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February 12, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Is This Man the Next R.A. Dickey?

by Jonathan Zeller

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Jonathan Zeller’s articles have appeared in the New York Times, Paper, and New York. His favorite baseball team is the Portland Thinkers.
 

Back in 2005, as a college sophomore, Steven Wright was a flame-throwing closer for the Orleans Cardinals of the Cape Cod League. He was named the circuit’s top relief pitcher, recording a miniscule ERA of 0.63 and striking out 41 batters in just 28 innings.

Some of his most memorable pitches, though, didn’t result in strikeouts or overpower anyone in a league whose members included future Tampa Bay Rays slugger Evan Longoria. Along with countless blistering fastballs, Wright threw two or three knuckleballs that season—all in a single inning.

The Cardinals were up big, but Wright hadn’t worked for a few days, so he was pressed into action. Though he could throw gas, his teammates knew he’d been messing around with the knuckleball, and they wanted to see it in a game.

He made them a deal: “If I get two quick outs, I’ll throw some knuckleballs.”

“Sure enough,” he remembers, “I got two quick outs, and I threw two or three knuckleballs in that third at-bat.” The batter’s reaction when Wright floated a couple of dry spitters his way? Shock.

“I don’t think [he] ever swung,” says Wright, who’s currently at spring training with the Red Sox. “I was always throwing low- to mid-90s, so the last thing [he’d] ever expect was a knuckleball.”

There was a time when the last thing Wright would have ever expected was for that trick pitch to be his ticket to the big leagues, but a season after R.A. Dickey won the National League Cy Young Award, it’s looking more and more likely.

Throwing in the low- to mid-90s isn’t what earned Wright a combined 2.54 ERA, a 1.26 WHIP, and 119 strikeouts last season for the Double-A affiliates of the Indians and Red Sox and Triple-A Pawtucket. Instead, it was cranking his knuckler up to the high 70s and low 80s—territory previously touched only by the aforementioned Dickey—and igniting the imaginations of a certain subspecies of baseball nerd. What if Wright could be like Dickey, except 10 years younger? Could he be the boost the Red Sox rotation—near the bottom of the majors in ERA and quality starts during 2012—needs?

In 2010, Wright seemed an improbable savior. The hard-throwing 6’1” righty—who’d been a second-round pick by the Indians out of the University of Hawaii and climbed to Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate on the strength of his conventional arsenal—got shelled and demoted to Double-A. “I was really pissed,” he admits. “I got caught up in ‘Why me? Why am I the one being sent down?... It really took away from my focus.”

One day, in the midst of this frustration, Wright turned to the pitch he’d thrown for fun five years earlier in Cape Cod; as a 13-year-old getting kicks after practice; and from time to time ever since his mentor, former Cincinnati Red Frank Pastore, first threw him one when he was nine years old.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Wright says of his awakening to the pitch as a young man. “I was so intrigued [that] you can throw a baseball with no spin and have it moving forward.”

That spin-less pitch ended up restoring forward momentum to Wright’s sputtering career. With his Double-A Akron Aeros in New Hampshire visiting the Fisher Cats, Wright took the bullpen mound and started hurling knucklers.

“I’m just going to mess around and see whether the catcher can catch it,” he figured. “Well, he couldn’t.” Pitching coach Greg Hibbard saw Wright’s nasty knuckleball, and soon word came down from the front office that he should use it as an out pitch, the same way he might deploy a split-finger or a forkball to finish off a batter.

Then, in 2011 spring training, the Indians enlisted Tom Candiotti to evaluate Wright. Candiotti liked what he saw, and Steven became a full-fledged knuckleball pitcher.

Candiotti was the first old-guard knuckleballer to nurture Wright’s potential, but far from the only one. Flutterballers have a well-earned reputation for supporting one another, and they’ve rallied to help Wright become Dickey 2.0. He’s worked with Charlie Hough, chatted with Tim Wakefield, and spoken on the phone and exchanged strategic text messages with Dickey himself.

One pitcher with whom Wright hasn’t traded tips, though, is the most recent Triple-A Red Sox knuckleball success story: Charlie Zink, the 2008 International League Pitcher of the Year. “I’ve heard the name,” says Wright, “but I’ve never talked to him.”

This could be because Zink hasn’t made much noise in the baseball world since 2008. He took the mound for one major-league start that season, giving up eight runs in four-and-a-third innings against the Rangers, and never returned to the Show again. His tale is evidence that, like the pitch itself, a knuckleballer’s career can change direction in sudden and unexpected ways.

***

Zink, in 2013, is taking on new challenges. When we get in touch with the onetime Red Sox pitcher, he and his wife are anxiously awaiting the birth of their second child.

“We are a day late and not feeling anything different… tomorrow we’re trying [the] Prego Pizza, [which is] supposed to put women into labor.”

Amazingly, this pie—offered by Skipolini’s in Sacramento—really exists. The restaurant’s official website says the allegedly contraction-inducing meal weighs more than four pounds.

“We don’t want to have a C-section,” says Zink, “so we’ll eat as much pizza as it takes.”

A short time ago, Zink wasn’t using a powerful combination of cheese, tomato sauce, crust, garlic, and virtually every meat legally permitted for human consumption to conquer an overdue pregnancy. Instead, he was utilizing his knuckleball to mow down hitters en route to one of the shortest and most eventful major-league careers in history.

In 2008, coming off a phenomenal minor-league season—during which he had a 2.84 ERA, a 1.11 WHIP, and 104 strikeouts in Triple-A—Zink earned a call-up to start for the Red Sox against the Texas Rangers at Fenway Park. After giving up just two runs through four innings, the wheels came off in the fifth. He managed to record only one more out. His final major-league ERA: 16.62.

“We got such a big lead,” he remembers of the Sox and their 10-run first frame. “I retired [the Rangers] one-two-three, and then I sat for an hour. I remember… asking John Farrell, the pitching coach, ‘hey, is there someone I can throw with? I’ve been sitting for awhile.’” Farrell sent Zink down to the tunnel. “I was throwing a bucket of balls against the wall in the batting cage to stay loose. I had no one catching me; I was just throwing balls against the net.”

Compounding Zink’s trouble staying warm was a directive to throw more than just his dependable knuckleball. “I guess the scouting report Farrell had gotten previously from my minor-league pitching coach was that I used my other pitches really well, so I didn’t need to just throw a knuckleball,” he says. In Zink’s mind, this was a mistake. “I’m not a good enough pitcher with my conventional stuff to get guys out,” he reasons. “Otherwise, I would have stayed a conventional pitcher.”

After a barrage of hits ending with a deep Gerald Laird double to center field, Zink’s major-league career came to a close. “I listened,” Zink says. “I know what I should have done; I should have kept going with what I was doing. I didn’t.”

Zink’s knuckleball command never came back, even in the minors. He pitched to a 5.59 ERA in Triple-A in 2009, then went to the Twins organization and gave up 17 earned runs in just 12 innings with Rochester in 2010 before getting shoulder surgery. He had another lackluster year with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League in 2011—before which he got hurt on the Harry Potter ride at Universal Studios (yes, he thinks this is as funny as you do). He could never figure out exactly what went wrong, although he thinks injuries may have played a part: “I never felt completely strong.”

All in all, one thought keeps coming back: “It’s frustrating as all heck being a knuckleballer.”

“There were plenty of times where I thought I was throwing bad ones up there,” he says, “and people were just missing. Then there were times in other years where I felt like I was throwing it awesome, and guys couldn’t miss it.”

The ability to deal with those ups and downs, he feels, is what makes a truly great knuckleballer—one of the Dickeys and Wakefields of the world. “I think they’re just so mentally strong,” Zink says. “My brain is always on fact. I like to know exactly what things are going to do and how I can achieve them.

“The knuckleball was so frustrating,” he says, recalling his torment, “because I could throw it perfectly and have it not spin—which is exactly what I’m trying to do—and sometimes it would move, and sometimes it wouldn’t. There were plenty of times when I said, ‘I’m done with this stupid pitch. I don’t want to throw it. I’m throwing it exactly like I’ve been taught to, and it’s not moving. I’m getting hammered here. That doesn’t make sense.’”

“My whole life,” says Zink, “was, ‘If you do this, you’ll achieve this, and this happens.’ The knuckleball wasn’t like that, because it does what it wants.”

***

One reason it’s tough to guess whether Wright’s career will be like Wakefield’s and Dickey’s or like Zink’s is that there’s such a fine line between success and failure for knuckleballers.

Zink is right about persistence. Dickey may have been one of the best pitchers in baseball last season, but in 2010 he was the first player cut by the Mets in spring training and wasn’t too far from being out of baseball. Wakefield ended up winning more games than any Red Sox pitcher not named Roger Clemens or Cy Young, but before that he went from Pirates ace to bewildered minor leaguer struggling to regain his control.

And, of course, neither one started as a knuckleball pitcher. Wakefield was a first baseman, and Dickey was a conventional hurler. Only when their careers went south did they turn to the knuckleball. There’s no standard path to knuckleball success, because the pitch is never the first option.

“They’re not going to draft somebody to throw a knuckleball,” says Wright.

Pawtucket Red Sox pitching coach Rich Sauveur—who threw the knuckleball himself during parts of his major-league career, including three starts with the Pirates in 1986—worked with Zink during his dominant 2008, and with Wright as he stifled IL batters last season. Zink’s short big-league stint notwithstanding, Sauveur doesn’t buy into the idea that knuckleballers are less-reliable prospects than conventional pitchers.

“Look at percentages,” he reasons. “How many guys out there are not knuckleballers? How many make it to the big leagues and have success, and how many don’t?”

He may have a point. In a survey of recent IL Pitchers of the Year, Zink is hardly the only one who didn’t get the same results in the majors. There is an Ed Yarnall and a Heath Phillips for every Bronson Arroyo and Jon Garland. There are plenty of examples of standard-issue pitching prospects who, for whatever reason, didn’t make much of a mark in the bigs.

Having gotten that out of the way, what does Sauveur see as the keys to Wright’s success? “He’s always going to have to trust the knuckleball,” the coach says, airing a thought not unrelated to Zink’s feelings on mental toughness. “[If] you can’t throw a first strike, you can’t just give up on it. You have to keep throwing it.” Still, Sauveur says Wright must also throw strikes “with his secondary pitch, which is the fastball. He always needs something to fall back on.”

The coach is optimistic about Wright’s chances: “The kid has a very good knuckleball, there’s no question about that… and he has the talent, I think, to pitch in the big leagues.”

***

Wright’s transition to full-time knuckleballer wasn’t an overnight success; 2011 brought growing pains. “I was doing a lot of soul-searching about what type of knuckleballer I was going to be,” he explains. At first, he tried to throw the pitch the way Wakefield or Hough would: “you know, in the 60s.” The approach didn’t always work for Wright, who posted a 4.58 ERA in various levels of the minors, from A through Triple-A. “It got to the point where, toward the end of the season, I couldn’t repeat my delivery.” Struggling again, he “went back to throwing fastballs… once I found my fastball mechanics and my fastball command came back, then I started throwing my knuckleball off of that, and that’s what got me to be more consistent within the strike zone.”

The harder knuckleball helped lead to Wright’s monster 2012, during which the Indians shipped him off to Boston for Lars Anderson at the non-waiver trading deadline.

As he’s become more comfortable in his new identity, Wright has watched Dickey, whose success, he says, “couldn’t have come at a better time.” Not only has Dickey’s ascent legitimized the knuckleball in some doubters’ eyes, but when it comes to velocity, the Cy Young winner may be the closest thing to Wright there’s ever been in the majors. “The vast majority of knuckleballers never threw it as hard as R.A. and myself,” says Wright.

As such, Wright is a dedicated student of the Mount Kilimanjaro-climbing, Tolkien-reading, mullet-wearing virtuoso. “Every single pitch he threw last year,” says Wright, “I watched.” He watched for mechanics, for pitch sequence (which, for Wright, amounts to “when does he throw his fastball?”), for how Dickey holds on runners. Wright wants to soak up everything he can to make sure that someday soon he takes the mound against the master at Rogers Centre or Fenway Park.

***

Whatever happened to his command, Zink hung up the cleats for good after 2011, put down roots, and started a family.

These days, the content father of two sells Mercedes-Benz cars in Sacramento, a life he’s chosen over the opportunity to keep chasing baseball dreams. “My agent says there have been quite a few teams calling and asking about me after R.A. Dickey’s recent success,” Zink says—and he does still throw the knuckleball when he gets the chance. “It’s one of those things—no matter how well I start throwing it, it’s not something I want to build back up with starting in the minor leagues or having to go play independent ball.” Of selling cars and raising a family, he says, “it’s not the most glamorous life, but I make good money and I get to come home every night.”

Has he heard of Steven Wright, the man who’s taken the torch from him?

“I hadn’t until you emailed me,” he says. “I looked him up, and it sounds like he’s very similar to R.A. Dickey. Sounds like he throws hard, and throws the knuckleball hard.”

Zink had a pretty good arm in his day and could get his fastball into the 90s. Did he ever try firing knuckleballs at full speed?

“I was originally throwing it as hard as I could, like every other pitch,” Zink says of his knuckleball. It didn’t work. “It straightened the ball out for me. I did better throwing it a little more slowly and letting it move a couple of times.”

Zink doesn’t regret his adventures in baseball. “I made it to the major leagues as a knuckleballer,” he says, “so I can’t really be too mad about it.”

Still, he knows one thing: he’s not bringing his kids up to toss floaters. “I think I’m just going to teach them to throw hard,” he laughs. “I don’t want that frustration.”

***

Though some onlookers have drawn a distinction between Wright and other non-Dickey knuckleballers because he throws harder, Sauveur seems unconcerned with that element of his approach—to the point where he can’t be certain how hard Wright throws. “I want to say 67, to, you know, 73,” he guesses—a bit low. “To be honest with you, I don’t know for sure. I think [Wright] would know more about that. I don’t care about the velocity. I’m one of those pitching coaches that I couldn’t care less about any velocity whatsoever. If you’re getting people out, then you’re doing your job.”

By that measure, Wright did his job exceptionally well last season.

Why was he able to perform so well, even while throwing hard? Dickey baffled the National League with his fast knuckleball, but Zink says he never had success until he dialed his down.

“I think it just differs from pitcher to pitcher,” Sauveur says. “I sit and watch Clay Buchholz throw a curveball, and it’s phenomenal. I watch another pitcher, and to me it looks like he’s throwing it the same [way]… and it doesn’t break as much.”

Laughing, Sauveur says “you’d have to call the Big Bang Theory guys” to get a more reliable explanation of why one player can get a hard knuckler to break, while another sees his travel to the plate in a predictable arc.

As for the path of Sauveur’s own career—during which he accumulated 46 major-league innings between 1986 and 2000 as a knuckleballer and, mostly, a conventional pitcher—he has a simple enough theory: “I think I had the heart and the guts to pitch in the big leagues,” he says. “My stuff was just not good enough.”

***

So far, the knuckleball has been good to Wright—and, like Dickey, he thinks he can be part of a renaissance of sorts for the pitch.

“If you’re a guy on the bubble,” he says, “saying, ‘you know what, I’m just like everybody else—between 6’2” and 6’5”, right-handed pitcher throwing 92 to 95 with a slider’—if you can throw that knuckleball, maybe [you should.] For me, I feel like that’s the separator.”

Wright has an unusual perception of “just like everybody else”—in the general population, tall guys who can fire baseballs out of their hands at a pace that would violate the speed limit of Texas State Highway 130 are in pretty short supply—but when it comes to pitching prospects, he’s accurate enough.

“That’s my story,” he says, “and I feel like that can happen for a lot more guys out there that can throw the knuckleball. Maybe that will start the next wave of guys throwing harder knuckleballs.”

Though Wright won’t make any predictions—in admirable athlete-dealing-with-the-press form, he summed up his goal for spring training as “just trying to make a team, and if it happens to be Boston, great; if it’s Pawtucket, great”—he knows that his new pitch is the reason he still has a shot.

Without it, Wright would “probably be looking for a job, be going back to school—maybe going into coaching or firefighting or becoming a cop… but as of now,” he laughs, “I’m just going to change that thought. I’m hoping to pitch 15 years in the big leagues. I’m trying to follow Wakefield’s career.”

A 15-year career out of a guy who used to treat his best pitch like a party trick might be the last thing Red Sox fans expect. It might also be exactly what they get.

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