By: Noah Wright
The Red Sox are about to lose all-star closer Craig Kimbrel and set-up man Joe Kelly in free agency. Kimbrel last season tossed 62 and a third total innings, giving the team a 2.74 ERA, 3.13 FIP, and .995 WHIP. Plus, he was striking out batters at a 13.9 per 9 rate. Even though Joe Kelly had a 4.39 ERA, he still had a 3.57 FIP, gave up only 4 home runs, and 9.3 K/9 rate. He even pitched in more innings than Kimbrel, having 65 and two thirds innings tossed.
Kimbrel is still wandering around in free agency, and their NL World Series counterpart, the LA Dodgers, have signed Joe Kelly. In-house, they don’t have any really good answers to the 9th inning role. They do have Matt Barnes, but even though he turned in solid results, he never has seen the 9th inning role. Heath Hembree has had some solid seasons in the past, but has never really has been viewed as a potential closer, and struggled some in 2018. Brandon Workman also turned in overall solid results, but he is better fit for a multi-inning/spot starter role. Tyler Thornburg, though served as a late inning arm for the Brewers back in 2016 and did well, he just came off of an injury where he missed all of 2017, and most of 2018. When he was healthy in 2018, he had an ERA of 5.63 and FIP of 6.08.
Now they could go down a conventional route, signing one of the multiple late inning arms currently sitting on the market with 9th inning experience. That being Kelvin Herrera, David Robertson, Cody Allen, and Zach Britton on the FA market. Then potentially Mychal Givens on the trade market. However, I think that they already have a solution on the roster. One that might not stick out as a potential closer candidate. That’s Steven Wright.
You might be thinking, why Steven Wright? He has no closer or late inning experience. However, Wright pitches much better in a relief pitching role than a starting role. When he’s put into relief, he’s held opponents to just a .683 OPS. Plus, he has a 2.99 ERA in a relief role. Though his FIP might be 4.07, that could stem from a lack of strikeouts. Also, he's a bit injury prone. The last time he played in more than 20 games was 2016 when he was an all-star. A limited workload, but still being an effective piece of the team's pitching staff could be very good for Wright.
However, he has a secret weapon, a pitch that he and only he throws. That’s the knuckleball. A pitch that has no spin, but has wacky movement. Putting Steven Wright in as the 9th inning role could be interesting. It would definitely throw hitters off who have been seeing 95 MPH+ fastballs all day then to see a 74 MPH pitch that’s moving all over the place. Making the hitters unbalanced in the 9th could really help the Red Sox secure a few more wins.
Though overall, the likelihood that they actually use Steven Wright in a closer role, or even a set-up role is unlikely. The idea of using a knuckleball pitcher as your 9th inning man is definitely an interesting one. I personally would try it if I had a word in the decision making process. It would definitely be something fun to experiment with. However, the Red Sox aren’t in a position to experiment with new stuff. They’re just coming off of a World Series run, and are looking to do it again after retaining most of their core from the 2018 season. So unless they can’t find anybody more qualified to take over the 9th role, Steven Wright seeing a regular 9th inning role probably won’t happen, even if the Sox have to go over the Luxury tax line again to acquire a normal answer to closer.