KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You have to get nine or 10 deep on the Red Sox’ prospect list before the name Steven Wright comes up.
And that’s no joke.
Wright’s a knuckleballer, so by baseball standards he’s a gimmick. Organizations like to have them around, but in terms of actually giving them a chance to be in the starting rotation, well, ask Tim Wakefield and R.A. Dickey how hard that is.
If Prospects A through J can’t do it, well, let’s give the gimmick guy a chance. The 30-year-old Wright is the opposite of any pitching prospect they have.
If Rubby De La Rosa can throw 97 miles per hour, Wright gets it up there with a speedy 78 on his hard knuckleball, about 56 on his soft one.
After 17 years of Wakefield in Boston, we know our knuckleballers. Then again, they’re all different, so maybe we don’t know them.
Among the Dan Duquette accomplishments in his Boston tenure — which I forgot to mention in a profile I did last week in Sunday baseball notes — was landing Wakefield off the Pirates’ scrap heap after he’d been released in 1995. Of course I forgot that one because Wakefield was a knuckleballer.
The first time I covered Wakefield was in Anaheim on May 27, 1995. Duquette had picked him up because Roger Clemens was recovering from an injury and Aaron Sele was lost for the season.
Wakefield saved the day. He allowed five hits and one run in seven innings in a 12-1 victory over the Angels, the start of a 14-1 run (over 17 starts) .
This over-30 thing we keep hearing about and how pitchers decline? Wakefield pitched 15 seasons after the age of 30. Don’t think prospects A through J are going to do that in their careers.
As Wakefield has told me, it’s not easy for knuckleball pitchers to prove they’re worthy. They are different. And the good thing is they can start their careers later than most and still pitch a long time, as Wakefield, Charlie Hough, the Niekro brothers, Wilbur Wood, and others did.
Like the many knuckleballers before him, Wright was a traditional pitcher in the Cleveland organization doing OK, but he had nothing to really distinguish himself. He had good years and bad. He was able to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t going anywhere if he didn’t do something different. So that’s when he started playing with the knuckleball and things clicked.
Not that much has changed with his career path, except for the fact that he has had a few cameos in the big leagues since the Red Sox acquired him two years ago. And even now, the traditional prospects would likely have to bust for Wright to get a real shot.
The Red Sox have toyed with the idea of using him out of the bullpen. Saturday night in Kansas City, he relieved De La Rosa and threw three scoreless innings, allowing three hits. He struck out two and walked none in a 7-1 loss.
Last week vs. Toronto, he threw five scoreless innings in a game started by Dickey on the other side. It was the first time since 2007 that knuckleballers had opposed one another. That fact was barely mentioned.
So, what is it?
Is it a disrespect of the pitching type? Is it that it’s hard to catch and puts stress on the catcher? Is it the hit or miss of the pitch? And is that any different then a guy with a 97-m.p.h. fastball who doesn’t know where it’s going?
Wright turned 30 on Aug. 30 and he really doesn’t have to fret that he’s the old maid of pitching prospects. He could get his shot and still have a long career.
He was 5-5 with a 3.41 ERA in 15 starts at Pawtucket (6-5, 3.42 combined with Double A Portland) after he healed and rehabbed from groin surgery in spring training.
He was 8-7 with a 3.46 ERA in 24 starts at Pawtucket last season. He was 2-0 with a 5.40 in four games with the big club last year.
“No, not at all. I mean, there are so many guys [to chose from] you can’t go wrong with any one of them,” Wright said diplomatically. “Me getting a late start in the season, I kind of had an idea I was going to need some more innings. It’s easier to get more innings down there than it is up here.”
Asked if he felt that bias toward knuckleballers, he said, “I don’t think so. [The Red Sox] had Wake for so long. They had so many guys who have thrown the ball well all year, the guys they traded and the guys they wound up getting back in deals.
“Wake did it for 19 years, so he saw the ups and downs. I still consider it new, throwing a knuckleball. I’ve barely got my feet wet. Hopefully when I do get the opportunity, I can go out there and compete.”
Wright is always experimenting and trying to add elements to his knuckleball. This year he focused on changing speeds and pitching to contact. In the past, he was trying to get swings and misses.
“I’m trying to throw everything for a strike and rely on the movement of the pitch and mishit the barrel,” he said.
“I got three speeds. A normal one, a slower one, and a harder one. Normal is about 73-75 miles per hour; harder, 78-80; and slower, 58-65. It literally depends on the day. Throw them as I see fit. I don’t want to throw them at the same speed, so I just mix it in.”
Wright said he’ll mix in a fastball and a normal curveball, sometimes on the first pitch. It depends on the hitter.
The Red Sox know they have an asset in Wright, but not one that is at the forefront of their thoughts. Not with Prospects A through J, most of whom can throw a ball really hard.
Sometimes, softer is better. Wright just has to try harder to prove it.