Steven Wright's Knuckleball Is Making American League Hitters Look Silly
The knuckleballer isn't sexy.
The guy who throws the knuckler generally doesn't have a pedigree. He's the veteran starter who hasn't been able to make it in the Majors with the usual repertoire and goes to the knuckleball to try and keep his career alive.
And the pitch itself isn't glamorous. It's not an upper-90s fastball or a wipe-out slider or a knee-buckling curveball. It's gangly and awkward, like a newborn deer trying to find its footing along a crowded forest floor. Catchers often times have a hard time catching the pitch, further leading to its appearance of awkwardness.
But there's no denying that, when thrown properly, with accuracy, the knuckleball is as deadly a weapon as Noah Syndergaard's fastball, Clayton Kershaw's curveball or Chris Sale's slider. And it is a pitch that has turned Boston right-hander Steven Wright into one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League here in 2016.
On Sunday against the Baltimore Orioles, Wright's knuckler was particularly ornery, doing ridiculous things like this.
I cannot stop watching this Wright knuckleball. It completely changes directions twice over the course of 60 feet. https://t.co/t6vyY1HWR1
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) May 30, 2016
That pitch allowed Wright to throw a 122-pitch complete game against the O's on Sunday, allowing two earned runs on four hits with five walks and seven strikeouts. In 10 starts this season (69 2/3 innings), Wright is 5-4 with a 2.45 ERA, striking out 7.88 batters per nine (K/9) while walking 3.36 per nine (BB/9).
Wright's 122 pitches were the second-most thrown in a complete game this season (San Francisco's Jeff Samardzija threw 123 earlier this season), and he's allowed just three home runs all season.
Hitters have simply been unable to square up that dancing knuckler, batting a mere .198 against Wright. And all this success has put Wright near the top of the leaderboard in a number of categories.
His 69 2/3 innings this year are fifth-most among American League starters, and he's tied for the lead in quality starts (6-plus innings pitched, 3 earned runs or fewer) with 9 and in complete games, now with 3.
Pitchers with three complete games this season:
Steven Wright (including today)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 30, 2016
While Wright doesn't pile up the strikeouts, he does get more than his fair share, and combines it with a soft-hit rate of 21.5%, ninth-best in the American League (21.5% of contact against Wright is considered "softly-hit" by FanGraphs).
His knuckler tumbles up to the plate at an average of just under 74 miles an hour, about the same speed as R.A. Dickey's, which averages 75.4 mph, both of which are harder than the traditional knuckleball, which typically is about 10 mph slower. (Tim Wakefield averaged 66.2 mph on his knuckleball, for example.) That gives hitters a little less time to see the pitch, without losing any of the movement.
Look, there's not a lot to break down with a knuckleballer. The pitch has no spin and dances all over the place. Catchers have no idea where it's going, and sometimes, pitchers don't either. It's a difficult pitch to throw for strikes, but when a hurler learns how to do it, he becomes a very dangerous person.
Steven Wright has learned the gangly art of the knuckler, and is making the rest of the American League look silly in the process.