The Detroit Tigers offense will take on their second knuckleballer of the season on Tuesday night, as they go to work against right-hander Steven Wright. This is not a matchup that favors the Tigers. Their previous encounter with the knuckleball did not go well, and Wright is having an outstanding year.
Back on July 10, the Tiger faced R.A. Dickey in Toronto, and were largely stymied. Dickey allowed just five hits and one run over seven innings. The fickleness of the knuckleball is legendary, but Wright has pitched superbly in comparison to Dickey this season. It stands to reason that the struggling Tigers offense has a difficult task ahead of them.
That task is compounded by the fact that they’ll be sending Mike Pelfrey to the mound. In his own way, Pelfrey demonstrates a blue-collar wizardry of his own. Pelfrey's sinker is no knuckleball, but the amount of ground balls he gets makes his fastball appear a trick pitch of its own. With roughly as many walks as strikeouts, somehow the sinkerballer manages to hang in there.
Hanging in there is Pelfrey's thing. Coolly navigating as much traffic as any pitcher in the game becomes a grim piece of performance art in his hands. He'll enter a very hostile arena Tuesday night, looking to give the Tigers a desperately needed series win. But generally, this show ends with a depressing final act.
Detroit Tigers (52-48) at Boston Red Sox (55-42)
Time/Place: 7:10 p.m., Fenway Park
SB Nation Blog: Over the Monster
Media: Fox Sports Detroit, MLB.TV, Tigers Radio Network
Pitching Matchup: Mike Pelfrey (3-9, 4.78 ERA) vs. Steven Wright (12-5, 2.67 ERA)
At the risk of frightening any small children that may be watching, allow me to introduce you to Steven Wright's knuckleball.
Let's not talk about that. We all know what we saw. The truth is, a quick perusal of the internet will find numerous other Steven Wright videos just as haunting and disturbing. You may also discover a fine comedian and unlock the mystery of K-Billy's Super Sounds of the 70s.
At the moment, Wright has surpassed R.A. Dickey as the supreme master of the knuckleballing arts. The 31-year-old throws it almost 70 percent of the time, while mixing in a slow fastball and a near eephus velocity curveball as a change of pace. Unlike Dickey, whose ability to throw a knuckler well over 80 m.p.h. made him a rarity, Wright's version averages a more classic 75 m.p.h.
The pitch generates a lot of whiffs and a high groundball rate. It knows no splits of any real substance. No one can hit the thing this season, and so in guessing who might come through for the Tigers, anyone could be a likely candidate. No one is also a defensible answer. The only juicy tidbit the Tigers may exploit lies in the fact that swinging first pitch against Wright, hitters have posted a horrific .405 OPS this season. Those who didn't, average .665 on the year. Patience may not help much, but it's still a virtue when facing Wright.
In 16 of his 19 starts this season, Wright has surrendered three runs or less. He's been remarkably consistent. On another hot summer night in Boston, it stands to reason that he'll once again have a lively knuckler and Tigers' hitters will be swatting at some butterflies along the way.
Ideally, you may want to play a contact and speed game against a knuckleballer, but the Tigers aren't particularly well equipped to do that. And ultimately, the knuckleball itself may largely determine the outcome. It's possible a few hang flat in the strike zone, and the offense goes to town. More likely, the Tigers will have their chances, but struggle to land the big blows.
Hitter to Fear: Xander Bogearts (.333/.333/.500 in 6 at bats)
Hitter to Fail: David Ortiz (.125/.222.250 in 8 at bats)
Most of the current Red Sox' lineup is unfamiliar with Mike Pelfrey. Those who have faced him haven't fared well, but the sample sizes are limited to a game or two at most. Oddly, against a team that strikes out less than almost any in baseball, comfort in pitching to contact might be a virtue for Pelfrey here. The Red Sox put the bat on the ball with regularity anyway.
A slow, pull-hitter like Ortiz may be shifted into irrelevance as long as Pelfrey is keeping the sinker down on Tuesday night. However, the trio of Betts, Bogaerts, and Bradley Jr. will likely prove far tougher with their combination of contact skills and speed. The double-plays that keep Pelfrey afloat may prove in short supply. This is a matchup that favors the Red Sox in every way. Let's hope that baseball decides to baseball instead.
Pelfrey managed to put together a stretch of starts in June where he was serviceable, but it would be foolish to expect much against a relentless Red Sox' lineup. His command will have to be superb to pitch deep into the game. In recent outings Pelfrey has shown a more aggressive approach, pitching up and inside more often, and he'll need to do it again to keep the Sox' low-ball crushing offense from sitting comfortably on the sinker.
If Pelfrey is able to mix in his slider and changeup without them leaving the park, he should have a fighting chance to give the Tigers five or six innings. More likely he hosts a parade of Red Sox on the basepaths and struggles to get into the middle innings. A sharp defensive effort will be a requirement to keep the Tigers within striking distance.
Pelfrey leaks runs without cracking, but a taxed Tigers' bullpen comes unglued in the middle innings.