The Problem With Knuckleballers Is That They Throw A Lot Of Knuckleballs

It’s been a slow boil, but Steven Wright has officially taken the mantle of my favorite Red Sox — a role that has been vacant since Daniel Nava was designated for assignment last August.

As with Nava, I appreciate Wright’s story — the perseverance it has  taken for him to get to where he is now, and the ability to make the most of the current opportunities presented to him.

I like his personality – the self-deprecating sense of humor and the seemingly easy-going, roll-with-the-punches nature. And I love what he is doing on the mound, with a pitch most — and that includes the majority of opposing batters — don’t want to have anything to do with.

Stats-wise, he has been Boston’s ace through the first half. No question about it.

Aside from the increasingly apparent Kryptonite that is the occasional rain storm, he’s been roughly unstoppable on the mound.

I anticipate no other pitcher’s appearances on the mound for the Red Sox this year than his. He’s been the stopper. The innings-eater. The steady hand within what has unquestionably been the most volatile segment of the 2016 roster.

 

But 13 years covering sports have turned me into something of a connoisseur of waiting for the other shoe to drop. If you’ve read anything I’ve written on this blog, you know how closely I pay attention to relative stats — the valuation of what a player’s or a team’s performance has been compared to what everyone else in the same situation has done in a given sample range.

It’s why I see the Pirates torching their second half schedule to claim the NL Central title — seriously. Why Baltimore almost assuredly falls back into the middle of the back. Why the Red Sox should stay as far away as possible from Rich Hill.

And why, as much as it pains me to think it, Steven Wright may be due  for the other shoe.

There’s a glaring problem within the numbers that we’ve collectively been looking past because we issue the same free pass to any knuckleballer — Wright is effectively wild.

And we love him for it.

It’s part of that sweet & sour attraction to the knuckleball: Hitters can’t handle it … and neither can catchers.

But that inherent wildness comes at a price.

Any mention of Steven Wright in baseball circles this season has been accompanied by his pristine sub-.300 ERA (As of the All-Star Break, 2.68 through 17 starts – though late last month he scraped down to 2.01 at one point).

And that is absolutely a valid statistic. But, for a knuckleballer, it’s the wrong one.

A low ERA for a knuckleballer – especially for Wright and his penchant for wild pitches (8 wild pitches, 7 hit batsmen) and inciting passed balls from defensively above-average catchers (Ryan Hanigan has biffed on a career high 17 pitches this year, with 15 coming at Wright’s hand – and we’re only roughly halfway through; Five of Christian Vazquez‘s 12 passed balls this season have come with Wright on the mound) – doesn’t mean quite what it does for a standard fastball/curveball/change kind of guy.

Wright has 35 errant throws in 17 starts, many of which either put a runner on base or awarded a runner (or runners) extra bases. Those, in turn, have lead to more runs. In the case of the passed balls – the ones that either brought runs home or allowed runners to move into scoring position – we’re talking about unearned runs.

And we, rightfully, give him a pass considering the larger picture: He’s 10-5 with 94 strikeouts in 114 innings of work with a combined walks & hits to innings pitched ratio of 1.21.  He’ll throw in tonight’s All-Star Game, and deservedly so.

The relative stats, though, suggest there is trouble ahead. Maybe not trouble, but at least a stark devaluing of that superb ERA. All of the aforementioned indicators are symptoms of a great pitcher. But they also discount an inherent flaw in using the primary pitch in question.

Look at it this way: Think about a college football defense that exhibits particularly strong pass defense numbers. That’s great – so long as they are going up against great passing teams. As a rule, and only statistically speaking, you’ll find that the top pass defenses in the country come from schools that face schedules loaded with run-heavy opponents – or schools that build such big leads early that they have no use for throwing the ball around through a wide majority of the game.

Translate that to this conversation – as much of a stretch as it might seem. Steven Wright has a great ERA that has been aided by where some of his pitches end up. He benefits to a greater degree because some of his runners essentially get erased from the ledger based on how he throws.

That gives him a statistical advantage where there might not be one in reality.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’m looking specifically at “runs allowed per nine innings” which acts like ERA, but with unearned runs included. And I’m comparing that against one of my new favorite relative stats — RA9opp, or opponents’ runs score per nine innings.

When we discuss ERA, generally the presumption is that the unearned runs are the result of defensive mistakes and miscues, thus we award the pitcher the benefit of the doubt. The knuckleballer, though, plays a much larger role in those unearned runs.

Wright this season is allowing 3.87 runs per nine innings- more than a full run above his ERA. He’s doing that against batters that put up an average of 4.51 runs per nine innings collectively.

In essence, he is allowing 0.64 runs less per nine innings than the average pitcher in the league is giving up against the same batters. So he’s better than average. But perhaps not among the elite arms in the league. Porcello, for example, is allowing 0.52 runs less per nine than the average pitcher against the same batters.

Compare that to tonight’s All-Star game starter Chris Sale, who shaves nearly a full run (0.9) off of what the same batters do against every other pitcher (4.52). Marco Estrada clocks in a 1.38 runs better than the average pitcher against the same batters. Marsahiro Tanaka is 0.95 runs better per nine than the average pitcher against the same lineup. Or take Danny Salazar‘s 2.75 compared with the same batters putting up 4.43 runs per nine against everyone else – nearly two runs better per nine innings than your average pitcher.

Detroit’s Michael Fulmer is posting 2.35 runs per nine compared to the same hitters putting up 4.49 against all others. That’s a whopping 2.14 runs per nine innings better than the average pitcher against the same hitters.

And those are just some of the elite arms out there.

When discussing Wright’s value headed down the stretch, given what he throws, we almost have to discount the ERA. It doesn’t paint a fully realistic picture of who he is on the mound.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe it’s an inconsequential point.

Steven Wright is winning the ball games he pitches in.  At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters.

The club tends to provide him with the needed run support to get past that 3.87 runs allowed. And he’s pitching far more consistently than any other available starter (Though Rick Porcello comes awfully close – and may surpass Wright by the end of the year).

He’s like the wishbone offense in football. There are inherent flaws and pitfalls. There are situations where it just won’t work.

But when executed properly, with meticulous attention to discipline and repetition, it is effective and tough to attack.

And it can be a whole lot of fun to watch.

 

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