FORT MYERS, Fla. — Steven Wright wasn’t a bad minor league pitcher. He had the usual repertoire: slider, curveball, fastball. He could throw in the low 90s. In Akron, a Double A affiliate of the Indians, he went 10-0 with a 2.32 ERA in 2009.
But he wasn’t on a fast track in the Cleveland organization.
He had been a second-round pick out of the University of Hawaii in 2006, when John Farrell was the Indians farm director. Wright threw well and was well thought of, but as he went through the Indians system, nothing separated him.
He was lost in the shuffle. He was getting older. And when a pitcher starts getting into his mid-20s and is still in Double A, there’s a stigma attached to him.
In 2010, Wright faced a career-changing decision after hearing pitching coach Scott Radinsky remark, “You have to separate yourself from the rest of the pack with something. And the knuckleball might just be it.’’
The baseball player with the famous comedian’s name (and, no, he’s never met the other Steven Wright) had dabbled with the knuckleball on the side, throwing it as a gag mostly. He had seen Tim Wakefield and Charlie Hough and certainly knew of the Niekros. But in his wildest imagination, he never thought he’d be a knuckleball pitcher.
Wright, the Cambridge-born comedian who is a huge Red Sox fan, would probably have a joke for this. And we can only hope the two meet if and when Wright makes it to Fenway.
“I was in Triple A with the Indians in 2010 and I got sent down [to Double A],’’ said Wright, 28. “I was doing OK. I’d have three or four good ones and then one bad one.
“I was in New Hampshire starting to mess around with [the knuckleball]. I’ve always thrown it. The Indians had pitching coaches Greg Hibbard and Jason Bere there and saw me throwing it and they said, ‘I think we got something here.’
“They brought in [Tom] Candiotti and talked to the Indians to try to do this full time, and it progressed to where I’m at now.’’
Last year, it became obvious that Wright had a knack for it. He went 9-6 with a 2.49 ERA at Akron before he was traded to the Red Sox July 31 for first baseman Lars Anderson. Wright had five successful starts in the Dominican this winter, and his standing in the Sox organization has shot through the roof.
The repetition of throwing the knuckleball 70-90 percent of the time has increased his confidence in the pitch. He has had to change everything, his entire mental approach. Where before he was trying to trick batters, making them guess what he was going to throw next, now he realizes the hitter knows what’s coming on every pitch.
“The goal is to throw it 100 percent, but I would say 70 percent is my low to 90-95 percent,’’ Wright said. “It depends if I’m throwing it for strikes. If I have a good knuckleball and they’re swinging, I’ll keep throwing it.
“I have a fastball, cutter, and two-seamer I mix in. I had a curveball, but I felt it wasn’t allowing me to stay behind my knuckleball, so I got rid of it.’’
And so here he is.
He’s in the knuckleball fraternity. He has Wakefield, Hough, R.A. Dickey, Candiotti, and the Niekros on speed dial. Wakefield will arrive in Sox camp this week and will work with Wright. Wright says his grip is the same as Wakefield’s but he throws the pitch differently. He throws it harder, like Dickey, and his fastball is in the 85-90 range, far above the 68 m.p.h. that Wakefield threw.
“I never thought I’d throw a knuckleball in professional baseball,’’ said Wright. “It’s been fun. It’s stressful at times because I’m new to it.’’
Fact is, Wright could be called up to the majors. He has basically gone through the minors twice, once as a conventional pitcher and now as a knuckleballer. He will likely start out at Pawtucket, but there’s sentiment in the organization that if there’s an injury, or if someone like Felix Doubront (who reported to camp out of shape) isn’t quite ready, Wright could make the rotation out of camp.
The one-trick-pony act can be frustrating, though.
“As a regular pitcher, I knew why my fastball was up and why I was getting hit,’’ said Wright. “With the knuckleball I can’t figure it out as fast as I want.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m able to make adjustments. I had 18 years of throwing fastballs and cutters and 1½ years of knuckleball. I’m getting to the point where I’m able to repeat my delivery consistently.’’
All pitchers go through bad stretches, but Wright has been able to avoid lengthy ones.
“The key is how quick you recover from that,’’ he said. “Last year I did an OK job. I didn’t have too many bad outings.
“I definitely need to get my walks down. It was my first year throwing it. It’s hard because everybody compared my numbers to Dickey. The fact he did it with a knuckleball is unreal. His walks-to-strikeouts were incredible. My walks are high compared to him.’’
Wright reiterated that the biggest adjustment is mental.
“I want them to know what’s coming,’’ he said. “I want them to think a knuckleball is coming every time. Everybody knows what’s coming but I still have to execute the pitch. That was the hardest thing. I’m basically throwing batting practice.’’
So far, he’s glad he made the switch.
“I don’t think I’d be in the position I am if I didn’t start throwing a knuckleball,’’ he said. “And I always told myself I’d never be a knuckleballer.
“You see guys like Wake, throwing it at 65 — nothing wrong with that, but I throw 95. I don’t want to throw something 65 when I can throw it 95. That was my mentality. But now I’m here and I’m going to go all out and give it everything I’ve got.
“I feel that I’ve been given a second chance to be a major leaguer and this is my avenue. I never thought it would be the way I got to the big leagues, but this has been enjoyable.
“It’s been a challenge. I’ve been able to prove to myself I can do this. It’s funny where life takes you, but it took me to this and I’m good with it.’’