Dickey's success helps resuscitate the knuckleball
AKRON, Ohio -- The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that this was no week to be a knuckleballer, what with R.A. Dickey's streak of 44 2/3 innings without an earned run allowed coming to an ignominious end in Queens, and now, a rather rough-and-tumble afternoon for Double-A Akron right-hander Steven Wright.Who is Steven Wright, you ask? No, he's not the comedian with the distinctly deadpan demeanor. He's one of only three active men in proper professional baseball -- Dickey and a right-hander in the Cubs' system named Joe Zeller being the others -- trying to make a living and a name for himself through the employment of baseball's most quirky and quixotic pitch. And when you kneel before the Temple of the Knuckler, you invariably subject yourself to days like the one Wright, an Indians farmhand, had here at Canal Park on Wednesday. Just as it had been for Dickey on national television Sunday night, the pitch didn't dart, dip or dive quite to Wright's liking, and the Erie SeaWolves capitalized to the tune of five runs on eight hits over five innings. "What happened to [Dickey] the other day was kind of what happened to me today," said Wright, who analyzes each of Dickey's outings. "The knuckleball stayed up a little bit, and they get a single here and a single there. Next thing you know, you give up a double, and instead of it just being a double, it's a double with two runs." Indeed, the pitch is teasing and temperamental. But when prodded to its full potential, it's a devastating weapon. Look at Dickey's incredible run, which included consecutive one-hitters. And look at what the 27-year-old Wright had accomplished, taking an Eastern League-leading 1.64 ERA into this outing. In both cases, the knuckleball has brought new prosperity to once-problematic career paths. Dickey reinvented himself at 30, after shoulder issues had compromised his fastball velocity and threatened to stop his career in its tracks. And Wright only began incorporating the pitch after a demotion from Triple-A to Double-A two years ago. After receiving encouragement and advice from former Indians knuckleballer Tom Candiotti and Dickey himself, Wright, a former second-round pick, has effectively righted himself on the Major League radar screen. "I think it re-amped my confidence in myself," Wright said, "knowing I can do something that not too many people can do, and I've shown I can have success with it." Baseball is, at its core, a copycat culture. So one wonders if Dickey's success on such a prominent stage will inspire something of a knuckleball renaissance. Will teams be more likely to embrace the pitch as a realistic option, and will amateur and Minor League players be quicker to adopt and adapt to its potential? Not that the knuckler is new, and not that Dickey is the first to tie up opposing teams with it. The Niekro brothers, Early Wynn, Charlie Hough, Hoyt Wilhelm and Tim Wakefield all have their place in hurler hierarchy because of it. But it's no exaggeration to suggest the threat of knuckleball extinction was evident in recent years, as Wakefield's career hit the home stretch. Dickey has revived it and slightly reinvented it, throwing it harder (he reaches the low 80s) than knuckleballers of old. "I think a lot of the knuckleballers in the past, it was such a slower pitch," Wright said. "Now that he's showing you can control it and get the same results but with a harder knuckleball, I think it will be a pitch some guys might start throwing it more, whether it's as a straight knuckleballer or just as an out pitch, which is how I started with it. Maybe it'll start evolving and be more like it was in the '60s, when you had 10 guys throwing it instead of just one." If nothing else, Dickey has cued conversation. "He certainly brings more attention to [the pitch]," Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said. "We converted Steven a couple years ago, so it's not necessarily a reaction [to Dickey's success]. But we're hopeful he can continue on the path that he's on." Often, the knuckler is turned to as a last resort, a desperation move when all other avenues toward the bigs have been exhausted. That wasn't exactly the case with Wright, given that he has a fastball that can get up into the low 90s and a cutter he can turn to in the clutch. But in the bid to stand out on the radar screen, an effective knuckler can prompt curiosity from the right team at the right time. Player agent Steve Canter has had several players call him over the years and tell him they've started throwing a knuckleball, and he always knows some teams will be more receptive to its potential than others. "The knuckleball," Canter said, "is the goat cheese of baseball. It's a very acquired taste." And it's incredibly difficult to master and control, let alone catch. Dickey has taken an academic mentality to the topic in recent years, studying the pitch's history and success ratio and spending endless hours refining his knuckler into the game-changer it's been this season. "If you look back and do the research of what [the knuckleball] potentially could be," Dickey told me two years ago, "you'll see it can be a pitch that can eat up a lot of innings, save bullpens, win a lot of games and really prolong the life of a lot of pitchers." That's the model a Minor Leaguer like Wright -- too old, perhaps, to be considered a premier prospect, but certainly too young to give up the big-league dream -- hopes to follow. He is something of a Dickey disciple, watching each of the Mets right-hander's starts and learning from all of them. "I think I watch the bad ones more closely than the good ones," he said, "just to see what he was doing." Indeed, with the knuckleball, you take the bad with the good, as Dickey and Wright demonstrated this week. But for all its quirky qualities, the pitch still lives and breathes here in 2012.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.