(Via Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports)
Steven Wright is done. The days of Steven Wright, American League All-Star have been over for a while, but so are the days of Steven Wright, serviceable major league starter, and the days of Steven Wright, major leaguer could be done as well. But it doesn't feel that long ago we were talking about how he could last a while in Boston, so how did we get here?
Let's go back to 2006. Wright is a collegiate pitcher for the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, sporting a 2.30 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 109.2 innings pitched. While he wasn't setting the world on fire by any means, he still impressed the Cleveland Indians enough to draft the junior in the second round of the 2006 MLB draft, 56th overall. He'd remain in the Indians organization for the next five and half seasons at a variety of levels in the Indians organization, but he'd never reach the majors. This is in stark contrast to another Indians pick from that same draft, Chris Archer, who not only made the majors, but also made two All-Star teams with the Tampa Bay Rays. But the Indians kept pressing on with Wright, for better or for worse. They tried multiple gimmicks with him, including moving him from the rotation to the bullpen and back and, more importantly for this, sending him back down to Single-A at age 26 to learn the thing that would contribute to his rise: the knuckleball. Despite introducing the knuckler to his pitching repertoire, the Indians dealt him a season and a half later to the Red Sox for Lars Anderson, a first baseman and left fielder with eight major league hits to his name whose major league career ended after cups of coffee every season from 2010-12. By compassion, Steven Wright's time in the big leagues was just about to begin.
Wright would get his cups of coffee in 2013 and 2014, appearing in a combined ten games those seasons, including a start each of those years. Half of those games were as September call-ups, but he still made it to the bigs, two years after the Indians gave up on him. The next season, the 30 year old Wright wouldn't make the team on Opening Day, but he'd spend a lot of time in the majors, finally fulfilling his rookie status. He'd be up and down in 2015, but it was 2016 where he'd forever make his mark in the history of baseball.
2016 was the first time Wright made the major league team on Opening Day. He'd set career highs in innings pitched, strikeouts, and ERA+, with career lows in ERA, WHIP, and FIP. The 31 year old who another team had given up on was an AL All-Star. This wasn't just a matter of having to get every team an All-Star representative either. This Red Sox team was stacked. They'd send five other All-Stars to the Midsummer Classic: Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr, David Ortiz, and Craig Kimbrel. All of those guys except Kimbrel (who is a reliever, after all) started the game. Wright truly deserved to be here. This was him at his peak. He was the best he'd been, and the best he'd ever be again.
As the old saying goes, what goes up must come down. It was the injuries that started the decline for Wright. His All-Star campaign would be cut short due to an injury in his throwing shoulder he suffered running the bases in Dodger Stadium. His 2017 wouldn't fare any better. In the beginning of May, Wright's season would be ended with knee surgery. He performed badly in his limited time this season, including an 8.25 ERA in 24 innings. He would return in 2018, and he wasn't terrible on the field. He had a 2.68 ERA, but only in 53.2 innings pitched. Off the field would be a completely different story. He would be suspended by Major League Baseball for domestic violence, and missed the first month of the season because of this. He'd also be in and out of the major leagues, on and off of the disabled list, just generally reminiscent of the Steven Wright of old, pre-2016, pre-All-Star form. Despite this, the season ended on a positive note, with the Red Sox winning the World Series. And now, there's this. An 80 game suspension for PEDs. Effectively half the season has already been wiped out for him, and we have barely even started spring training.
Now, for the title. Is Steven Wright really the world's last knuckleballer? I mean, sure it's great for clicks, but how accurate is it? Well, after doing the research, I've come to the conclusion that Steven Wright is the last known knuckleballer on the planet. Does that mean nobody else throws knucklers anymore? No, there's probably someone somewhere who throws it. But if you scout pitchers in high school, college, the minor leagues, Japan, wherever- you'd be hard-pressed to find another pitcher who throws a knuckleball. But what about in the majors? Surely there's another knuckleballer except Steven Wright, isn't there? They last for so long, I mean, both Niekro brothers lasted over twenty years in the majors. Charlie Hough lasted 25. There just has to be someone still kicking around somewhere.
But, there really isn't.
Let's look at two of the most famous knuckleballers of this century, and just check in on them.
Tim Wakefield lasted a solid two decades in the majors. But he's also been retired for eight years. So it can't be him.
RA Dickey stuck around for a decade and a half in the big leagues. He even won a Cy Young Award in 2012, becoming the first and likely last knuckleballer to win the award. He's been retired for two years. It can't be him.
There's nobody left. Steven Wright truly is the last knuckleballer in the world. But due to injuries, suspensions, and just general poor performance, we may have unknowingly watched the final knuckleball thrown in major league history.