Tim Wakefield retired following the 2011 season, but the Boston Red Sox may have a new knuckleball pitcher on the horizon, and his name is Steven Wright.
In Wakefield’s 17 seasons with Boston, he won 186 games and two World Series championships. Although it will be difficult for any pitcher---let alone a knuckleballer---to match such a legacy, the right-handed Wright is on the cusp of giving it a try.
It’s highly unlikely that Wright will make the team out of spring training, but there’s a good chance that he could help the Red Sox at some point in 2013. With all the hand-wringing about the state of Boston’s starting pitching, a prospect like Wright may get a shot in the rotation.
Wright was originally a standard pitcher with a 90 mph fastball who was drafted in the second round of the 2006 draft by the Cleveland Indians.
He told the Bangor Daily News’ Larry Mahoney that his first experience with a knuckleball came as a nine-year-old, when he caught one thrown by former major league pitcher Frank Pastore at a baseball clinic.
Wright occasionally tinkered with the pitch for the next 15 years for fun, but focused on a more traditional repertoire that helped get him drafted.
He began his professional career as a starter, but switched to a relief role in 2009, when he went a combined 10-0 with a 2.48 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A. Unfortunately, that success didn't last.
He floundered the next season in Double-A, unsure of where his career was heading, so he started experimenting with the knuckler. As he told Mahoney, “In 2010, I started messing around with the knuckleball in New Hampshire. Our pitching coach, Greg Hibbard, saw it and thought it was pretty good.”
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?'
Wright’s hard work paid off and he went 9-6 with a 2.49 ERA in 20 starts with the Akron Aeros in 2012.
The Red Sox thought enough of Wright that they acquired him at last season’s trade deadline for first base prospect Lars Anderson, who had once been considered a top prospect.
Wright had five minor league starts after joining the Red Sox organization and continued to impress by posting a 2.76 ERA.
Although the 27-year-old Wright is not a traditional prospect, he could be one of the most valuable young players for the Red Sox this coming season.
The Boston Globe’s Nick Cafardo wrote that Wright “may be one of the first pitchers called up in 2013 if there should be an injury in the rotation.”
CBSSports.com’s C. Trent Rosecrans wrote that Wright throws a harder knuckleball like R.A. Dickey. Unlike Wakefield’s slow offerings, Wright’s velocity typically hits the upper 70s to low 80s.
Wright told Rosecrans he has already been embraced by the knuckleball community; staying in regular contact with Charlie Hough, Candiotti, Dickey and Wakefield:
Every knuckleballer wants to continue to see knuckleballers and the knuckleball continue, so they're going to do everything they can to help that person be successful and help prolong the life of a knuckleball. It's a lost art. It's not that people don't know how to do it, it's just about people wanting the chance to risk their career on a pitch that's unpredictable.
The unpredictability of the knuckleball can give its thrower immediate success---as shown by Wakefield---who went 14-1 with a 1.65 ERA in his first 17 games with Boston in 1995. Is it possible that Wright could have a similar impact?
Wright will likely start the season with Triple-A Pawtucket, but could get the call to Boston if an injury or need for a spot start arises. From there, he could determine his future by what he did with such an opportunity.
Few people are talking about Wright, but he could potentially make a big impact with the Red Sox. It would be great to see the team strike gold with a knuckleball pitcher for the second time in a generation.
Statistics via BaseballReference