The knuckleballer may be seen as a dying breed by many fans of the game of baseball, but the Pawtucket Red Sox's newest pitcher thinks that R.A. Dickey of the Mets is proving the knuckleball's value is still as strong as ever.
“For me, I think it's a lost art, but I think it's something that might be coming around again, just because of what R.A.'s been doing,” said the recently-acquired Steven Wright. “He's definitely giving the knuckleball another look because he's throwing a harder knuckleball, which a lot of people haven't seen before, so he's showing that you can command it, you can keep it in the zone. I mean, his strikeout-to-walk ratio's amazing. He's showing that it can be just as effective as someone who's throwing 95.”
Former top prospect Lars Anderson was traded to Cleveland at the July 31 trade deadline in exchange for Wright, who brings the knuckleball back to the Red Sox organization after the retirement of Tim Wakefield. Wright said that although he was shocked to learn that he had been traded, it was exciting to come to an organization with a strong history with the knuckleball.
Initially, close followers of the Red Sox farm system might have assumed that getting a 27-year-old Double-A pitcher with an up-and-down minor-league career was more about opening up a 40-man roster spot and giving Anderson, who was briefly traded to Oakland last season before the deal fell through, a chance to get out from behind Adrian Gonzalez. However, considering that it was only last season that Wright started throwing only the knuckleball, a pitch that can often take many years to master, the Red Sox likely felt there was some real upside yet to be realized in the right-hander. Just look at Dickey, who at 37 made his first All-Star team this season after years of just trying to prove he was worthy of a job in the majors.
“I started throwing [the knuckleball] when I was about 9 [years old],” said Wright. “Then in 2010, [then-Double-A Akron pitching coach] Greg Hibbert saw it when I was in New Hampshire, and he kind of just had me throw it as an out-pitch. So that's what I did and it kind of evolved into what it is now.
“It's a pitch not many people see, so if I can just kill the spin and keep it in the zone, I think that can play to my advantage. But it's a pitch that if it's not going well, it becomes batting practice.”
Prior to incorporating the knuckler, Wright had a more conventional array of pitches and referred to himself as a power pitcher. He was selected in the second round of the draft by Cleveland in 2006, and by 2010 his career had begun to stall as he battled consistency problems in the upper minors. That year, he threw the knuckleball roughly 10-15 percent of the time, more as a change-of-pace pitch.
In 2011, Wright fully committed to the pitch, and he now approximates that he throws it 75-80 percent of the time. He made starts across four levels in his first season as a true knuckleballer, achieving some success, but this season at Double-A is when he really began to come into his own. Between 20 starts with Akron and one at Portland this season, he posted a 2.44 ERA with 103 strikeouts and 64 walks in 121.2 innings pitched. Wright acknowledged one concern evident in the stat line and that is particularly relevant for all knuckleballers: keeping the walk rates down.
“You can't control the movement, you try to control the starting point and try to stay within your mechanics,” he said. “Sometimes I try to go back to where I was as a traditional pitcher, which was a power guy, and once you start trying to overthrow the pitch it can start spinning and you can get out of what you're trying to do, which is to kill the spin on the ball and keep it in the zone. As long as I can stay under control, usually I'm able to repeat it and keep it in the zone. That's the hardest thing is just keeping it in the zone. Sometimes it moves a lot and sometimes it doesn't move as much, but if you're throwing strikes with it, you're giving yourself a better chance of going deep into games.”
Much like other knuckleballers, Wright tries to vary the speed of the pitch, throwing harder and softer versions to give the batter different looks. More similar to Dickey’s knuckler than Wakefield’s, the hard version of his pitch can top out in the low-80s. He has not completely abandoned his complementary pitches though, saying that he throws a four-seam fastball, sinker, cutter, and an occasional curveball. His fastball can reach the low-90s, a weapon Wakefield never had at his disposal.
“I try to use it to buy a strike, to keep me in the count,” Wright said of his heater. “I obviously try to stay in knuckleball counts and throw it as much as I can, but I have my four-seam fastball to get me back into counts.”
Wright has sought out advice from any past knuckleballer willing to give it, a list that includes Wakefield, Dickey, and Charlie Hough, among others. These pitchers have been more than willing to lend him some instruction, as the few who have had success with the pitch have a kinship towards each other that bonds them into an exclusive fraternity.
“Nobody throws it, so you gotta stick together,” said Wright. “You always need someone who has done it to kind of help if you lose the feeling to get back to where you need to be.”
Promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket on Aug. 8 after one start in Portland, Wright made his first start with the team on Saturday. In his PawSox debut, Wright allowed two runs in five innings of work on five hits and one walk.
Though Wright has been to the top minor-league level before as a traditional pitcher out of the bullpen, he said making it there as a knuckleballer has provided a different sense of accomplishment.
“It's nice, it's nerve-racking, but I think for me I'm just eager to get out there and see how it plays,” Wright said. “I never thought I'd be throwing a knuckleball in professional baseball, and the last thing I'd ever think I'd have is the chance to pitch at Triple-A.”