Friday, December 6, 2013
PORTLAND - In 2011, Steven Wright decided to go for it. No more simply fooling around with the knuckleball. He became committed.
"I jumped in headfirst," said Wright, the newest Portland Sea Dogs pitcher after the Red Sox obtained him Tuesday from the Indians in a trade for Lars Anderson.
Instead of relying on his fastball and slider, Wright threw mostly knuckleballs last year.
The doubts crept in.
"I didn't feel like a pitcher. I just felt like I was throwing batting practice with a ball that didn't spin," Wright said.
"When I struggled, I wondered if I should just go back to what I was doing."
But Wright stayed with it. He's talked to other knuckleball pitchers, including former Indians pitcher Tom Candiotti, current Mets All-Star R.A. Dickey, and longtime Red Sox knuckler Tim Wakefield, who retired after last season.
"It's been nice to have that knuckleball community to reach out to," Wright said, "because there's not too many of us left."
Sounds like a dying breed, although the success of Dickey (14-2, 2.83) may reverse that.
Wright's recent phone conversation with Wakefield was arranged by Rob Leary, a former Red Sox coach who is the Indians' minor league coordinator.
"It was nice to pick his brain," Wright said. "Now that I'm with the Red Sox, it might be easier to have access to him."
When Wright, 27, learned of the trade -- while he was in the visitors' clubhouse at Hadlock Field, in the uniform of the Double-A Akron Aeros -- he was thrilled.
"As a knuckleballer, you couldn't dream of a better organization because of what Wakefield's done," Wright said. "He showed there's a lot of value in the knuckleball."
Wakefield retired before this season after 19 years as a major league knuckleball pitcher, the last 17 with Boston.
The Sea Dogs have had knuckleball pitchers. Former major leaguer Charlie Haeger signed a major league contract with Boston last summer and came to Portland before a promotion to Pawtucket. He missed this season after Tommy John surgery.
The best-known Sea Dogs knuckleball pitcher was Charlie Zink, who came within one out of throwing a no-hitter at Hadlock Field in 2003. He spent parts of five seasons in Portland. Zink made one major league start at Fenway in 2008, went back to the minors and retired after last season.
Now Wright comes along. He's scheduled to make his Sea Dogs debut today at Hadlock in a 1 p.m. game against Erie.
Wright, from Moreno Valley, Calif., pitched for the University of Hawaii (teammate of former Sea Dogs utility player Jon Hee) and was drafted in the second round by Cleveland in 2006.
With a fastball in the low 90s, with a slider, curveball and change-up, Wright bounced between Double-A and Triple-A in 2009 and 2010.
Wright always had fooled around with a knuckleball and began using it occasionally in 2010.
The Indians wanted Wright to go full time with the knuckler in 2011 as a path to the majors.
"Scott Radinsky (now the Indians' major league pitching coach) said you need something that separates you from everyone else," Wright said.
Cleveland brought in Candiotti to work with Wright. That convinced him.
"(Candiotti) said, 'Man, you've got to think about throwing that.' "
Wright pitched in four levels of the minors in 2011, recording a 4-8 record with a 4.58 ERA.
He tinkered with the knuckleball in the winter and began to throw the pitch harder. While most knuckleball pitchers "float" the ball, with a speed around 60-65 mph, others like Dickey throw it harder, as fast as 80 mph.
"Dickey is showing that you not only can be effective with the knuckleball, you can command it," Wright said. "His strikeout-to-walk ratio (147/33) is unbelievable.
"I think he's bringing a different view to the knuckleball. You can throw a hard knuckleball and still get outs."
And Wright still can bring a fastball and cut fastball to keep hitters more off balance.
The pitch is certainly a work in progress and Wright keeps at it, hoping to eventually join that community of major league knuckleball pitchers.
Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at: