Knuckleball Pitcher Steven Wright Prepares To Return To MLB

During  the last days of an 80-game suspension, Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox has been pitching for the Pawtucket Red Sox. On June 9, MassLive reported that the game on that day, a Sunday, marked the “first minor league rehab game for Wright as he returns from suspension and offseason knee surgery.”

He’s serving an 80-game suspension for performance enhancing drugs. His suspension lasts another 15 games, including Sunday’s game vs. the Rays….

Wright initially underwent a left knee cartilage restoration procedure in May 2017. It’s the same surgery Dustin Pedroia underwent in October 2017.

He then had a left knee arthroscopy and debridement (knee scope) in November after soreness caused him to be removed from Boston’s ALDS roster vs. the Yankees.

“He feels good,” Cora said. “Things have been going well. No problems. Going through the progression, doing everything. So far, so good.”

On June 15, MassLive reported on the progress of the previous week.

Wright is eligible to return from his 80-game performance enhancing drug suspension June 25 at home against the White Sox barring any rainouts in the meantime….

The righty began a rehab assignment at Triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday. He pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief, allowing one run, one hit and no walks while striking out two. He pitched again Wednesday, hurling 3 scoreless innings. He allowed two hits and no walks while striking out one.

In the past, Wright has expressed regret for pushing himself too hard, too fast after knee surgery. But now, at any rate, he seems to be taking things slow and steady. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

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In mid-May, Ryan Feierabend pitched in “his first big league start since 2008,” this time as a knuckleballer. (See our May 23 post.) However, after he went on to pitch just one more game in the big leagues, the Toronto Blue Jays announced in late May that “they’ve designated lefty Ryan Feierabend for assignment….”

Steve Adams of MLBTradeRumors.com explains how Feierabend may work his way back.

It was a brief return to the Majors for Feierabend, who is looking to resurrect his big league career as knuckleballer. The two games in which he appeared were his first in the Majors since he made six appearances for the Rangers in 2014. Prior to that, he’d been out of the big leagues since 2008.

The 33-year-old Feierabend enjoyed a four-year run in the Korea Baseball Organization in that 2014-18 gap between MLB stints. If he passes through waivers, he could very well return to the Jays’ Triple-A club and work toward another look. He began throwing a knuckler while pitching overseas and was reasonably sharp in 16 2/3 innings with Buffalo before being promoted earlier this week (2.70 ERA, 13 strikeouts, six walks).

We’re re-crossing our fingers. You can do it, Ryan!

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Last month, Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs discussed the history of the knuckleball in the MLB, comparing Feierabend’s pitch and prospects to that of other knuckleballers over the years.

Pitch identification aside, Feierabend’s knuckler averaged 74.5 mph according to Statcast, which puts him third among the eight pitchers (as opposed to position players) who have thrown more than 25 knuckleballs since 2008….

Feierabend’s return to the majors was a very cool one, even if it does leave questions about whether he can survive with the pitch at this level. As a milepost in one persistent pitcher’s journey, hopefully it isn’t the end of the story. “It’s all about the ultimate goal of being here and being a regular in the big leagues,” he told reporters. “That’s kind of why I sort of re-invented myself as a knuckleballer when I went overseas the last couple of years and had some success over there.”

Jaffe’s piece opens with an ominous-looking graph entitled “The Disappearing Knuckler in the Pitch-Tracking Era,” with the last bar on the left, for 2018, looking pretty stunted. The bars in the bar graph represent amount of knuckleball pitching in the MLB for a given year.

But 2018 happened to be the year right after R.A. Dickey’s retirement, and it was also a year in which Wright had only sporadic opportunities to show his stuff. Anomalous, in other words.

Jaffe also reports that fewer than 100 MLB pitchers have ever used the knuckleball “as their primary pitch at one point in their careers.” Thus, it’s not as if there have always been a dozen or two dozen knuckleballers pitching in the MLB each year until we get to 2018. Because so few pitchers have ever specialized in the knuckleball, waxing and waning of the number of active knuckleball pitchers is a stat that tends to change sharply.

If you’ve got two knuckleballers in the MLB and one retires, that’s a 50% reduction in the knuckleballer number. Way way down. Scary-looking on a graph, especially after the other guy gets hit with knee trouble; but not a trend. When it comes to knuckleball pitching in the major leagues, down does not mean down-and-out.