The lack of a human parallel to Muhammad Ali’s athletic and humanitarian greatness is a void the world may unfortunately never fill. But the Red Sox have a pitcher whose signature pitch embodies the “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” qualities that made Ali so famous.
Steven Wright has been the Red Sox’ best pitcher this season, by far. The 31-year-old knuckle-balling maestro has gone from a short-term rotation placeholder early in the season, to the staff ace after just two months.
In Friday night’s game, an 8-1 victory over Minnesota, Wright twirled 7 1/3 dominant innings, limiting the Twins to one run (unearned) on seven hits, while walking two and striking out six. The win improved Wright’s record to 7-4, and lowered his team-best ERA to 2.09.
But his numbers aren’t just the best in Boston, they’re near the top of many American League statistical categories.
Wright has the lowest ERA in the AL. He’s ranked higher than names like Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez, and David Price. His 1.13 WHIP is tied for eighth-best in the league, and is especially remarkable given the inherently wild nature of his knuckleball.
His .203 opponent’s batting average is third-best in the league, and he ranks among the top-20 in strikeouts. He’s also thrown 82.0 innings — seventh-best in the AL — but has one fewer start than everyone ranked above him.
Chris Sale, who Wright is tied with for an MLB-best three complete games, leads the AL with 91.0 innings-pitched.
Steven Wright's 5 starts vs. AL East opponents–1.51 ERA
— Peter Gammons (@pgammo) June 11, 2016
Perhaps most impressively, opposing batters have mustered only a .566 OPS against Wright, which ranks him in the top-10 in all of baseball.
Compared to a majority of the Red Sox’ pitching staff, Wright exudes surprising confidence and a refreshingly calm demeanor on the mound, something that could be attributed to his surely stress-free days at the University of Hawaii.
Steven Wright refreshingly unaffected by all his success. Same guy now as he was when he was trying to make the team out of spring training.
— Pete Abraham (@PeteAbe) June 11, 2016
But during his days with the Rainbow Warriors, and early professional career in the Cleveland Indians system, Wright was just an average pitcher with a 90-mph fastball. A collective decision between Wright and the Indians in 2011 led him to adopt the knuckleball as his feature pitch.
In most baseball cities, the knuckleball is viewed as a gimmick. An equally entertaining and baffling pitch that makes professional hitters look foolish, but ultimately can’t be trusted.
But in Boston, Wright wears it as a badge of honor, and is seen as torch-carrying successor to longtime fan-favorite Tim Wakefield.
This Steven Wright knuckleball is unhittable https://t.co/BNRl5AKHK0
— Jackie Bradley Jr's No. 1 fan (@FatCraigKimbrel) June 2, 2016
Unlike Wakefield — who began his career as an infielder — Wright has always been a pitcher, which shows in his unique ability to command and locate both the knuckleball and his high-80s fastball. Wakefield struggled mightily with the pitch for years before finding success with the Red Sox, but Wright has mastered the spin-less enigma in a staggeringly short amount of time.
A more fitting comparison would be Toronto’s R.A. Dickey, who also adopted the pitch after struggling as a more conventional pitcher. Like Dickey, Wright’s knuckler certainly floats like a butterfly, and though his fastball may not sting like Craig Kimbrel’s, it looks much faster to hitters that have been watching the ball travel around 70 MPH for a majority of the game.
Wright certainly does not blow anyone anyway, and he looks less like a rotation anchor than a first-base coach. Still, if the decisions were made today, Wright would be as deserving as anyone to be not only an all-star, but to actually start the game itself. Furthermore, he’d likely garner plenty of attention in the Cy-Young award voting.
All this from a guy who never has made more than $515 thousand in any of his three-plus years in the big leagues, and whose career earnings (barely north of $1 million) are less than what David Price makes in just one start.
Yet Wright has been superior to his $217 million teammate, and just about every pitcher in baseball, in nearly every way this season.