How Does Steven Wright Keep the Knuckleball-Induced Strikes Coming?

Steven WrightThe sports reporters have been observing that Steven Wright is pretty darn good lately. This is a guy who was knocked out of play by injury last season and not certain to be a regular on the mound as the 2016 season started.

Christopher Smith at MassLive.com feels a comparison to Roger Clemens, also Clay Buchholz, is in order in the matter of pitching streaks. According to Smith’s May 8 report:

Wright and Clemens, per the Red Sox daily notes, are the only Boston pitchers in the past 100 years to record at least 5 innings while giving up two or fewer runs and six or fewer hits in eight straight starts. Clemens’s streak was from Sept. 29, 1990 through May 13, 1991.

Wright is 4-3 with a 1.89 ERA and .194 opponent average in his past eight starts.

The knuckleballer also has pitched at least 6 innings and allowed two or fewer runs in each of his five starts in 2016. Clemens and Clay Buchholz are the only other Red Sox in the past 50 years to start a season that way.

Just this past Sunday, Wright wowed with his performance in the Sox’s 5-1 victory over the New York Yankees. He “has been one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball this season,” says NESN.com’s Nicholas Goss in his report on the game:

The knuckleballer threw a complete game and allowed just one earned run and three hits, while striking out seven and walking only one. He needed just 53 pitches to complete five innings, allowing only a single hit through the first five frames….

Wright wasn’t even supposed to be in the rotation to begin the season, but now it would be impossible to think of it without him. He’s been the most consistent and successful Red Sox pitcher in 2016.

That theme of “hey, he wasn’t even supposed to be here” keeps popping up. A few days earlier, CBSSports.com’s R. J. Anderson had dubbed Wright the “Boston Red Sox’s latest knuckleball success story”:

Steven Wright’s impressive April has made it easy to forget, but he entered the spring without a guaranteed spot in the Red Sox’s Opening Day rotation….

[W]hile almost nothing about Wright is conventional—he’s a knuckleballer, after all—his early-season success is owed to a simple formula.

The dream for all pitchers is to live in the strike zone without getting punished. Wright has done just that. He entered Monday ranked first in zone percentage and fifth in in-zone contact rate, according to PITCHf/x data. Consider the former a testament to his control over the knuckler, and the latter to the pitch’s quality—batters know it’s coming about 90 percent of the time, yet they still can’t barrel it up. That’s a lovely combination—and not one you’d expect from a knuckleballer.

So that’s the simplest explanation for how Wright is doing it — but will he keep it up?

So dashed simple! Just combine the knuckleball’s quirkiness with surgically precise, disciplined control. Be wild along the straight and narrow and you’ll get them every time.

Batter confusedOf course, it is simpler to summarize than to do. Any knuckleballer will attest that sustaining an effective knuckleball, one that stays vexingly unpredictable while also staying (“living”) in the strike zone, is no matter of straightforward repeatable procedure.

Or rather, that’s not all it is. Certain definite basic ingredients do compose a knuckleball in a first approximation. But a lot more goes into the chucking of a killer knuck than those basic ingredients. Knuckleballers must continually re-master the pitch to generate that wild-but-not-too-wild flow. Along with other factors—and constant training—focus and confidence no doubt have a lot to do with the ability of Wright or any accomplished knuckleballer to mesh knuckleball-quirkiness with knuckleball-discipline pitch after pitch, inning after inning, game after game.

To be sure, despite the way we’ve pounced on his wording, Anderson may well essentially agree with what we’re saying here. So just to be gentlemanly we’ll give him the last word:

If we had to guess whether will Wright continue to pitch this well, we’d go with obviously not—there aren’t exactly many pitchers likely to maintain an ERA of 1.37. But that doesn’t mean Wright can’t be a productive starter for the Red Sox—and who knows, perhaps one who continues to surpass expectations.

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