For a team that has far and away the best record in Major League Baseball, there are plenty of question marks that members of the Red Sox media, as well as the fan base, are pointing to as October slowly begins to creep closer and closer.
The most worrisome piece to this successful Red Sox season has clearly been the bullpen. Boston’s starting arms have seemed to settle in their roles, and it has become evident who will be there in the postseason rotation. However, it’s those who fill the gap between the starter, and closer Craig Kimbrel who are in question.
There is a quantity of arms that could easily fill in these holes, but what about the quality?
In exiting a game, your starting pitcher wants to remain confident, along with the rest of the team that those who follow will be able to maintain the work that was left for them. It has become relatively evident, though, the trust in the bullpen isn’t there.
However, there is a reliable arm who has taken on a role out in the pen that has shown he can enter games and almost act as a second starter. That makes sense too, being that in 2016, ahead of a bizarre injury on the base paths, he was one of Boston’s top pitchers in a strong rotation. And that pitcher is Steven Wright.
When people mention Wright, I automatically go back to the 2016 season when the then 32-year-old right-handed knuckleballer arrived on the scene and became one of the most lethal pitchers in the American League. His knuckleball was seemingly unhittable when it was floating. Before injury plagued the remainder of his campaign at the end of August, Wright had an ERA of 3.33 in 24 starts.
He missed a majority of the 2017 season, only making a few appearances, so assuming that he would come back in 2018 and pitch well was a complete guessing game.
With a starting rotation that is already filled with capable talent, it was assumed that Wright would spend a majority of the year coming out of the bullpen. And in doing so, we have seen him become one of the most important weapons in the Red Sox arsenal, and one that could be pivotal through the 2018 postseason.
Red Sox fans are plagued with a brutal memory of a knuckleballer in October. In 2003, Tim Wakefield, one of the most famous knuckleball pitchers in the history of the game, was on his way to winning the ALCS MVP and needed to close the door in the Bronx to take home that prestigious award. Instead, his knuckleball didn’t fool Aaron Boone, who took him deep to send the New York Yankees to yet another World Series.
But here is the thing about knuckleballs that baseball fans know all too well. When it is working and it is as consistent as a knuckleball can get, then it becomes one of the most dominant pitches in the game. And Wright has proven, when healthy, that he has been one of, if not the best knuckleball pitcher in baseball for the past few years. And as a side note, if he takes this another year or two further, I even might put him ahead of R.A. Dickey.
With Wright in the bullpen, if he is able to enter with a clean inning, quite frankly he has become the reliever that I have the most confidence in to maintain any lead that is given to him. Whether that’s eight runs, or just one, I have complete and utter faith that he will be able to last an inning or two, and the opposition’s score will remain the same.
I have brought this up to other Red Sox fans in conversation and they all react the exact same way. It’s always something along the lines of, “I don’t trust the knuckleball enough to have in the postseason”. And my reaction is to always ask why.
If you look at Wright’s numbers this season, he has been by far the most consistent of all of your relief pitchers. And that includes one of the best closers in the game of baseball in Kimbrel.
Including games that he has started in, there has been just one game where he has surrendered more than two runs. That one game came on a night where he gave up ten earned to the Seattle Mariners as the team’s starter.
Actually, as a starting pitcher lasting seven innings twice and just over six innings once, he gave up a total of one run in those three starts excluding his ten run game.
Wright made his way back to the majors back on May 15 against Oakland after making appearances in the minors where he was rehabbing. In his first two relief appearances, he gave up two runs in each. Since that second appearances though, Wright hasn’t given up a single run in any other relief outing. Granted, something you could throw an asterisk on is that he missed a majority of July and August due to a leg injury that was similar to Dustin Pedroia’s but regardless, he has become someone that you can absolutely trust coming through those doors of the bullpen.
His most telling game came on September 20 in the Bronx when the Red Sox were on their heels, attempting to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Yankees while simultaneously clinching the division in their rival’s ballpark.
Eduardo Rodriguez had taken the mound to start the game but struggled with his command through the night putting seven men on with walks. After lasting just 3.2 innings pitched and five earned runs later, Rodriguez was removed from the game. Wright then entered in the fifth inning looking to minimize the damage and he did just that. His knuckleball halted the Yankees powerful lineup for the next three innings as he surrendered just a single hit over that span.
There’s no reason to further explain why this was such a telling appearance for the 34-year-old. There’s a very strong possibility that New York will be Boston’s ALDS opponent and Wright has proven time and time again that he can handle the newfound Bronx Bombers and can keep their bats at bay.
There isn’t much more that Wright has to do to prove to anyone that he not only belongs on the playoff roster, but also can and will be a pivotal piece to the Red Sox potential postseason success. With starting pitchers who have not had the best of luck in the postseason, such as David Price and Rick Porcello, having a weapon available to you who can enter the game seemingly as a starting pitcher “option B”, is something that I feel as though is undervalued.
A lot of what the Red Sox can do come October hinders on the bullpen’s success rate. And with a current ERA of 2.70 and opponents batting average of .201, your middle relief solution in the postseason looks to be answered in Steven Wright. If the Red Sox overcome their postseason woes from the previous two seasons, look for knuckleballer Wright to be the unsung hero.