Red Sox farmhand Steven Wright
isn't a typical prospect. He's 28 years old and has made just 16 appearances -- five of them starts -- above the Double-A level.
After several years of pitching conventionally and reaching Triple-A in 2009, Wright began throwing a knuckleball. It was just an out pitch at first, but as it became more effective, the former second-round Draft pick dedicated himself to becoming a full-time knuckleballer. He returned to Class A at age 26 to work on the pitch and made his way back up the Minor League ladder.
2012 was a banner year for the two knuckleballers in affiliated baseball: R.A. Dickey, 37, won the National League Cy Young Award and Wright established himself with a 10-7 record and 2.54 ERA while holding Double-A and Triple-A hitters to a .213 average. The Red Sox acquired Wright from the Indians at the trade deadline on July 31, bringing the knuckleball back to the organization a year after stalwart Tim Wakefield retired at 44.
Though still relatively new to the knuckleball, Wright is the next great hope to carry on a rare and curious baseball legacy.
MiLB.com: You spent some time in the Dominican Winter League following the regular season -- what was that experience like?
Steven Wright: It was awesome. It was a great chance to stay focused on pitching and a great atmosphere. I was playing for Escogido, so we were in the city and the fans were a lot of fun. I'd definitely recommend the league to anyone.
MiLB.com: What else have you been up to during the offseason?
Wright: I just got back from the Red Sox Rookie Program in Boston last week. I haven't been with the organization that long, so it was great to be at Fenway and meet the front office staff and the clubbies and see how everything clicks. I'd already talked to a bunch of people, but it was good to meet them and put faces to the names.
MiLB.com: It's been less than six months since the Red Sox acquired you from the Indians. Have you noticed any differences between the franchises?
Wright: No, it's all pretty much the same. The workouts are largely the same, maybe just doing different things on different days. I've enjoyed working with the people in both clubs.
MiLB.com: You were with Double-A Akron when you were traded to the Sox and assigned to Portland. The two teams played each other that first week -- was there ever any chance you were going to pitch against your old teammates?
Wright: Yeah, we were in Akron and what would have been my turn had I still been with the Aeros. The Sea Dogs didn't have too many starting pitchers at that time, though -- they were filling in with relievers -- and an actual starter was scheduled to go that day, so they pushed me back instead of him.
MiLB.com: Both you and the knuckleball have gotten a fair bit of attention lately. How much of that is due to the emergence of R.A. Dickey?
Wright: Oh, I think most of it. People are naturally interested in a strange pitch that not too many pitchers throw, but with R.A. having such an incredible season, it kind of spilled over on to me. As far as I know, we're the only two pitchers [in affiliated baseball] to rely on it primarily.
MiLB.com: It's been suggested that no one has ever thrown the knuckleball as hard as Dickey does. Are you similar?
Wright: I throw relatively hard too. We grip the ball the same way, more or less, although I prefer not to use the seams at all. Some guys like to hold the ball inside the horseshoe on the seams, but avoiding the seams feels best in my hand.
MiLB.com: Do you try to vary your delivery or arm slot, or are you concentrating on throwing it the same way every time?
Wright: I'm still pretty early in my knuckleball career ... so I'm focused on trying to make it the same every time. I know some people have experimented with dropping down a little, but I'm just trying to master the basic pitch without trying to introduce any wrinkles.
MiLB.com: Are there any things you have to work on -- maybe finger strength -- that is less of a factor for "conventional" pitchers?
Wright: Our workouts are pretty much the same. To be honest, I haven't been a full-time knuckleballer long enough to consider making changes.
It's important for all pitchers, of course, but I think even more so for me to concentrate on little things like controlling the running game, being quick to home and fielding the position. With the knuckleball, you're trying to make the batter mishit, so there are swinging bunts to contend with. And catching it can be hard, so you want to give your catcher every advantage you can by being quick to the plate and holding runners well.
MiLB.com: Rather infamously, the Red Sox had to reacquire catcher Doug Mirabelli partway through the 2006 season because regular starter Jason Varitek had such trouble catching Wakefield's knuckleball. How hard have you been on your catchers?
Wright: I've been really fortunate. My catcher in Akron, Roberto Perez, is just a tremendous defensive catcher, and it was just as good when I came to the Red Sox. In fact, Escogido brought in my catcher in Portland, Matt Spring, just to catch me in the Winter League.
It's a hard thing to catch a knuckleball, but I think you need to have the mentality that, "Okay, I'm going to miss a few, but that's fine." Sometimes people get psyched out by it before they need to.
MiLB.com: When you're struggling, what can a pitching coach tell you when he visits the mound? You presumably know more about the knuckleball than he does.
Wright: Communication is really important. I try to tell my coaches as much as I can about which things are important and which aren't so much. My pitching coaches have been able to say things like, "You were doing this when things were working, but now you're doing something different."
It's a little difficult when the pitch is so rare. But when I have questions about it, I'm able to talk to guys like Wake, R.A., Charlie Hough and Tom Candiotti. You know, I'll send out a text after a game and they'll usually respond in the next day or so with their thoughts. It's a great resource to be able to talk to some of the greats of the game like that, and one that not many people are fortunate enough to have.
MiLB.com: I guess you knuckleballers have your own sort of guild? Do you feel like you're kind of carrying the torch onward for the knuckleball?
Wright: I really have to credit the Indians organization for giving me the resources to work on the pitch -- they encouraged me, they brought in [Candiotti] to work with me, they introduced me to the group.
Yeah, there are so few of us that have tried to rely on the knuckleball -- no one really tries to be a knuckleballer, it's something you turn to when your other pitches aren't doing the job -- that it's an amazing thing to be a part of. It's exciting trying to carry on that tradition.