Fear of failure can be a great motivator. Just ask Pawtucket Red Sox knuckleball pitcher Steven Wright.
A California native, Wright pitched at the University of Hawaii from 2004-06 before being selected by Cleveland in the June 2006 draft. He spent the first five and a half seasons of his pro career in the Indians system before being traded to Boston on July 31, 2012 in exchange for 1B Lars Anderson.
Entering the 2010 season, the 6'1" righty was still a "conventional" pitcher.
"I really didn't have a swing-and-miss pitch," said Wright. "One day (in 2010) I was messing around with the knuckleball on the mound when I was with Akron (Double-A) and we were playing in New Hampshire. Greg Hibbert, our pitching coach, saw me doing it and he brought it to the Indians attention that maybe I should use it as an out pitch.
"They told me to throw it as an out pitch and that's how I started using it in games."
The 29-year-old Wright threw the knuckleball so well last season for Pawtucket that he compiled an 8-7 record with a 3.46 ERA which was 6th-best in the Red Sox system and 9th-best in the International League. He made a team-high 24 starts, tied for the most victories on the PawSox staff, and had the best ERA among qualifying Pawtucket pitchers last year.
In addition, Steven was especially effective down the stretch helping the PawSox clinch the IL North pennant going 2-0 while allowing just 1 ER in 17 IP during his final three regular-season starts. He continued his roll in the post-season giving up just 2 unearned runs over two playoff starts (13 IP) as he defeated Rochester, 5-1 in G3 of the semi-finals and lost at Durham, 2-1 in G2 of the Governors' Cup Finals.
Furthermore, his fine performance with the PawSox earned him four different trips to Boston during the 2013 season…on April 16, July 10, August 1, and September 17. Overall in 4 games (1 start) for the Red Sox he was 2-0 with a 5.40 ERA.
"After 2009, I thought I was on the path to being a major league baseball player as a normal pitcher," said Wright. "But when I started throwing the knuckleball, it was like I might be able to do it. But going back through the minor leagues again was something I feared because it was like 'I've got to do it all over again.' I went back to Low-A (Lake County) and then later High-A (Kinston) in 2011.
"Everybody's expecting you to fail besides your own organization. That's what's been awesome about being with the Red Sox. I've gotten all the support I could ask for. They've got Tim Wakefield back to help me. It's been great. That really helps me mentally because it's like they're investing in me to become the best knuckleball pitcher I can be."
Perhaps one indication of the esteem in which Wright is held by Red Sox Nation manifested itself at the annual Boston Baseball Writers Association Awards Banquet in January when the right-hander was presented with the Lou Gorman Award.
The award, which is named after the late Red Sox vice president and general manager, is presented to a "Boston minor league player who has demonstrated passion, dedication and perseverance in overcoming obstacles while working his way to the Major League team."
"The award should be an honor for Steven," said Boston's Director of Player Development Ben Crockett. "It's something that he had to persevere through some challenging circumstances where he came to a crossroads in his career and had to make a challenging decision that he was going to try something different.
"Obviously, he hit the ground running with (the knuckleball) and moved quickly in that transition."
Wright, who has a 47-41 record with a 3.84 ERA in 215 career minor league games (132 starts), is quick to credit Wakefield with helping him make a successful transition to being a knuckleball pitcher.
"I worked with him in spring training in 2013," said Wright. "He understands the knuckleball and he understands pitching. That's what makes him more beneficial to me because he was successful throwing a knuckleball and he understands what it takes to be a pitcher.
"Wake's not trying to make me become him. He's helping me become the best knuckleball pitcher I can be. He's not trying to make me replicate him. That's what helped me out a lot."
Watching Wakefield and Toronto's R.A. Dickey (the only active knuckleball pitcher in the majors) helped Wright, who tossed the only three complete games the PawSox had during all of 2013, realize that he wasn't going to morph into the second coming of Nolan Ryan and strike out a dozen batters per game.
"I struggled throwing strikes the first time I got sent down," he said. "I think the biggest mindset from that point until toward the end of the season was that, mentally, I'm going to make a conscious effort this year to pitch to more contact.
"One of the things I learned watching Dickey and Wake is that being a knuckleball pitcher you're a contact pitcher. I think last year because I got hit around in my big league debut vs. Oakland (five earned runs in 3 2/3 innings) there was a sub-conscious fear that I didn't realize until later that I was afraid to let them hit it … thinking the pitch wasn't good enough.
"More times than not," continued Wright, "they're not going to hit it hard if I throw a quality knuckleball in the strike zone. I feel every time I take the mound my job is to make them hit it. Concentrate on making a good pitch and not worry if it's 0-2 or 3-0. I think sometimes I would go for a strikeout on each one and you can't do that."
Given the difficulty in throwing a knuckleball plus the vagaries of a pitch that relies heavily on wind currents, Wright fully understand why more pitchers don't use it as their primary - or even secondary - pitch.
"Kids aren't learning it like they are changeups and curveballs," he said. "Honestly, organizations want to draft flame throwers. Velocity plays a big role in the game.
"In order to be successful throwing the knuckleball, you have to have both feet in. If you're not two feet in, you might as well not even do it. It took me a year to figure that out. Once I did, it didn't make it easier but it made it easier in my mind in terms of this is what I'm going to do. It's still a work in progress but I'm working to be the best knuckleball pitcher I can be and not just a pitcher.
"In retrospect," added Wright, "that's why it's so satisfying to me because I have an opportunity here to help the team. Plus, given what Dickey's doing, I'm trying to carry the torch where more teams will allow guys to pursue that and help guys down the road fulfill the dream I was able to fulfill."
The four stints Wright had last season with Boston also might help him fulfill his dream because, instead of becoming a bystander, he was a keen observer of his major league teammates.
"It wasn't so much what I heard but what I saw," he said. "It was seeing guys like (Jon) Lester and (Jake) Peavey and (Ryan) Dempster, and even 'Petey' (Dustin Pedroia) and Papi. It was preparation.
"Lester talked about what he does between starts. It's stuff that people don't see that I saw. It wasn't like I didn't put in my work because I did. But it gave me another view. Maybe I need to work a little bit harder. Maybe I need to put more concentration on what I'm doing and not just play light catch on a fourth day.
"That's the life we want," continued Wright. "I love coming to McCoy because if I'm going to be in Triple-A, I'd rather be here than anywhere else. But nobody wants to be in Triple-A for long. Everybody wants to be in the big leagues. Work hard, work smart and take every day like it's your last."