Every Good Knuckleballer Needs Good Teachers, Good Opportunities, and Good Catchers

One reason Steven Wright is doing well with the Boston Red Sox is that the Sox have given him the chance to do well. As Sam Galanis reminds us, not every team or manager is equally hospitable to the knuckleball, the pitch with the paths less traveled by.

“Knuckleball pitchers don’t come around very often, but there’s a good reason the Red Sox have had two pretty notable ones on the mound.” One is that “not every team wants to give knuckleballers a chance….”

Red Sox manager John Farrell“It’s not the arms,” Red Sox manager John Farrell [pictured] said Wednesday about why we don’t see more knuckleball pitchers. “It’s the mastery or endless pursuit to execute that pitch. … And then I think you need an organization that embraces it. Tim Wakefield certainly has paved the way for Steven Wright to continue to provide opportunities. … It’s a unique pitch, we know, but the bottom line numbers are undeniable.”

Knuckleballers also need “a skilled catcher they can trust. And Wright said Ryan Hanigan has been that for him.” Wright says he feels “like every time we go out, he gets more and more comfortable.”

“It especially showed a lot [Wednesday night] because (the knuckleball) was moving a lot more than it has in the last couple starts, so for him to be able to knock those balls down is awesome. I can’t give enough credit to him and what he’s done to get better the last couple games back there.”

And then there are the fellow members of the knuckleballer elite, like Tim Wakefield, R.A. Dickey and Charlie Hough, who have instructed and encouraged Wright in his ongoing mastering of the knuckleball. Good students need good teachers.

Of course, it would be perverse to suggest that “you didn’t pitch that” just because you enjoy the cooperation and assistance of managers, team members and other colleagues in enabling your knuckleball to a) even be thrown in a pro game to begin with and b) be effective. You did pitch that, Mr. Wright.

In fact, as Galanis reports about last week’s game:

Wednesday’s 9-4 win over the Atlanta Braves marked knuckleballer Steven Wright’s fourth straight quality start this season after an outing that saw him allow two runs (one earned) on just three hits with eight strikeouts and three walks over seven innings. Wright has even allowed two runs or fewer in eight straight starts dating back to July, 25, 2015, which is the longest active streak among American League starters.

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The Providence Journal’s Bill Ballou tries to argue (“Steven Wright moving up on short list of Red Sox knuckleballers”) that in virtue of his solid performances, Wright ought to be ranked somewhere in the middle of the small number of knuckleballers in Red Sox history, a club of which Wade Boggs is counted a member.

Wade Boggs might have had the best knuckleball in team history, as he would insist after playing catch on the sidelines; but since he never threw one in a Red Sox game, we’ll never know for sure. However, he did pitch once for the Yankees [“another knuckler, strike two”]  and once for the Rays later in his career and did all right in 2 1/3 innings.

Right now, Steven Wright, Wednesday night’s Red Sox starting pitcher, is somewhere behind Tim Wakefield and somewhere ahead of Boggs in the team’s knuckleball rankings.

Wade Boggs baseball cardIn the blast-from-the-past department, here’s Boggs as quoted in The New York Times’s August 21, 1997 report on his pitching debut:

When Boggs finally got the opportunity to transfer his 16 years of sideline fun into a real game Tuesday night, the knuckleball show was even niftier.

‘‘It’s something I’ve always wanted to do in my career and I never really had the opportunity,’’ said Boggs, who threw 16 knuckleballs and one fastball that inched to the plate at 74 miles an hour. ‘‘Then I started feeling like Phil Niekro. I was Phil Niekro and Charlie Hough all rolled into one. It was great. I was glad it worked out.’’

Win Boggs, a renowned softball pitcher, taught his son the knuckleball and Wade Boggs tossed it as a high school pitcher in Tampa, Fla. But that was the last time he threw it in a game, because he spent the last 16 years winning five batting titles and amassing 2,776 hits.

So this guy got bogged down as a third basemen and hitter when he coulda been a contender…

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