FORT MYERS, Fla. — Steven Wright was happy to see Tim Wakefield arrive at Red Sox camp Thursday. When you’re a knuckleball pitcher, even the best pitching coaches can offer only so much counsel. It takes somebody from the fraternity, as Wakefield calls it, to really help.
“We speak the same language,” Wright said Friday.
Wright drove three hours across the state last month to work with Wakefield at his home. This time, they used a bullpen mound at Fenway South.
Get this: The two knuckleballers worked on throwing fastballs.
Wright has an 84-mile-per-hour fastball, slow by major league standards. But when used in conjunction with his knuckleball, it can be an effective pitch. Wakefield told Wright he had to camouflage the pitch by throwing it with the same locked-wrist grip of the knuckler. Otherwise, a hitter will know it’s coming.
“I think it’s a huge pitch for him,” Wakefield said. “Fastballs and curveballs would get me back in the count when needed, and it was an out pitch. I used it as a change of speed in both directions. My fastball was faster than my knuckleball and my curveball was slower.”
Wright starts against the Baltimore Orioles in Sarasota Saturday and is eager to take his lessons into a game. At 30, he is just now entering his prime seasons as a knuckleballer.
Wakefield said it wasn’t until his late 20s that he gained confidence as a starter. The same was true for Phil Niekro. Charlie Hough didn’t become a full-time starter until he was 34.
“I don’t think age is real relevant to a knuckleball pitcher,” said Sox manager John Farrell. “In Steven’s case, you just throw out the age he is.”
But Wright is getting restless. He has a 3.67 earned run average in 10 major league games with the Red Sox since 2013, and last season was 5-5 with a 3.41 ERA in 15 starts for Triple A Pawtucket.
Time may be on his side as a knuckleballer, but it’s difficult to watch younger pitchers get opportunities ahead of you.
“I need to figure out whether I can pitch in the majors or not,” Wright said. “It’s that time. I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
Wright understands the Red Sox have a full rotation. But he would welcome being a bullpen handyman or spot starter.
“There’s value to having somebody come in and give the team three innings and saving the rest of the pen for the next day,” Wright said. “I’ll take the ball whenever they need me to take the ball.”
Farrell doesn’t discount the idea of Wright being in the bullpen. But the Sox see him more as a depth starter who will work at Triple A until needed.
That need could be plentiful, too.
Clay Buchholz has a five-year streak of spending at least three weeks on the disabled list. Joe Kelly has never thrown more than 124 innings in a season, and Justin Masterson is coming off an injury-filled 2014.
Wright has impressed the Sox enough to merit a call when the time comes. Don’t assume it will be a more heralded prospect.
“The most impressive thing over the past year-plus has been overall strike-throwing, the ability to change speeds with his knuckleball, and obviously the smaller points of the game: fielding his position, controlling the running game.” Farrell said. “Those are all improved.”
Farrell envisions Wright being promoted to take a rotation spot between two hard throwers. Former Sox manger Terry Francona liked to use Wakefield that way, having him pitch after Pedro Martinez and before Curt Schilling.
“I don’t think you can ever overestimate the value of the knuckleball and the contrast of style it provides,” Farrell said. “There’s some effect either with the guys who follow him either that night or the next day.
“There’s a lot of benefit, provided quality strikes and innings are pitched. Steven is starting to build that foundation as a big league pitcher.”
Wright was obtained from Cleveland in a 2012 trade largely because of the experience the Sox had with Wakefield from 1995-2011. That’s also why Wakefield was back in his No. 49 jersey the last few days working with Wright.
“I take a lot of pride in that, because you try to pave the road for the next person,” said Wakefield. “Luckily enough, he’s in the organization I was in. Hopefully that helps him.”
Wright, for a few days at least, enjoyed having his own coach.
“Any chance I can see Wake, I jump at it,” he said. “He’s done what I want to do.”Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.