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Watching Steven Wright, Who Is For Real, And Really Weird

Steven Wright has been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. He's also a knuckleballer, which adds a satisfying edge of weirdness to his success.

by Robert O'Connell
Jul 26 2016, 12:42pm

Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Like every other player in Major League Baseball, the owner of the lowest ERA in the American League has a history of his own. Steven Wright was drafted in the second round by the Cleveland Indians in 2006, and after five years of toil in their minor league system picked up the pitch that has belatedly made him a success. He worked in increasing bunches for Boston—13 innings in 2013, then 21, then 72 last season—before becoming a full-time starter this year. He has nuances of personality and technique and backstory that any grouping or categorization will undersell. But also, Steven Wright throws a knuckleball.

And because Wright throws a knuckleball, it is impossible to watch him without thinking of the lineage to which he belongs, the gallery of hangers-on and tinkerers who have seen that beautiful, stupid pitch through to the present day. Knuckleballers are the sport's preservationists; how well they do their job will always be secondary to the fact that they do it at all.

Read More: Watching Yu Darvish, An Ace At Play

The specifics of their various approaches, how slow or how fast or the whorls of difference in their pitch's fingerprint shimmy, take a backseat to the oddity of knuckleballing itself. It amazes more with each passing season that this flung gamble stays relevant, so much so that even one of the best pitchers in the game—which, by every metric, Steven Wright is at this moment—gets reduced to a kind of quirk, a strain of harmless fun among the serious stuff.

This is unfair. It's also fine. Wright matters to the Red Sox because he has put up ace-like statistics and kept a bad staff afloat; he matters to everyone else because of how he's done it. The sparkling numbers and status on a contending team are pleasant, but they're also just excuses to watch the main draw: that juddering baseball, the only pitch in the game that always seems bigger than the person throwing it.

Coming in hot. Or...eh, coming in fairly warm. Definitely not to hot. Photo by Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

It is important that a knuckleball pitcher—proxy for anyone who has ever dreamed of reaching heights far beyond their usual capabilities thanks to a bit of honed flukery—look the part, and Wright does. Though he is six feet, two inches tall, he has the slope-shouldered, thick-cheeked comportment of someone with a standing order at the bagel shop. His chin gives way to his neck via a doughy slope; his eyelids droop enough almost to surpass calmness and suggest boredom; his mouth, when he throws, bends into an expression not of athlete-ish strain but of household labor, as if he's shouldering a sofa into place.

To maximize the effect, Wright's delivery is radically ho-hum. He picks up his left foot and puts it down in almost the same spot, generating the sort of arm-speed one might use to swat down a cobweb. Nothing about it seems all that precise; where other knuckleballers monitor nuances of stride and release point, Wright looks for all the world like someone playing catch in the park for the first time since winter, with the primary goal being not to pull anything. When the ball leaves his fingertips, he is the picture of normalcy, the tuned-up batter waiting in front of him and the fast-twitch infielders behind him and Wright standing there in the closest approximation of a shrug one can achieve while playing a sport at a world-class level.

Of course, this is all part of the genre. The magician shows you the empty hat; the knuckleballer looks like your mailman. The next part, too, holds to the hallmarks. Wright's version of the pitch comes in at speeds ranging from the low-60s to the mid-70s and runs the gamut of annoyances. Sometimes it's a car with a faulty accelerator, other times a horsefly. It stops or swerves, goes over bats or under them or waits until the batter has finished his swing and floats easy down the middle of the plate.

This is what an All-Star looks like, America. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

For viewing purposes, this all works best when you don't have to seek it out, when you can catch it by way of happenstance instead of appointment, and thankfully there are plenty of reasons to watch a Wright start besides Wright himself. The Red Sox are tussling with the Baltimore Orioles for control of the AL East and have baseball's best offense, a lineup full of every type of masher you could want. Each game they play for the foreseeable future will be important. That one of every five of those games will feature Wright ups both the stakes and the levity; Boston's stretch run seems a little cheerier even as his starts get weighted with the pressure of a sideshow pushed to center stage.

His latest outing came on a Thursday night in Boston against the Minnesota Twins, a team designed to let other teams play their best. Things played out about how you'd expect, with the Red Sox scoring 13 runs and giving up only two. Every knuckleball aficionado keeps an eye out for the wonkiest offering—this particular evening's came in the form of a pitch to Miguel Sano that crept to the plate, paused, and scudded hard to the left, so that Sano missed it by a seeming yard and spun fully around on his cleats—but no one moment proved as fun as the game's larger tempo. In the top of the inning, Wright manipulated the ball; in the bottom, Boston's hitters punished it. As the score swelled out of reach, the Red Sox seemed less concerned with scoring and preventing runs than with putting on an exhibition of all the things a baseball can do. It dented the Green Monster and flew over the right-center wall and went topspinning up the middle and then, when Wright let go of it, did whatever you expected least.

Context matters more to a knuckleballer than to any other player. This is true both strategically—Wright benefits in no small way from having an outfield that can run down most of the fly balls he surrenders—and narratively. Were he marooned on a fourth-place club somewhere, Wright might pass through the average fan's mind twice in a season, when one of his pitches bucked at physics enough to make a national highlight reel. As it stands, he works with the help of the game's toughest lineup in the middle of a pennant race. ERA lead aside, there are surely any number of front-line starters Boston would gladly swap Wright out for, more pedigreed types with more reliable stuff. But for the unaffiliated fan there is no better arrangement than the current one. The core thrill of the knuckleball, under the weird dips and swerves, is that it survives; the thrill is all the more pronounced when it's helping a team do the same.

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