Steven Wright is making the most of his second chance to make a first impression.
In 2006, the right-hander was drafted by the Indians out of the University of Hawaii as a pitcher with good command of a low-90s fastball and a good slider that he could throw for strikes. However, while he was introduced to John Farrell -- then the Cleveland farm director -- upon signing, he never got to pitch in a game with him watching, as he was sidelined for his first pro season by mono. At the conclusion of the season, Farrell was hired by the Red Sox as a pitching coach, and so he and Wright never had the opportunity to work together.
That has not been the case in Farrell's second life in Boston (as a manager) and Wright's second life as a pitcher (as a knuckleballer). The Sox acquired the 28-year-old at last year's trade deadline for first baseman Lars Anderson, amidst a season in which he began to flourish with his new approach to pitching.
Wright made a total of 30 starts for Double-A Akron, Double-A Portland, Triple-A Pawtucket and Escogido in the Dominican Winter League, accumulating a 10-8 record and 2.53 ERA while punching out 7.3 and walking 4.0 batters per nine innings. His knuckleball proved capable of baffling opponents.
"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."
Wright's performance was strong enough to merit a spot on the Red Sox' 40-man roster, which in turn meant a place in both the team's Rookie Development Program and now in Red Sox big league camp.
His body of work has made a considerable impression on the new Red Sox manager, who recently singled him out (on WEEI's Red Sox Hot Stove Show) as a player with a chance to turn some heads in spring training.
"He's a guy that's starting to really gain … a lot of notoriety within the organization," said Farrell. "This is a guy who went down to the Dominican this winter, pitched against pretty good lineups, had a lot of success, and whether or not he realizes the success of [Tim Wakefield] or R.A. Dickey, in a manner of about a two- or three-year period, he's gotten a very good feel for the pitch. He throws it harder than Wake, more like R.A. Dickey. This is a guy who has a chance -- he's certainly one of our depth starters now -- he's certainly going to be an interesting guy over time."
Such a statement represents the latest in a series of events that has validated Wright's decision to make the transition from conventional pitcher to a knuckleballer. His performance in Double-A with the Indians, the fact that a team sought him out and traded for him, a promotion to Triple-A, a spot on the 40-man roster ...
"I feel like I've come a long ways," said Wright. "I still know that I have a long ways to go. But this year in spring training is a lot different, besides going to the big league camp and the 40-man roster."
Indeed, it would be hard to understate how dramatic the difference is between Wright now and where he was a year ago. After all, one year ago at this time, he was considering abandoning the pitch that is now his staple.
'I'LL GIVE IT SPRING TRAINING'
Wright was introduced to the craft of pitching as a child by Frank Pastore, who enjoyed an eight-year career in the big leagues. In addition to working with Wright on more common pitches, the two also messed around with a knuckleball. For most of his life, it was nothing more than a recreational curiosity, as his mix of a fastball, slider and curve turned him into a prospect.
But after a highly successful 2009 season in which Wright went 10-0 with a 2.48 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A, he stalled out in 2010. After beginning the season in Triple-A, he struggled (7.59 ERA in nine games) and was demoted. His struggles continued back in Akron as well.
One day, prior to a game against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, he tossed a few knuckleballs on the mound for his own amusement as much as anything. The catcher waved helplessly at the offerings. The moment caught the attention of Akron pitching coach Greg Hibbard and special assistant to baseball operations Jason Bere, who suggested that Wright begin incorporating the knuckleball as an out pitch. Scott Radinsky, a pitching coach in the Indians organization, took the advice a step further.
"He just kind of planted a seed," Wright recalled. "He said you have to separate yourself. You need something that, when they talk about you, you don't want to be the 92-95 guy with the slider. With the ability to throw a knuckleball, he said, that might be the pitch."
In the spring of 2011, Wright worked with Tom Candiotti in spring training. The longtime knuckleballer suggested that Wright might consider using the pitch on a full-time basis. In 2011, that undertaking met with uninspired results, as Wright -- back in the rotation for the first time since 2008, but back down in Single-A for the first time since 2007 to start the year -- went 4-8 with a 4.58 ERA in 25 games, pitching primarily in Single-A, High-A and Double-A with one Triple-A appearance.
At the time, he was riddled with uncertainty. He was abandoning decades of pitching training, and it was difficult to feel fully invested in the change of course.
"I wasn't sure if it was too early to make the transition because it is such an unpredictable pitch," said Wright. "To rest my whole career on that, I jumped in really quick, and when I had a bad day, I'd think about it -- going back to being a conventional pitcher."
Indeed, when Wright arrived in spring training a year ago, he was ready to revert to his previous style of pitching.
"I was on the verge of flushing the knuckleball, of not throwing the pitch. I didn't have a very good 2011. A lot of it was that I was confused," said Wright. "Being around the ballpark, more times than not, it just wasn't fun. I just didn't feel like I had that same competitive nature. I literally felt like I was out there on the mound throwing batting practice, trying to throw a ball that doesn't spin, not knowing anything about it. So I went back in spring training with the mindset that I was going to go back to throwing fastballs and using the knuckleball as an out pitch."
Wright was not in the Indians' big league camp last year. (Indeed, in his six springs with Cleveland, he was never invited to big league camp, underscoring the fact that his career as a conventional pitcher hadn't advanced to the point of putting him on the big league map.) However, the team needed extra pitchers to back up some of the games in big league camp, and Wright was called upon to pitch in one of those contests early.
He went back to the pitch mix that he'd employed for most of his career, mixing in a couple of knuckleballs. After the contest, Indians officials pulled him aside. They wanted to see him use the knuckleball in the rest of games that spring.
"They affirmed that, the numbers still aren't that big of a deal. We want to see you progress [with the pitch]," said Wright. "I kind of told myself, I'll give it spring training."
The breakthrough happened shortly thereafter. Through a former winter league teammate, Wright got into contact with Charlie Hough, who pitched 25 seasons and lasted until he was 46 years old thanks to the nefarious pitch. The Indians and Dodgers signed off on letting Wright throw a bullpen session with the senior adviser of player development for Los Angeles.
"That was everything I needed to gain an understanding and eventually turn it into that understanding and confidence," said Wright. "Going to Charlie after a year of throwing the knuckleball, I had a better understanding of what I needed to do to kill the spin, but I struggled with the type of knuckleballer I was going to be. He helped me simplify how to throw the pitch, how to repeat it, my check points, what to do if the ball was doing certain things and drills to do to get the feeling back in the finger tips -- stuff that every other pitcher has for all of his other pitches, but I didn't really have because nobody throws the knuckleball. Talking to Charlie, it was like, 'All right, I can do this.' "
Wright came to understand that he'd throw a hard knuckleball in the style of Dickey, rather than the softer offering that proved Wakefield's moneymaker for 19 big league seasons. He started to gain a sense for what he was doing, to the point where he no longer felt as if he was throwing batting practice.
Though the means were different, the feeling was familiar. Wright was once again competing on the mound, and enjoying considerable success. He was named an All-Star in the Double-A Eastern League while holding opponents to the lowest batting average of any qualifying starter in that league. Though Wright was 27 and in Double-A for the fifth straight year, the Indians made it clear to him that they viewed him as a prospect.
"[Indians president Mark Shapiro] basically told me, 'You're the one guy that age does not matter. To us, you're 21 again. You're newly drafted, a new pitcher,' " said Wright. "I was able to step outside and realize I'm still young. I'm still a new guy because of the pitch I'm trying to perfect."
That lesson was reinforced by the fellowship of knuckleballers. Throughout last year, Wright had a chance to talk with some frequency to Dickey, and later in the year -- on July 27, to be precise -- Indians minor league field coordinator Rob Leary (a longtime coach with the Red Sox) arranged for Wright to talk to Wakefield.
Four days later, the Sox traded for Wright.
"When I got traded, it was like, 'Wow -- people are watching. People are appreciating the knuckleball, and what better organization to appreciate it than the Red Sox?' " said Wright.
ON THE CUSP
As the year unfolded, Wright's ability to control the pitch improved. After his trade to the Red Sox, in 10 starts in Portland, Pawtucket and the Dominican, he had just 2.3 walks per nine innings -- roughly half his walk rate for the full season -- while delivering consistently solid results.
That performance was a reflection of the confidence Wright has gained in his second life as a pitcher. This spring, there is no doubt about his conviction with the knuckleball.
"I feel a lot more at peace of what I'm trying to do, because I know what I want to be -- I want to be a knuckleballer," said Wright. "Now my whole concept is to do whatever I can to kill the spin on the ball and keep it in the zone, so I feel like I've progressed quite a bit just in the mental side, and now it's just a matter of repeating my delivery and staying within myself."
The Sox are excited about what they've seen, even as they remain mindful of the near-impossibility of projecting knuckleballers. It's such a small class of pitchers, and the path to the pitch is so diverse, that it's not realistic to examine a player's statistical profile and to say with any confidence how those numbers might translate to the big leagues.
Still, Wright is in an organization that does have a deep-rooted appreciation for the potential of the pitch. And with the success of 2012 National League Cy Young winner Dickey, there is an increased industry-wide appreciation for the potential upside of a knuckleballer.
"With what R.A. did last year, he said, you can pitch with the knuckleball just as effectively as Pedro Martinez did, as CC Sabathia does, and Justin Verlander does. It's to the point where it kind of broadened people's perspective and mindset of the knuckleball in a different way," said Wright. "His strikeout-to-walk ratio was better than guys who were throwing fastballs, and he was doing it with a pitch that, supposedly, he doesn't know where it's going.
"The knuckleball can be an effective pitch, and baseball, if teams have a guy who might want to pursue it, it might have opened a door for teams to give that possibility to other players like myself."
The door is indeed open. Wright projects as one of the Sox' first lines of defense to offer pitching rotation depth in Triple-A, even as, now entering his third season as a full-time knuckleballer, he acknowledges that he is not a finished product.
"I'm a student of the game, but I'm like the new kid in class," he said. "I've got to keep learning more about something I'm not very used to doing, which is the knuckleball and everything that comes with it -- controlling the running game, throwing your fastball in certain counts -- I've got to learn how to pitch again."
The returns to date, at least, appear exceedingly promising. And while he has room to grow, as Wright pulls into Fort Myers for his first big league spring training following his cross-country drive to spring training, he no longer needs to wonder whether or not he'll be lost in the shuffle.