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Steven Wright: R.A. Dickey ‘re-wrote the book’ on the knuckleball’

FORT MYERS, Fla. — When 38-year-old R.A. Dickey won the Cy Young award last year in the National League [1], it was revolutionary on many fronts. A pitcher salvaged his career with a pitch still thought by many to be a gimmick pitch.

Dickey went 20-6 with a 2.73 ERA for the Mets, and after being traded to the Blue Jays in a package that sent a pair of top prospects to New York, he received a two-year, $25 million extension for 2014 and 2015 on top of his current contract.

Red Sox [2] right-hander Steven Wright was paying very close attention. He knew that Dickey was on the fringe of his major league career before he started throwing his knuckleball harder, with the same arm velocity as his fastball.

“I think he just re-wrote the book on it, to be honest with you, because what he did last year was unbelievable, for any pitcher,” said Wright on Sunday. “The fact that he did it with a knuckleball I think shows you can compete at a high level with the best of the best with a knuckleball. The harder knuckleball is easier to control in a sense because the movement is not as big. He’s just re-writing history as far as the way people look at the knuckleball.

“I think eveyrone thinks they have a knuckleball. I think more teams are going to be open to letting guys try it, I really do. I think that somebody like myself, I was able to compete with my other stuff but I never really had an out pitch. I think if a guy gets to that point, I think teams are going to be like, ‘Okay, let’s see what you’ve got,’ and maybe give him a little more time than previous to R.A.”

Wright was a 2006 draft pick of Cleveland out of the University of Hawaii who could throw 94 MPH. In 2011, with the help of Tom Candiotti and advice of Charlie Hough, Wright added the knuckleball to his repertoire, pitching at both levels of Class A, as well as Double-A and Triple-A. The results were mostly mixed, going 4-8 with a 4.58 ERA.

“That’s why I was getting frustrated,” the 28-year-old Wright said. “I have one good outing then I have one bad outing and I was like, ‘I’m going to throw fastballs and I’m going to throw my knuckleball off of that and adjust from there,’ instead of just flush, throwing hard and try to throw a pitch at 60 miles an hour.

“I’ve been throwing it since I was nine years old. So, it was one of those things I knew how to throw it. So, when I talk to Candiotti and Hough, they were telling me you just have to go with whatever feels good in your hands. So, I would just close my eyes and was like, ‘That’s what it is and that’s my grip.’ But I didn’t really get to understand it until I started working with Charlie Hough. Once I worked with Charlie Hough, he helped me simplify the pitch because it’s not as complex as I thought it was going to be. You just have to have your checkpoints and once you have your checkpoints, you stick with them so you can repeat them so that if something goes wrong, you just go back to what your checkpoints are.”

Last season was a breakthrough. He went 10-6 with a 2.44 ERA in 21 starts at Double-A before being dealt to Boston for Lars Anderson. He initially joined the Double-A Portland team before being promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he went 0-1 with a 3.15 ERA in four starts.

Wright isn’t worried about the money so much right now as he is trying to follow in Dickey’s footsteps of revitalizing a pitching career.

“I didn’t tell myself I was going to throw it hard. I said, ‘I’m going to throw it off my fastball. So, if my fastball mechanics give me a knuckleball at 80, great. If it’s 75, great. For me, it’s not so much about the velocity. I just try to stay within my delivery to the point that I can repeat it, feel comfortable, I feel like I can compete with my delivery and stay within myself. I think that’s what it was when I was trying to throw it slow, I couldn’t repeat it.”

For Wright, improving the knuckleball is an ongoing process.

“I still don’t think I have a good one. It’s a confidence-boost when you talk to hitters you’ve faced and they say, ‘It’s good.’ But I think you can always be better. When I talked to Charlie, he helped me simplify because you don’t know where it’s going. You have an idea of where it might end up and that’s basically how simple it is.

“You just try to throw it in the zone and with no spin and it is what it is. Sometimes, it might break two to three feet, sometimes it might break a couple of inches, but the hitters don’t know that. So, I think that was the biggest thing, not so much that I have a good knuckleball, because I knew I could throw it, but it’s just a matter of having the confidence of being able to compete and not saying, ‘Oh crap, I’m throwing batting practice. I’m about to get one down the neck.’

“For me, it’s just the break. I watch it in the pen, I try to get a feel for it and see what I have for that day and then you just judge it off of that. Sometimes, it’s just going to break more than others and for me, you don’t need a lot of break, you just need late break.”

After talking to him several times in the last year, Tim Wakefield [3] will watch him pitch later this week and offer input.

“I think it’s going to go off of watching me throw and he’s going to have some pointers and then I’m sure I’m going to have some questions,” he said. “Right now, I’m blank on what I would ask him because it’s something where you go off of what you feel that day. A lot of it for me is pretty much the same when it comes to Charlie and Candy, but with the way Wake might implement it, it might hit something for me. ‘That makes sense. I can do that.’ It’s just nice to get another view in what he did to make himself successful and for him to pass it to me, I’ll try to take as much as I can and implement it into what my routine is.

“It’s nice. He still has a job to do but I think it was just nice to know him so the ice-breaker of meeting the manager wasn’t as fearful as it would have been, coming to my first big league camp. I think that was a nice little ice-breaker but it’s nice to see a familiar face, and I had [Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo as a manager with the Indians’ Triple-A team in 2009]. It’s nice to just to get to know them because I feel like it’s easier for me to approach them if I have a question.

“For them to let me reach out to them and be open, I feel like I can pick up [the phone] and call them whenever I need, any type of advice, good or bad [times], Wake is the same way, Dickey is the same way, [Charlie Haeger] was the same way. So, I think once you get in that fraternity and get accepted, because for me, I want to help somebody else out because you want this pitch to stay alive because it felt like it was beginning to die out.

“But with what R.A. did last year, I think it’s starting to come back.”