Remembering Knuckleballers Then and Now: Steven Wright, R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield, Charlie Hough, Phil Niekro, Joe Niekro, Wilbur Wood…

Nick Carfardo says that after 17 years “of Wakefield in Boston, we know our knuckleballers. Then again, they’re all different, so maybe we don’t know them.”

Among the Dan Duquette accomplishments in his Boston tenure— which I forgot to mention in a profile I did last week in Sunday baseball notes—was landing Wakefield off the Pirates’ scrap heap after he’d been released in 1995. Of course I forgot that one because Wakefield was a knuckleballer.

But Carfado does just fine recalling what makes the knuckleballer distinctive and different in his recent piece for the Boston Globe on the knuckleball and Steven Wright (pictured here below Wakefield).

Wakefield of Red Sox

Wright of Red Sox

As Wakefield has told me, it’s not easy for knuckleball pitchers to prove they’re worthy. They are different. And the good thing is they can start their careers later than most and still pitch a long time, as Wakefield, Charlie Hough, the Niekro brothers, Wilbur Wood, and others did.

Like the many knuckleballers before him, Wright was a traditional pitcher in the Cleveland organization doing OK, but he had nothing to really distinguish himself. He had good years and bad. He was able to come to grips with the fact that he wasn’t going anywhere if he didn’t do something different. So that’s when he started playing with the knuckleball and things clicked.

Carfado refers to the drama of Dickey versus Wright in a recent game (we’ve posted about it) and wonders why the epic knuckleball play didn’t get more play.

The Red Sox have toyed with the idea of using [Wright] out of the bullpen. Saturday night in Kansas City, he relieved De La Rosa and threw three scoreless innings, allowing three hits. He struck out two and walked none in a 7-1 loss.

Last week vs. Toronto, he threw five scoreless innings in a game started by Dickey on the other side. It was the first time since 2007 that knuckleballers had opposed one another. That fact was barely mentioned.

So, what is it?

Is it a disrespect of the pitching type? Is it that it’s hard to catch and puts stress on the catcher? Is it the hit or miss of the pitch? And is that any different then a guy with a 97-m.p.h. fastball who doesn’t know where it’s going?…

The Red Sox know they have an asset in Wright, but not one that is at the forefront of their thoughts. Not with Prospects A through J, most of whom can throw a ball really hard.

Sometimes, softer is better. Wright just has to try harder to prove it.

Wright does get some respect. His ability to vary his pitch is discussed, for example, in a Lowell Sun report on last Saturday’s game with the Kansas City Royals.

Wright pitched three scoreless innings of relief in the Boston Red Sox’s 7-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals on Saturday night.

Wright, a September call up from Triple-A Pawtucket, replaced starter Rubby De La Rosa in the fifth inning with the Red Sox trailing 5-1 and baffled the Royals with his knuckler.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve been able to do the last couple of outings is throw strikes with it,” Wright said. “If I throw strikes, it’s going to make them have to swing. Hopefully they miss-hit it.”

Wright is able to vary the knuckleball three different ways.

“It’s huge,” he said. “They know I’m going to throw it. If I can add and subtract from it, it keeps them off-balance, so they don’t time it.”

As for fellow knuckleballer and speed-adjuster R.A. Dickey, he told the Canadian Press that in a recent game with the Tampa Bay Rays he “I changed speeds today early in the count probably more than I have all year. I threw a lot of knuckleballs under 70 miles per hour early in the count.”

To learn more than Carfado had space to say about the Big League knuckleballers of the past, visit IKA’s “Knuckleball History.” Also take a look at Ian Browne’s MLB.com post, “Knuckleballers’ paths as tricky as the pitch,” which highlights the achievements of the top knuckleballers.

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