Wright’s Stuff: Talking Knuckleballs with a Knuckleballer

It’s not everyday you get the opportunity to speak with someone who’s mastered a craft to which few others in the world can lay claim. Red Sox pitcher Steven Wright, drafted as a conventional pitcher in the second round of the 2006 draft by the Cleveland Indians, was converted to a knuckleballer by that same organization in 2011. He made his major-league debut with the Red Sox in 2013, following a 2012 trade that sent Lars Anderson to Cleveland, and has since thrown more than 1,500 knuckleballs at the big-league level, joining R.A. Dickey as MLB’s only active knuckleballers. Wright was a member of Boston’s 2016 Opening Day roster, and currently occupies a space in their starting rotation.

I spoke with Wright in the visiting clubhouse at Progressive Field during the Red Sox’ season-opening series. He commented on his knuckleball relative to Dickey’s and Tim Wakefield’s, how speed affects a knuckleball and its location, on the evolution of the pitch, finger pressure, and more.

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On his knuckleball: “I watched a lot of video of R.A. and Wakefield. I just throw it. I just grip and it and rip it. For me, I think it’s trying to stay under control. R.A. throws his harder, Wakefield threw his slower. I feel like I’m right in the middle of them – I don’t throw quite as hard as R.A. or quite as slow as Wakefield. We’re all pretty similar, we just throw it at different speeds.”

On Dickey’s fast knuckleball: “The velocity definitely helps if it’s moving. It gives it sharper break, usually it’s later, and just the fact that it’s harder. If it’s thrown right it’s a tough pitch to hit. If it’s thrown slow it’s a tough pitch to hit. That’s just where he feels comfortable. It’s not that he’s trying to throw it that hard, that’s just how it comes out, so that’s how he’s comfortable pitching.”

On whether harder knuckleballs work better in certain parts of the zone, akin to a high-spin fastball located up: “I think as long as it’s inconsistent in its movement, it will work. That’s the biggest key to knuckleballs: you want to be able to throw for strikes, but you want them to be inconsistent in the zone. You don’t want it to have predictable movement. I think that’s where the hard knuckleball kind of helps, because it can be a not-great knuckleball, but as long as it’s inconsistent, then you can get away with it.”

On Wakefield’s three-quarters arm slot: “[Wakefield] still got pretty on top of the ball. I feel like every knuckleballer that I’ve seen throw is pretty much at the same type of arm slot. It’s a tough pitch to throw since you’re trying to throw with no spin so you’ve got to be behind the ball. It’s tough to do, but I think everybody’s sort of at the same.”

Wakefield

On what makes a bad knuckleball: “Usually it’s rushing. I try to overthrow. If I try to overthrow then it slips out and takes off. That’s something I’ve been fighting my whole life, even when I was a conventional pitcher.”

On old knuckleballs: “I’ve seen a little bit of [Phil] Niekro and some Charlie Hough, it’s just that they’re real hard to find. They had video and stuff back then, they just didn’t keep it like they do now. Everything now is stored in a database and one click of the button you can have it. I usually try not to watch too much video, actually, because I’m not trying to mimic them. Sometimes I get caught up in trying to mimic how other knuckleballers throw instead of going out and being who I am as a pitcher.”

On the evolution of the knuckleball: “I think it’s the same. It hasn’t changed much at all. You’re still throwing the pitch with the same intent – kill the spin. It’s not like curveballs and sliders where people have different release points trying to change the shape. You can talk about finger pressure and all that stuff, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to stay behind the ball and through the ball to kill the spin. Especially because nowadays, with other pitches, everything is taught to try and create spin. We’re trying to do the opposite. We’re trying to not create spin at all. So I think over the years it’s kind of been the same. I worked with Charlie Hough and he did it for 20-something years, and he’s telling me pretty much the same stuff that Wakefield told me.”

On varying finger pressure: “I don’t vary it much, and I don’t know many who do. You can feel it when you throw it, off your fingers, which way it’s going to go. But I can’t purposely do it.

“When you put too much pressure on the ball, you usually spike it, because you hold onto it too long. When you don’t have enough pressure, it usually stays up. That one gets hit harder. But there’s a number of things that can happen. You can hold it too tight and still throw a good one.

“I’ve done both, certainly a lot when I was learning. I’ve had too much pressure, I’ve had not enough pressure. It’s something that, it’s such a feel pitch, that some days are different than others and you just try to find it as fast as you can and when you do find it, you just try to keep it for as long as you can and hope for the best.”





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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Blerick
6 years ago

It’s pretty well documented that R.A. is trying to throw it hard. Surprised Wright doesn’t know that.