Knuckleballer Wright Is Out in 2020, But Not Down; Wilbur Wood Remembers; Tim Wakefield’s Flameout With the Pittsburgh Pirates

It doesn’t look as if Steven Wright will have a chance to use his signature pitch during the 2020 season. In a lengthy article about Wright and prospects for the knuckleball, the Los Angeles Daily News reports:

The most intriguing free agent in baseball isn’t being discussed on sports talk radio. You won’t read his name on any Top 50 Free Agent lists.

You might, however, see Steven Wright in a mall in Tennessee with his family. He’ll be the big guy wearing a brace on his right elbow, where a ligament from his forearm was surgically transplanted in October. Living life is the best way to pass the weeks following Tommy John surgery.

“There’s nothing you can do right now to benefit you on the back end” of the recovery process, said Wright, a graduate of Valley View High in Moreno Valley, “but there’s a lot you can do to screw it up.”…

According to Statcast, only 200 knuckleballs were thrown last season, by far the fewest in the pitch-tracking era (2008-present). Wright threw 114 of them. Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Ryan Feierabend threw 74 before he was designated for assignment in May. According to Statcast, the only other “pitcher” to throw a knuckler in 2019 was Blue Jays catcher Luke Maile, in emergency relief appearances.

Wright is understandably focused on his own immediate future. But it isn’t a stretch to say the future of the knuckleball is riding on the health of his right elbow….

Despite his tribulations, Wright is cautiously optimistic.

“The one thing I haven’t done is get fully healthy since 2016,” he said. “It sucks knowing I can’t pitch next year. Who’s going to sign you just to rehab? One thing I do—and I feel really strong and adamant about—is I have a year to get healthy. I got my knee drained in 2018 like 13 times. Ended up getting surgery again last year. I rushed it too much. With this elbow, it’s a way to slow everything down and get healthy.”

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Knuckleball pitcher Wilbur Wood, active in the MLB from 1961 to 1978, was interviewed in late November by SoutSidePen’s Mark Liptak.

Wood, it turns out, is a member of a “very select fraternity,” that of “former pitchers who excelled as both starter and relievers.” That’s fine, but what about the also very select fraternity of knuckleball pitchers?

The knuckleball does come up. For example, Wood explains why he turned to the pitch.

I had spent parts of seven years in the big leagues, and as my record showed things weren’t going that well. I was signed as a fastball/curve ball pitcher and did very well with those in the minor leagues, but they just weren’t good enough for the majors. I’d be fine for three or four innings, but after I went through the batting order once I’d start to get hit. I just decided to junk my curve and everything else and go 100% with the knuckleball. I actually had thrown that pitch a long time; I started using it back in high school and semipro ball. Sometimes I’d still throw a fastball to get the hitter’s timing off ,but that was only once in a while.

Wood’s style differed from the styles of Hoyt Wilhelm and Eddie Fisher, whose time with the Chicago White Sox overlapped with Wood’s.

My pitch had a tendency to break down and away from right-handed hitters. Eddie’s had a tendency to break down and in to them. Hoyt’s was unpredictable: When he threw it, it could go all over the strike zone.

Wood was predictable in his unpredictability.

I was fortunate because I was always able to throw strikes with the knuckleball. That was my biggest asset. I was always around the plate. Eddie (Herrmann) never even had to put down a sign, he knew what I was going to throw, I knew what I was going to throw, and the fans knew what I was going to throw.

In the 1970s, when Carlton Fisk was with the Red Sox and we’d play them, I’d scream at him from the mound because he’d waste so much time. I’d yell, “Get in the box; I’m throwing a god damn knuckleball, not a fastball. You know it!” I mean, why prolong the agony, right?

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As long as we’re talking about knuckleball pitchers whose last name begins with “W,” let’s not slight a recent nostalgic Sports Illustrated piece about former Red Sox and former Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Tim Wakefield, who “for one summer in 1992…was a beacon of hope in Pittsburgh.”

Tim walked in and picked up right where he left off, pitching a complete game in his first contest against the St. Louis Cardinals, striking out ten and tossing 146 pitches…. If you saw Wakefield pitch, though, he simply looked like he was casually playing catch with an eight-year-old. Just flicked the ball toward the plate. Poor Don Slaught looked like he didn’t have a clue where the ball was going half the time, and the batters certainly didn’t.

As the Pirates pushed for the playoffs, Wakefield gave them exactly what they needed, a complement to Doug Drabek and consistency. He started 13 games, leading to a stellar 8-1 record and a 2.15 ERA. He showed up on “This Week in Baseball”…teaching us his grip for his knuckleball. Even Bob Walk, a fellow member of the rotation, spent an afternoon trying to figure out how to throw the tantalizing pitch, even if it was all in fun.

Then it all went kablooey. (Temporarily.)

In 1993, Wakefield was counted as one of the best young pitchers in the game and an anchor in the Pirates rotation. They had lost many players but still had a competitive core that needed every bet to play out. It didn’t. Tim simply blew up. Walks were completely out of hand. He walked nine batters in a game on two separate occasions and ten in another. The Pirates were forced to send him down after he had lost his starting spot in the rotation.

Many people remember Tim for what he did after being released by the Pirates—contributing mightily to Boston Red Sox glory and rightly so. The Sox picked him up and immediately paired him with Phil Niekro, who coached him to more effectively use his knuckleball as an out pitch.

He would go on to finish a 19-year career with the Red Sox, winning 200 games and appearing on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2017.

But for one summer Tim Wakefield was exactly what the Pirates needed.

At least two morals of the story are obvious. 1) Tomorrow is another day. 2) Training is very important.

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