ATLANTA — For Steven Wright, Labor Day offered grounds for celebration precisely because it wasn’t a holiday. For the first time in more than two months, the knuckleballing righthander entered a big league game. He tossed a scoreless fifth inning in the Red Sox’ 8-2 victory over Atlanta after being sidelined since late June with inflammation in his left knee.
Wright threw an impressive number of strikes, with 17 of his 23 pitches (74 percent) either landing in the strike zone or eliciting a swing. Though he hit a batter and allowed a hit (a soft single to right by switch hitter Yohan Camargo, who elected to bat righthanded), Wright elicited bad contact, getting three ground balls and a flare to shallow right. His return to the mound appeared to be an unwelcome sight to Atlanta’s hitters.
“They don’t like that. You could see Freddie [Freeman] looking at me, like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” chuckled Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “It is uncomfortable.”
That discomfort comes with a sense of possibility. With both the July 31 deadline for nonwaiver trades and the Aug. 31 deadline for trades of players who must pass through waivers having come and gone, the Red Sox must look within for the most effective bullpen formula for navigating October’s innings.
Wright could represent a fascinating wild card — not only for what he can do, but also potentially for a halo effect that lingers. There is at least a chance that Wright — as a contrast to a conventional starting pitcher in front of him and a hard-throwing option behind him — can introduce a disruptive element into the middle innings.
Start with this: In his own right, Wright has been impressive out of the bullpen in limited action this year. In 17 innings spanning seven appearances, he has a 2.12 ERA; opponents have a meager .172/.304/.276 line against him. Those numbers are even better when Wright sees an opponent for the first time in a game as a reliever: just .136/.269/.227.
That performance — albeit in a small sample of 52 plate appearances — makes it relatively easy to imagine a pitcher who could enter in the middle innings with a chance to dominate one time through the order before handing the baton to a late-innings group. And the impact might not be limited to his own innings.
There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the hangover effect introduced by a good knuckleball. Hitters say reestablishing their timing against a conventional pitcher can be a struggle after they’ve retrained their brains to deal with the knuckler’s unpredictable flight. It’s not difficult to look at Wright — bookended by triple-digit flamethrowers Nathan Eovaldi and Joe Kelly — and wonder whether the Red Sox could take advantage of such a phenomenon.
Wright himself speculated that his most disruptive influence could come “maybe not so much me coming in behind somebody but somebody else coming in behind me. I think that would probably be the bigger differential.”
For his part, Cora expressed skepticism about the impact that Wright makes as a contrast to other pitchers.
“I don’t know how much difference it makes, a guy throwing 100, then Steven, then bring in a guy who’s throwing 100,” said Cora. “He’s not going to face the same guys anyway.”
On Monday, that qualifier proved accurate: The first batter faced by Kelly after the conclusion of Wright’s inning, Ozzie Albies, never saw Wright. Albies homered on a fastball. His timing clearly wasn’t impacted by the fact that a knuckleballer had participated in the game.
But what of the five hitters who had seen Wright? In this case, Ryan Brasier faced all five and didn’t fare particularly well, allowing a run on three hits (two soft liners and one swinging bunt).
Yet Brasier’s modest results appear to be an exception to what’s happened to hitters in the at-bat after they’ve faced Wright, at least in 2018.
Wright has been followed by another reliever (or relievers) eight times this year.
In the 47 instances in which a batter faced Wright and then faced another reliever after him, they’re hitting .244/.277/.356 in that initial post-Wright plate appearance, with Red Sox pitchers posting a 1.59 ERA with eight strikeouts and two walks over 11⅓ innings in those plate appearances.
If that sample is expanded to include all plate appearances after Wright’s exit — with hard throwers Kelly, Matt Barnes, and Craig Kimbrel most frequently entering two plate appearances down the line from Wright — the numbers become even more intriguing. In those 27 second plate appearances removed from Wright, Red Sox pitchers have held opponents to one hit, with 13 strikeouts and three walks.
Overall, hitters have had 74 plate appearances against another Red Sox reliever after seeing Wright in a game. Those 74 plate appearances have yielded a .174/.229/.261 line. It’s a small sample, too small from which to draw conclusions, but interesting enough to be worthy of exploration.
“Hopefully [the knuckleball] puts them in slumps for a little bit if you line up the guys that follow him,” said pitching coach Dana LeVangie. “We’re glad to have him back. He can really definitely help us down the stretch.”
Wright noted with appreciation how he’d been alerted in advance to when he’d need to enter Monday’s game so that he could start moving around to loosen his knee before warming up. Once in the game as a reliever — a role he hadn’t performed since May — he had no problems adapting. He tried to appreciate the opportunity in its own right, rather than wondering what it might mean for his potential ability to contribute in the postseason.
“You can’t worry about that,” said Wright. “Then you start putting more pressure on yourself.
“I’ve never even thought about that. I’m just trying to go out there and pitch without pain, to be honest with you, and try to do that as many times as I can.
“It was just nice to get back out there and compete again. It’s been two months.”
There will be more tests to come for Wright. The Red Sox are eager to see how he builds stamina toward potential multi-inning appearances, how quickly he recovers, and whether he might be able to pitch on back-to-back days. And perhaps most importantly, whether his knee will be healthy enough for him to throw strikes with a signature mind-bending wobble.
If he can pass all of those tests, he could serve as an unconventional bullpen weapon come October.
“The beauty of it is, if Steven is able to throw strike one, he’s going to win the at-bat most of the time,” said LeVangie. “The only hard part is that it’s unpredictable for us, too.
“We know what the guy can do out there, but we don’t know the outcomes. We’re not pitching to strengths or weaknesses. It’s knuckleball against hitter. What are you going to do?”
“He’s proven that when he’s healthy and can pitch, he’s had success. He’s proven he can give us innings, zeros, multiple innings. I think he’s earned that [trust].”