Knuckleball pitchers make up one of baseball's most exclusive fraternities, a small tribe of men who have dedicated their professional lives to mastering the sport's most confounding pitch.
The ranks have been thin in recent years, with only 45-year-old Tim Wakefield and renaissance man R.A. Dickey currently plying their trade at the Major League level. But this season, an enthusiastic new convert has entered into the fold: Steven Wright, an affable 26-year-old right-hander seeking to make his mark within the same Cleveland Indians organization that once employed notable knuckleballer Tom Candiotti.
Wright is in the beginning stages of what he can only hope will be a long and fruitful baseball journey, working day-in and day-out to harness the considerable but oft-elusive innings-eating power of the knuckleball.
A lifelong fascination
Wright was drafted by the Indians in the second round of the 2006 Draft and made his professional debut with the Class A Lake County Captains the following season. While the knuckler wasn't part of his repertoire then, it was a pitch that he had nonetheless always been enamored with.
"When I was nine-years-old [former Major League pitcher] Frank Pastore was my pitching coach, and I remember him throwing a knuckler back to me," recalled Wright, currently a member of the Double-A Akron Aeros. "And I found that so intriguing, that you could throw a ball with no spin."
Wright has been fascinated by the knuckleball ever since that mid-90s epiphany, experimenting with it endlessly in games of catch with his teammates. But until recently it was, in his own words, just something to "mess around with."
"Messing around" was more or less what Wright was doing before a game in New Hampshire last season. Akron catcher Miguel Perez was in the bullpen waiting to warm up the evening's starting pitcher, and on a lark Wright decided to toss him a knuckleball.
"I told Miggy, 'Hey, catch this!' and threw him a knuckleball," said Wright. "He couldn't catch it, so I threw him about three or four more and that was it. But [Aeros pitching coach] Greg Hibbard and [Indians special assistant] Jason Bere were watching, and they told me 'Hey, throw a couple more.' I didn't think a thing of it."
But this off-the-cuff instance of bullpen tomfoolery had a tremendous effect on Wright's career trajectory. Sufficiently impressed, Hibbard encouraged Wright to start throwing the knuckleball in game situations.
"I started using it as an out pitch, the way you'd use a split-finger or forkball. Now, when I got to two strikes on a batter, I finally had a good swing-and-miss pitch," he said.
Wright worked on his command of the knuckleball throughout the offseason, but was still looking at the pitch as just one more in his bag of tricks.
"Spring Training started and [the knuckleball] was working good, and when I got into games it was working even better," said Wright. "The Indians noticed, and with a week and a half left [in Spring Training] they brought in Tom Candiotti to watch me and see what his thoughts were. He really liked it, and told me 'Hey, you're good at something that a lot of people can't do. Why don't you start throwing it more often?'"
The endorsement of this 17-year Major League veteran (Candiotti won 151 games in a career that spanned from 1983-99) spurred the Indians to make Wright an offer he couldn't refuse.
"Basically, they told me 'We'll back you if this is something that you want to go forth with," said Wright.
Indeed, he did.
Moving backward to go forward
But going forward with the knuckleball meant taking a significant step back in his developmental path. Wright remained in extended Spring Training as the season began in order to work on mechanics and hone his command, and he made his 2011 debut April 21 as a member of the same Lake County club he'd suited up for in 2007.
Such regression was a bit hard to swallow, especially since Wright had been fairly successful in his previous, more traditional, incarnation. After two seasons as a starter, he transitioned to the bullpen in 2009 and enjoyed a breakout campaign, going 10-0 with a 2.32 ERA over 36 appearances with the Aeros. And, though 2010 was a bumpier ride (2-3 with a 4.78 ERA over 48 appearances split between Akron and Triple-A Columbus), it was far from an indication that Wright was washed up.
"I'm 26 and this is only my fifth year as a pro,'" said Wright. "There has never been that moment where I was like 'Damn, I can't get anybody out. Every time out there I'm giving up hits.' It wasn't even like that last year, and that was my worst as a professional."
But nonetheless, Wright is well aware that right-handed relievers who throw in the low-90s are easy to come by in professional baseball. But knuckleballers are potentially far more valuable, versatile innings-eaters able to pitch in a variety of situations and on short rest to boot.
"[The knuckleball] is my pitch and I've got to commit to it. You can't go halfway with something like this," he said. "This is all or nothing."
To that end, Wright is now working in a starting role and utilizing the knuckleball upwards of 85 percent of the time, generally throwing in the 65-70 mph range. Harnessing his command of the pitch is a day-in, day-out priority as Wright works on finding a consistent release point and streamlining his mechanics.
"I've always been an aggressive pitcher, so it's been hard to become a finesse pitcher all of a sudden. But the knuckler is more of a feel pitch, often you have to take some off of it," he said. "It's more about subtraction than it is addition."
While the knuckleball has assumed primary importance, improving command of his fastball is currently a major priority as well. The fastball functions as a "reverse changeup" of sorts, ideally catching the batter woefully off-guard after a steady diet of fluttering knuckleballs.
"I need to command the fastball to get back in the count," said Wright. "If the count is 2-0 and I throw a fastball and miss with it then it's 3-0 and what good is that? My goal when I throw the fastball is to have the batter think it's a knuckleball, and ideally it's going to look like it's coming in at 100 miles an hour."
Have knuckleball, will travel
Wright's season of transition has been punctuated by many, well, transitions. After beginning the campaign in Lake County, Wright was sent to Triple-A Columbus for a one-off appearance, then back to Lake County, then to Akron for one outing of long relief, then to Kinston, and then, finally, back to Akron. Thus far he has amassed a 1-2 record for three different clubs, compiling a 4.32 ERA over 108 1/3 innings pitched overall.
And as if all that wasn't enough, Wright recently went on the inactive list and returned to his Arizona home in order to be with his wife, Shannon, as she works through health problems. Wright said that "the Indians were very supportive with everything that was going on. It eased my mind to be able to go home and be there for her."
Wright has made three starts for the Aeros since returning from the inactive list earlier this month. He said that the caliber of competition in Double-A is demonstrably superior, as "the hitters have a better approach and don't swing as much. You better be able to throw strikes."
This is sometimes easier said than done, as Wright has walked 16 batters and allowed 15 runs over his last 15 1/3 innings of work.
"Your weaknesses get exposed in Double-A, but I like it," he said. "It sucks giving up runs and getting losses, because a big part of this game is the statistics. But so much of it is a learning process, and I have to remember I'm dealing with a learning curve now. That mindset goes against my competitive side, but with a new pitch comes a new lifestyle."
And if all goes according to plan, this a lifestyle that Wright will be living for a long time to come.
"Throwing a knuckleball is unique. It's a special thing, like being able to throw 100 [mph]," he said. "Now it's a matter of seeing where I can go with it."