Knuckleballer Steven Wright Didn’t Pitch in the All-Star Game—But He Was There

Steven Wright was on hand on Tuesday and would have been waved over to the mound had the game gone into extra innings. It didn’t.

MLB All StarAs Wright explains it, “Because this game means so much, they wanted to make sure that if we went extra innings, we didn’t run out of pitching. So, instead of having me go early, they wanted me to hold off and kind of be the insurance guy…. I was totally cool with that.”

Wright’s had plenty of practice being a good sport, having paid his dues as a minor leaguer occasionally called up to the big leagues only to end up on the sidelines…before being hockey-pucked back the minors until the next big chance to maybe shine. But NESN’s Darren Hartwell isn’t quite buying the idea that Wright was so serene about sitting out the All-Star.

It’s nice of Wright to take the high road, and it’s common practice for each All-Star club to keep starters in its bullpen to prevent debacles like the 2002 All-Star Game. But it still must have been frustrating for the right-hander to sit out in his first All-Star appearance despite owning the AL’s lowest ERA (2.68).

Another potential reason for holding out Wright is to prevent embarrassing an AL catcher, as the veteran’s knuckleball is extremely difficult to catch and could result in plenty of passed balls. The AL squad had a man ready in Oakland Athletics catcher Stephen Vogt, but the battery didn’t need to be activated in the AL’s 4-2 win.

Wright Not PitchingWright will live to discombobulate batters another day. He is at the top of his game and getting really good grades not only from the stats tabulators but also from mentors like Charlie Hough and Tim Wakefield, the latter a former longtime knuckleball pitcher for Wright’s own Red Sox. Boston.com’s Henry McKenna reports Wake’s assessment:

“Just the consistency of the violence in the strike zone is truly amazing,” Wakefield said this weekend. “He’s more consistent. He corrects his mistakes quickly within an inning. When I say that, you throw a couple bad ones, you gotta figure out really quickly why you’re throwing bad ones, and change your mechanics, change your delivery to not allow that to happen. Because obviously with a knuckleball, throwing it with the speed you’re throwing it, if it’s not working, it’s going to get hit pretty far.”

“His knuckleball is really good,” the Red Sox Hall of Famer added. “I mean it’s really good. It’s very violent in the strike zone, and that’s the ideal way to throw it.”

Charlie Hough concurs:

“His knuckleball’s break now is no better than it was two years ago or three years ago…. The difference is he’s throwing more of the same good ones. He’s got an outstanding knuckleball and now the percentage of throws is better, the percentage of good ones. His knuckleball is no better—his ability to repeat is better. And that’s what it boils down to.”

And here’s Steven Wright in a July 6 memoir for The Players’ Tribune, recalling how he’d become acquainted with the knuckleball as a kid and always fooled around with it, but as of 2010 had never pitched a knuckleball in an actual game.

Not in high school, not in college, not in my first few years in the minors.

About halfway through that 2010 season with Akron, we were on the road in New Hampshire and I was tossing the ball around getting ready to throw a side session. I yelled down to my catcher, “Hey, catch this one!” and I threw him a knuckleball. I thought it was funny because he couldn’t even catch it. So I threw it a few more times. You know, just messing around.

And that was it. Same thing I’d always done. Check out this trick pitch.

Then I heard my pitching coach Greg Hibbard call over to me. He was talking with Jason Bere, a baseball ops guy for the Indians who used to pitch in the big leagues. I guess they had seen me throwing the knuckler.

“Hey, Wrighty,” he said. “Throw a couple more… ”

Good suggestion, Coach.

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