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Wright looking to take the next step with his knuckleball

Wright looking to take the next step with his knuckleball
March 23, 2012
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Last season right-handed pitcher Steven Wright made a full time conversion to being a knuckleball pitcher.

Wright, 27, first toyed with the knuckleball during pre-game warmups in the second half of the 2010 season while at Double-A Akron. Indians coaches saw it, liked it, and have since worked with him on developing it into an effective offering.

Last season Wright bounced around between four levels in the Indians’ system as he pitched in a combined 25 games (20 starts) for Low-A Lake County, High-A Kinston, Double-A Akron and Triple-A Columbus and went 4-8 with a 4.58 ERA (133.2 IP, 147 H, 18 HR, 68 BB, 97 K). He even went out to Panama in the offseason to play winter ball so he could get more innings under his belt and continue to try and hone in on his consistency with the knuckleball.

Last year it did not matter where Wright pitched. The goal was to get him innings and opportunities to face live hitters so he could develop the knuckleball and become more comfortable throwing it. He accomplished that goal, but now comes the hardest step which is showing it can be an effective offering in the upper levels.

“Last year I was just kind of going wherever I could start,” Wright said.  “That is why I bounced around a lot as I just had to find a spot I could get some innings in and learn how to use the knuckleball. This year is kind of the same thing just more is expected as I had a year to get used to it, so now it is just a matter of showing that I can get guys out with it.”

Since going full bore with the knuckleball, Wright has sought out the help of experienced knuckleballers Tom Candiotti, Charlie Hough, R.A. Dickey, and Charlie Haeger for pointers on how to be more consistent with it and throwing it for strikes.

“I talk to [Candiotti] through e-mail and I talk to Charlie Hough a little bit,” Wright said. “I also talked to Charlie Haeger a little bit last year when he was in Portland and I also had a chance to talk to R.A. Dickey a little bit. It is nice to get all of their insights as those are guys that have been successful with it, so I kind of picked their brain a little bit to see what works for them and figure out how I can get it to work for me.”

All four of those knuckleballers have their own style, so Wright has pulled a little bit from each of them and incorporated it into his style. But when it comes down to really understanding the pitch, everyone pointed him into the direction of Charlie Hough who pitched in the big leagues for 25 seasons and threw 3,801 innings.

“Yeah, when I talked to Haeger, Candy and Dickey they all said to talk to Hough as he is the guru with the knuckleball,” Wright said.  “So I was able to get that opportunity to talk to him a little bit and everything he said made sense. It is just about being able to execute it. He was really big on trying to pretend like you are throwing down a hallway and try to stay in a box as you don’t want to cross your body and you want to stay on line and stay behind the ball so you can get a good push off your fingers. That’s the one thing that stood out the most.”

Right now Wright is feeling as comfortable as he ever has with the pitch and is looking forward to taking all the information he gained last season with talking to people and using it in games to make it a much more consistent offering for him this season.

“I feel good about it,” Wright said.  “It moves a lot between two to three feet and sometimes it will move five feet. If you can stick with it around two to three feet on a consistent basis then you have a better opportunity to throw strikes with it. That is the key, is to be able to throw it for strikes. If you can’t throw it for strikes then the higher you go guys are just going to spit on it and wait for something else. That is the goal is to just keep it within the strike zone. As long as it is in the strike zone that is a start to kind of get hitters in swing mode, and once you get them into swing mode it works in your favor.”

Since the knuckleball can be so unpredictable, it is not a pitch that a pitcher can spot like they might do with a fastball to the outside part of the plate or working it down in the zone. The goal is simply to get it somewhere in the strike zone and see what happens from there.

“You just aim and throw it to the mask,” Wright said.  “Throwing it for strikes 50% of the time is the goal as if you can throw it for strikes that often and also throw your other pitches for strikes then you are going to be pretty successful with it. It is when you don’t throw it for strikes and have to throw something else, that is when hitters kind of get locked in on the spin of the knuckleball and whenever they see something else it is easier for them to hit.”

Even though Wright is using his knuckleball as his primary pitch, he still mixes in his fastball, cutter and curveball on a regular basis. He doesn’t throw his fastball as hard as he once did as he used to sit in the low 90s with it prior to the throwing the knuckleball.  Now he is more in the 81-86 MPH range with his fastball in order to create the same arm action with it as he does with his knuckleball so as to not tip off the pitch.

“It is more about buying strikes with the other pitches,” Wright said.  “I still throw my curveball, fastball and cutter, but instead of my primary pitch being my fastball now it is the knuckleball and I am using the other pitches as my secondary pitches to help me get into counts to where I can rely on my knuckleball.”

This season Wright will probably slot into the rotation at some destination in the Indians’ minor league system. At the moment it looks like he could open in the Double-A Akron rotation, but nothing is for certain. He does not care where he pitches this season, he just wants to continue to start so he has the best opportunity to maximize the innings and side sessions that come with being in the rotation.

“It is kind of up in the air, but the goal for me is to start,” Wright said.  “As a starter you get that extra side day, you get an opportunity to go deeper into games, and you get more pitches to work with. As a knuckleballer you want to be able to start a game because you can’t really come into a situation with a runner on as you just don’t know what will happen. Right now wherever I can get an opportunity to continue to throw it and gain confidence in is fine with me so that when it does come to a situation where I might have to go into the bullpen I will have more confidence in my ability to come into a situation with runners on and get quality guys out.”

This is Wright’s sixth season in the Indians’ organization after he was drafted in the second round of the 2007 Draft. The knuckleball is the key to reinventing himself and creating that long coveted big league opportunity, and if he can harness it he has a chance to pitch in the big leagues for a long time.

“I like it and it is what I do now,” Wright said.  “I just want to hone in on it and get it ready for the season.  If I am successful with it I could do it until I am 40.”

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his new book the 2012 Cleveland Indians Prospect Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Steve
March 23, 2012 - 10:08 AM EDT
Back in the early 70's when Tommy Lasorda was a minor league manager he reached out to his friend Hoyt Wilhelm who had been retired.

He asked if he would play for Minor League Money and come to Spokane to help a kid named Charlie Hough with his knuckleball plus Tommy told him that you never know - if you pitch well the Dodgers may bring you up (he said it in jest).

Wilhelm agreed to help his friend out. He pitched o.k. in AAA and did get called back up to the Dodgers and worked 17.2 innings with a 1.02 ERA in the heat of a Pennant Run (Dodgers finished 2nd that season).

Well, 40 some odd years later TIm Wakefield retires and the Indians have a young knuckleballer who may benefit from the coaching that a guy like Wakefield could bring. And, it would be a Disney type ending to see Tim Wakefiled rise up from the minor leagues to play a key role in an Indians charge to the pennant!

O.K. 99.9% not going to happen but there seldom is an opportunity to share the Wilhelm/Hough story and here is as good a place as any!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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