing out, but it’s pretty fun for a knuckleballer to see.”

Turley’s knuckleball is a work in progress, says The Athletic’s Emily Waldon.

Since starting the year with Double-A Erie, Turley has dropped his FIP from 5.42 to 3.40 and [increased] his strikeouts per nine innings from 7.3 to 9.3. The pitch dances just enough to keep hitters off balance, but the pure command of it is still spotty. Turley, 27, is walking five per nine innings in seven appearances with Toledo.

There’s no question Turley has a feel for the knuckleball, but the biggest challenge is mastering the dance of the pitch, instead of letting it master you. The deception is there, however, and a lefty knuckleballer is just intriguing enough, I think, for the Tigers to consider adding him out of their bullpen at some point this season.

So, thumbs up for Turley’s development as a knuckleballer.

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The top two on Joe Posnanslo’s list at MLB.com of “best players after age 45” are Phil Niekro (#1) and Hoyt Wilhelm (#2). Forty is old in baseball, says Posnanslo, and 45 is “ancient.” It’s an accomplishment just to be playing at all in the MLB at that point.

When Hoyt Wilhelm died in 2002, people learned that he was an even more phenomenal ancient knuckleball pitcher than everyone had thought. He had already been viewed “as the most effective ancient player in baseball history.”

But the nursing home that handled Wilhelm’s funeral arrangements was given his birth certificate and it showed something extraordinary: He was actually one year older than he had claimed to be while pitching in the big leagues.

This meant that when Wilhelm had his extraordinary season in 1968—pitching 93 2/3 innings in relief, allowing just 69 hits, finishing with a 1.73 ERA and a 72-to-24 strikeout-to-walk ratio—he was actually 45, not 44 as everyone thought. That, along with Niekro’s 1984 season, is the greatest ever for a 45-year-old….

Wilhelm pitched even longer than Niekro, making it to age 49. You could argue that Wilhelm was better knuckler-for-knuckler than Niekro (he made the All-Star team at age 47), but Niekro’s role as a starter was tougher and that gives him the edge.

Was it this knuckleball pitcher or that knuckleball pitcher who was the top post-45 pitcher in the MLB? We won’t object if anyone calls it a tie.

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A young knuckleballer we may be hearing from again is high school senior Sam Swap of Ivoryton, CT, who “is proving himself a unique and valuable asset to the Valley Regional baseball team this year.” He is Zip06’s Sports Person of the Week.

Sam, a right-hander, features an interesting repertoire of pitches. Along with his traditional fastball, curveball, and slider, he also sports a knuckleball. The knuckler is an uncommon pitch at any level, but especially in high school. Sam learned the knuckleball from his father, Peter, and it’s his favorite pitch to throw. When Sam is ahead in the count, he often uses the knuckleball to put hitters away.

“I’m known for being able to throw a knuckleball well. My dad taught it to me at a young age. I thought it was the best pitch ever,” says Sam. “I throw the knuckleball whenever I get up in the count. It keeps the hitters off-balance. I don’t try to throw it hard. I lose control at higher speeds.

“When it spins, it’s just a meatball down the plate. When I throw it right, it’s pretty unhittable….

“I gained a lot of knowledge from pitching watching the pros a lot and how they handle it. Then I put that into my own pitching routine. I’ve been a Red Sox fan my whole life. My favorite pitcher of all time is Tim Wakefield. He was one of the best, definitely. I gained a lot of confidence from watching him pitch. It made me realize you don’t need a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. You just need a good pitch that you know when and where to throw it to get a guy out.”

Correct. The knuckleball doesn’t have to be a fastball. Also, you can throw it at almost any age.

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