FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Steven Wright, it would seem, is right on time, having turned 30 this past August.
Late bloomer? Not for a knuckleball pitcher. At 30, they’re just warming up.
"I was 28, going on 29, when I first got here," said Tim Wakefield, the most celebrated knuckleballer in Red Sox history. "I had success early in my career, but I also failed for a couple of years.
"Phil Niekro told me I had more wins at 30 than he had at 30, and he ended up winning 300 games. Go figure."
That was not an aberration -- not in Phi Beta Knuckler. Niekro had 31 wins before 30 and finished with 318. Wakefield had 44 wins by 30 and 200 in his career. Tom Candiotti, assigned by Cleveland to oversee Wright’s conversion to the knuckleball at the end of the 2010 season, had 29 wins before 30 and 151 for his career. Hoyt Wilhelm had just 15 and finished with 143 after pitching until he was 49. Charlie Hough had 34 and wound up with 216. Current knuckleball practitioner R.A. Dickey of the Blue Jays had 15 wins at 30, out of a total of 89.
Wilhelm, Niekro, Candiotti and Hough all pitched into their 40s, and Dickey will join the 40-and-older club this season.
It is clear the Red Sox now view Wright as more than a low-risk investment with a trick pitch. It’s too soon to know whether Wright will duplicate the success of Wakefield or any of his predecessors, but it’s become increasingly apparent he will be given the chance.
"I don’t think you can ever overestimate the value of a knuckleballer and the contrast in style he provides," said Red Sox manager John Farrell, marking Wright a key member of the second tier of Sox starters ready to step in if any member of the current rotation falters or is hurt.
"The most impressive thing over the last year-plus is his overall strike-throwing ability, the ability to change speeds with his knuckleball," Farrell said. "The smaller points of the game -- fielding his position, controlling the running game -- those have all improved. He’s in the right place with his style, given Wake’s history here."
Wright, who missed spring training and the first two months of the past season after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia, pitched two innings in Boston’s 7-6 split-squad win over the Orioles on Saturday in Sarasota. He allowed one unearned run on two hits while also striking out two. Feeling on the youthful side?
"Yeah," he said earlier this spring, "until I wake up in the morning and it takes a little longer getting out of bed. But I did a lot of rehab on my hips and back, and for the first time in five years, I feel 18 again."
Wright recalled the conversation he had with Indians GM Mark Shapiro after the decision was made that Wright, whose progress through the Indians’ system had stalled as a conventional pitcher, should be converted to a knuckleballer -- a couple of Cleveland coaches had watched him throw the floater on the side.
"Mark called me aside and said, 'You’re the one guy in both locker rooms. Your age is just a number to us. It doesn't mean anything to us,'" Wright said. "That was kind of encouraging.
"To me, I still feel pressure. I’m 30. I've got to do this now. I know R.A., but R.A. had a lot of success in the big leagues before he became a knuckleballer. I don’t have that. I just want to get there."
To aid Wright in his quest, the Sox have enlisted Wakefield. Wright drove across the state earlier this spring and spent a morning with Wakefield, and this week Wakefield spent a day with him here and planned to watch him throw a couple times.
What does Wright need to do to effect a breakthrough?
"Repetitions," Wakefield said. "Just experience. Logging innings, getting them under your belt, figuring out what works best for you and what doesn’t work, and making small adjustments to be consistent."
Wright throws his baseline knuckler at around 73-75 mph but throws a harder version that can touch 80 and a slower one that he’ll brake to as little as 58 mph. Wakefield said learning to vary speeds proved crucial in his own development.
"That was very important to my success," he said. "It took Joe and Phil Niekro to convince me that I needed to change speeds. It really hit home for me that you could take one pitch and make it three by throwing it a little slower or a little harder.
"Early on, you’re just trying to throw the knuckleball over the plate for a strike. Then you learn how to pitch."
The biggest difference between a conventional pitcher and a knuckleballer, Wakefield said, is a conventional pitcher can make mistakes and get away with them because he is throwing with greater velocity.
"Our margins of error are so small," he said. "If you’re misfiring and not throwing a good knuckleball, it’s batting practice. It literally is. For me, it's 65 mph and the ball not doing anything."
The secret to surviving, then, Wakefield said, is an ability to recognize the mechanical flaws responsible for the knuckler flattening out and having the capacity to correct them.
"The more reps he gets under his belt, the better he’ll be able to make the small changes and make adjustments that get you out of the slumps like we all do," he said. "Pitchers do, hitters do. You lose your feel for it, now you got to fix it quickly, so it doesn’t last two or three starts."
Is there a particular temperament most useful to a knuckleballer?
"Probably that you’re easygoing," Wakefield said. "I was probably more uptight than any of us, maybe because I was more of a perfectionist. I strove for excellence, perfection. When it didn’t happen, I got frustrated."
Wakefield said he likes everything about Wright, including his temperament.
"He wants to pitch," he said. "It doesn’t matter if he starts or relieves, he wants to pitch and contribute to the success of the team."
That’s going to happen this season, Wakefield predicts.
"I think he’s the sixth starter," Wakefield said. "If somebody gets hurt, he’ll pick up the slack."