Boston Red Sox prospect Steven Wright knew he was taking a risk when he converted to a knuckleball pitcher a year and a half ago.
In a league filled with hard-throwing hurlers, mastering a slower, more unpredictable pitch seemed difficult to justify.
But R.A. Dickey’s Cy Young-winning season with the 2012 New York Mets has boosted Wright’s confidence.
“There was so much uncertainty to it before, but with R.A. doing what he did last year, he solidified the fact that you can be very effective at it, and very consistent with it,” Wright said.
The 38-year-old Dickey was 20-6 with New York last year before he was traded in the off-season to the Toronto Blue Jays.
“With the knuckleball you just don’t know,” Wright said. “It could be great, it could be not great. But last year, R.A. proved that with the knuckleball, he can be just as effective as (Justin) Verlander, (Stephen) Strasburg, and the velocity that comes with those guys.”
Tim Wakefield, who spent 17 seasons as a knuckleballer for the Red Sox, agrees that Dickey has been invaluable to the cause.
In Fort Myers for three days helping Wright make “minor adjustments” to his pitch, Wakefield stood on the mound with the 28-year-old during Wednesday’s bullpen session, monitoring his delivery and giving pointers between each pitch as Red Sox manager John Farrell watched intently.
As someone who knows first hand the complexities of the knuckleball, Wakefield was delighted to see Dickey’s success last year.
“He validated the knuckleball and made it popular,” the retired right-hander said. “There were so few of us that actually threw the pitch for a living – guys like Wilbur Wood, Phil Niekro, Charlie Hough, Tom Candiotti, myself and now R.A. – it’s a close-knit fraternity, so I was very proud.”
Though the knuckleball brotherhood may be small, Wakefield believes its members have a responsibility to ensure their breed doesn’t die out.
By helping Wright this week, Wakefield is doing his part, just as he did for Dickey in 2008 when the then-struggling Seattle Mariner approached him for advice.
“I’m very open when it comes to helping other knuckleballers,” Wakefield said. “It’s always nice to be able to bounce ideas off somebody that is walking in the shoes that you walked in for so long.”
Dickey is also doing his part.
Wright and Dickey speak on the phone and exchange text messages frequently. Just having a knuckleballer in the game while Wright is attempting to hone his craft has also done wonders for the up-and-comer. He went 10-7 with a 2.54 ERA in double-A and triple-A last season.
“It’s great for me because I’m still new to it,” Wright said. “Not only can I talk to him (Dickey) but I can see him pitch. I watched every one of his games and could see why he had good outings and when he had a bad outing, I could see what the difference was and could use that for myself.
“Watching him and what he’s been able to do with the knuckleball, it gives me that confidence. If he can do it, why can’t I?”
On Monday, Wright was able to see Dickey pitch up close when the Red Sox visited Dunedin for a spring training game. Wright and Dickey faced off against each other in a rare all-knuckleball matchup. Wakefield was also in the house, watching from the stands.
While Dickey gave up two runs on four hits, Wright pitched two scoreless innings in the Red Sox 4-2 win.
“The fact that I was going up against him with Wakefield there, it was awesome,” Wright said with a smile. “For a knuckleballer, it was like Christmas. It was exciting for me.”
After Monday’s game, Dickey told reporters that division rival or not, he hopes Wright does well this season.
“For R.A. to know who I am, to root for me, and to help me out if I have a question, I feel so blessed,” said Wright. “I’m rooting for the Red Sox, but I’m rooting for him too. Its kind of a grey area, but I really want to see him do well.”