Red Sox's Steven Wright Taking Reins as MLB's New Knuckleball King

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterMay 12, 2016

Boston Red Sox staring pitcher Steven Wright delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sunday, May 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Knuckleball pitchers stick together.

They understand each other in a way that no one else can. They ask each other questions that no one else can answer.

And when one of their own is pitching on national TV, they're going to do what they can to watch.

So last Sunday night, Steve Sparks skipped the NBA playoffs and watched baseball's latest knuckleball king instead.

It was a good night to watch Steven Wright, a 31-year-old who flings his knuckleballs for the Boston Red Sox. Wright came within one out of a complete-game shutout against the New York Yankees. He ended up with a three-hitter, the best performance by a Red Sox starter this season.

"It was remarkable," Sparks said a couple of days later.

This season has been remarkable so far for Wright, who only made the Boston rotation out of spring training because Eduardo Rodriguez was hurt. Now he has the third-lowest ERA in the American League (1.52).

Wright's career has been remarkable, too, the story of a onetime Cleveland Indians second-round draft pick who saw his development stalled in Double-A until he listened to suggestions to try the knuckleball. But it usually works that way with a pitch that can be incredibly hard to hit but also hard to learn and control.

There's a reason there aren't that many guys who throw it, a reason why such a bond develops between those who do. Sparks, who pitched nine seasons in the major leagues and now calls Houston Astros games on the radio, leaned heavily on Charlie Hough, who rode the knuckleball to a 25-year career.

Pitching for the Red Sox has given Wright a chance to work with fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
Pitching for the Red Sox has given Wright a chance to work with fellow knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

So did Wright, who also has the benefit of talking regularly to ex-Red Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.

"There's definitely a camaraderie," Wright said. "I talk a lot with Wake and with Charlie Hough. I talk to R.A. [Dickey], because he's in the same division. I saw Steve Sparks when we were in Houston, and Tom Candiotti."

He's younger than all of them, and now he's the one who can take their pitch and carry it into the future. When Sparks watched Wright dominate the Yankees, he could see that the future of the knuckleball was in good hands.

"It reminded me of Dickey in his Cy Young season," Sparks said.

It's not a bad comparison. Dickey threw back-to-back one-hitters at one point in that 2012 season. Wright hasn't done that, but he has allowed just three hits in each of his last three starts. He's gone at least six innings in each start this season and hasn't allowed more than two runs in any of them.

Even with Rodriguez and Joe Kelly close to coming off the disabled list, there's no way the Red Sox can take Wright out of the rotation now.

"I think his pitching is speaking loud and clear," Red Sox manager John Farrell said.

The bigger question is whether Wright can sustain this, and for how long. Knuckleballers can have long careers—Hough pitched until he was 46, Phil Niekro started a game at 48 and Dickey is 41 now—but their reliance on one sometimes-erratic pitch can make consistency tough to achieve.

"I want to just go out and do the best I can do," Wright said. "Hopefully I can make it and carry the torch for 10-12 years."

Sparks believes it's possible.

"To be honest, watching Steven, I really think he has a chance to do this for a long time," Sparks said.

Like so many who have eventually mastered the knuckleball, Wright took a long time to get to this spot. He was drafted as a conventional pitcher back in 2006, and he advanced as far as Double-A throwing fastballs and sliders.

He messed around with a knuckleball, just as many conventional pitchers do. By his fourth season in the minor leagues, he even threw it in games, but just occasionally, when he was ahead in the count and wanted an out pitch.

The next year, in 2011, he listened to advice from some in the Indians organization and tried throwing the knuckleball all the time.

Wright didn't get to the major leagues until 2013, and not until he'd been traded to the Red Sox for minor league first baseman Lars Anderson. His first big league start was a one-inning disaster, with two walks, a hit batter and four Ryan Lavarnway passed balls leading to three runs.

There have been passed balls this year, too, as there always will be with a knuckleballer. But Wright's comfort with catcher Ryan Hanigan, and Hanigan's comfort with catching the knuckleball, seems to be growing with each start.

Meanwhile, Sparks saw from afar why Wright's knuckleball has been so good.

"You can see that his palm is behind the ball, and that takes the spin off it," Sparks said. "That's key, and it's hard to do. As a conventional pitcher, you're taught to throw downhill toward the catcher. But I learned from Charlie Hough that with the knuckleball, you don't want to do that. The key is to pick out a high target, then figure out how to keep your hand on the ball as long as you can. [Wright] has his palm behind the ball. He's not tilting forward, and that's how you get that dancing movement."

He has "active and violent" movement, as Farrell described it. And he has a chance, a chance to help the Red Sox win and to carry on the tradition for knuckleballers everywhere.

Wherever they are, they're watching.

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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