Though Starting as a Reliever, Steven Wright May End as a Starter

Sports writers like MassLive’s Christopher Smith are wondering whether knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright, recently back in play with the Boston Red Sox, will replace Drew Pomeranz as a starter. Reason: Pomeranz “continues to struggle.” And Wright is till pretty darn good.

[T]he Red Sox have an usual situation with three starters (Wright, Brian Johnson and Hector Velazquez) working out of the bullpen. Any of those three pitchers could take Pomeranz’s spot if he continues to falter….

Wright seems like the most logical replacement if Pomeranz continues to struggle his next few starts. He made the AL All-Star team as a starting pitcher in 2016. And he has looked extremely sharp as a reliever, which has to be a tough role for a knuckleballer. He hurled three scoreless innings in relief of Pomeranz to record the win over the Braves.

He has a 3.27 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and .184 opponent batting average in four relief outings (11 innings).

The knuckleballer is pitching like he wants back into the starting rotation.

“My goal, I’ve already accomplished that, which is to get back into games,” Wright said. “So for me right now, like I said since 2013, it doesn’t matter to me if I’m starting or relieving. I just want to go out there…make quality pitches, change speeds on the knuckleball and try to go as deep into games as I can, whether it’s relieving or starting.”

So if Pomeranz manages to remain as a starter, both Wright and manager Alex Cora are fine with Wright as a reliever. Indeed, MLB’s Ian Browne reported a couple of weeks ago that Cora seemed to regard the mid-game switch to a knuckleballer as the best chance for the knuckleball to bewilder batters.

“Talking to the catchers, they’re comfortable with him coming in in the middle of the game, so that’s important,” Cora said. “Having a knuckleballer coming in in the middle of a game is not something everybody has. But for everything I’ve heard and I’ve seen in the past, when he’s good, he’s really good. So he can be a game-changer.

“If you have a guy throwing 97, 98 [mph] early in the game, you bring a knuckleballer in the middle of the game, and I don’t know how much it’s going to affect the opposition. But it’ll be interesting. Obviously, he’s healthy, he’s here, and he’s a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

Other observers agree with Cora’s suggestion that a mid-game switch to a knuckleball pitcher may make the knuckleball even more effective in throwing off batters. One fan reminds us that Hoyt Wilhelm “was an extremely effective reliever for the New York Giants.” So why not keep the guy with knuckleball in place as a reliever even if Pomeranz has to be moved?

Be that as it may, Wright has been doing pretty well for an athlete who until a few weeks ago had not pitched in a regular game since late April 2017.

Over the last several years, he has demonstrated a lot of staying power—and returning power. Good for him and good for the knuckleball. After all, unless and until R.A. Dickey returns to the field, Steven Wright is now the only full-time knuckler in the MLB.

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Speaking of Steven Wright, check out the profile of him published in 2016 by Martin Kessler. Kessler writes that in 2011, Wright

was still in the minors, still spending nights asleep in the center aisle of a bus. That fastball that had worked so well in college wasn’t fast enough in the pros.

In danger of being released from the team, Wright turned to a trick pitch—one he had thrown while playing catch with Shannon, but never in a game.

“Every now and then he would throw it at me,” Shannon says, “and he would just laugh at my reaction. I hated it.”

The pitch was the knuckleball. Thrown correctly, the ball flutters unexpectedly and can fool even the best hitters. Throw it wrong, and it’s likely to land in the seats.

“I had nothing else to do, to be honest with you. It just got to the point where it was kind of a last resort.”

We’ve heard that before about the career-rescuing benefits of pitching the knuckleball.

Seven years after he was drafted by the Indians, three years after he made that transition to the knuckleball and four months after Pastore’s death, Steven Wright, at the age of 28, made his first big league appearance for the Boston Red Sox.

It took until this year for Wright to make the starting rotation. Midway through the 2016 season, he’s allowing fewer runs than any pitcher in the American League.

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