Last season, there was one knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. It was okay, because he won a Cy Young Award. This spring, there will probably be just one knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. Which is okay, because at least there's another knuckleball pitcher knocking on the door. Last season, the Red Sox traded for Steven Wright, who has become a knuckleball pitcher even though he throws his fastball in the low 90s when he wants to. And Wright finished last summer with Triple-A Pawtucket, posting a 3.15 ERA in four starts.
Wright's been invited to the Red Sox' major-league spring training this spring, and he's got an outstanding model for success. At WEEI.com, Alex Speier's got the whole story:
"I pinch-hit against R.A. Dickey this past year when I was in Pittsburgh. That day, I think he struck out 14 or 15 guys and was making everyone look silly. You could see it from the dugout. Guys would come back and say it was moving pretty good. I felt the same way some of the times facing Steven," said Sox infielder Brock Holt, who faced Wright in two games in Double-A in 2012. "The first time I faced Steven, I took one pitch just to see it. I said, 'No way he can throw strikes with that thing.' First pitch, strike. Second pitch, fouled it off. Third pitch, swing and I don't know how I missed it. Swing and a miss and I was confused about what just happened. The catcher dropped it and threw me out at first. He's got a good one, and he throws it hard."
How hard? According to C. Trent Rosencrans (via CBSSports.com), pretty damned hard: Like Dickey, Wright throws a harder knuckleball than the tradition knuckler -- throwing it in the mid-70s and low-80s. And even though he's a member of the Red Sox, he watches Dickey's success and is thankful... "I watch what he does and that's literally who I want to be," Wright said. "I want to do what he's doing right now. He's showing that you can command the knuckleball, you can command it for strikes."
No question about it. As I wrote last summer in this space, Dickey's knuckleball might be a paradigm-shifting pitch: "Robert Alan Dickey is one of a kind. But it's at least possible that in 10 years, he'll be viewed as the father of an entire generation of angry knuckleballers."
When I wrote those words, I didn't know anything about Steven Wright. But it sure seems like he's doing his best to become the first of that next generation. And at only 28, he's got plenty of time.
He'll probably need some more. When you look at Wright's 2012 season, split between the Indians' and Red Sox' organizations, the first thing you notice is his 2.54 ERA in 25 minor-league starts. That's really impressive. Dig a little deeper, though, and you notice his 1.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Class AA. That's not commanding the knuckleball for strikes. By comparison, in Dickey's last 20 Triple-A starts -- spread over three seasons and three organizations, because two of those organizations didn't know what they had -- he struck out 85 and walked only 25. That's commanding the knuckleball for strikes.
And of course, he's only gotten better since then.