July 15, 2013
New Knuckleballer: Steven Wright
Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright—profiled in a BP piece here—pitched 5⅔ scoreless relief innings last Thursday night against the Mariners. The 28-year-old utilized a floater that sat almost exclusively between 74 and 76 mph and an occasional fastball in the mid-to-high 80s. Although people tend to think of knuckleballs being in the mid-60s, I think the lasting influence of Tim Wakefield distorts perceptions of the pitch. Wakefield’s soft knuckler was only about 8 mph slower than his fastball on average—not all that different from Wright (-9), R.A. Dickey (-6), Charlie Haeger (-10), and Eddie Bonine (-6), the other knuckleballers of the PITCHf/x era. Given Wright’s fastball speed, his knuckler is right on target.
In the small sample we have so far, it looks like Wright’s knuckleball might not be as wild as his predecessors’. Below are Wright’s knuckleballs this season* and knuckleballs from a Haeger start (4/11/2010) and R.A. Dickey’s last start, charted by PITCHf/x spin deflection.
Research conducted by John Walsh, and by me in a follow-up from earlier this year, yielded some evidence that knuckleballs with little spin get hit harder. The spin deflection pattern in Wright’s knuckleball suggests that, once corrected for his release angle, most of his pitches have only sidespin, with few pitches that break down and away from a right-handed hitter. In theory, the knuckleball should be able to dart in any direction at any time in order to maximize its ability to confuse the hitter. The longer Wright sticks around, the more we’ll be able to test that idea.
Dickey has made great strides in trying to make the knuckleball a science as well as an art, creating two distinct versions of his pitch based on speed and trying to develop new methods of “controlling” it (at least vertically). Dickey may have become the first power knuckleballer last season, pushing the limits on the pitch’s velocity—up to 84 mph—and striking out 8.9 batters per 9 innings, easily the highest rate ever by a starting knuckleballer.
Wright is more of what we’re used to seeing out of a knuckleballer. He started using it in games only after he was drafted, and only after the organization called in one of the Knuckleball Fraternity—in this case, Tom Candiotti—to recommend his conversion. At Triple-A Pawtucket this season, he struck out 7.0 per nine and posted a 3.81 ERA. Those numbers suggest that the back of the starting rotation and long relief are his only realistic chances at the big leagues.
*Safeco Field’s PITCHf/x system has lately been exaggerating downward spin deflection by about five inches for all pitchers. I manually corrected the data for this comparison.