Steven Wright was just 9 years old when he started experimenting with a knuckleball.
Wright, an Aeros right-hander, was playing in Little League in California when he began taking pitching lessons on the side. One day, the instructor surprised him by tossing a knuckleball.
“I was so intrigued on how a ball could go forward without spinning,” Wright said. “So from then on, I’d always try to throw it. As I grew up, it seemed every time I saw a Red Sox game, [knuckleball pitcher] Tim Wakefield was throwing.”
A love affair with the knuckleball began for Wright as a youth, even though it wasn’t until the 2010 season, while in Double-A, that he began to take the pitch seriously. It was during a road trip that former Aeros pitching coach Greg Hibbard first saw Wright’s knuckleball.
“We were in New Hampshire and one of our pitchers was getting ready to throw a side [bullpen session] when I just hopped up on the mound messing around and started throwing it,” Wright said. “It was pretty good that day and Hibby asked me to throw a couple more.”
Soon, Hibbard was on the phone with the Indians’ minor-league pitching coordinator, and word came back to have Wright throw an entire bullpen session of nothing but knuckleballs. Since then, Wright, 27, has improved to the point where he now throws knuckleballs a majority of the time.
“I was with the Dodgers as a player when a kid named Dennis Springer became a knuckleball guy,” current Aeros pitching coach Tony Arnold said. “He battled through, made the adjustments needed and ended up getting some time in the big leagues. Steven Wright’s got way better stuff than [Springer] did before the knuckleball, and I’m not sure his knuckleball isn’t better right now. So, it’s just a matter of understanding what he can do and making the adjustments — a lot of it is trial and error.”
In his fifth start of the season Monday, Wright breezed through 6⅓ innings, limiting the visiting Binghamton Mets to one run and striking out five. He threw about 75 percent knuckleballs in the Aeros’ 3-2 victory.
“[Wright’s] regular stuff got him to the Triple-A level,” Arnold said. “And the one thing he did well before he decided to throw the knuckleball was command his fastball down in the zone. So, it works to his advantage when he throws other pitches for strikes.
“Overall, he’s done really good with it. He can throw strikes with [the knuckleball] and then he’s got his other pitches [a curveball and a cut fastball], so if they’re going to give him free strikes, he’ll take it.”
In 31 innings, Wright is 2-1 with a 1.45 ERA, giving up five earned runs, issuing 14 walks and striking out 29.
“I’m getting to the point now where the more I throw it, the more comfortable I get with it,” he said. “Keeping it in the strike zone really helps because once you get a team swinging, then it kind of plays into my favor. Even when I fall behind, I’m able to throw my other pitches good enough to get guys out.”
That’s not always the case with knuckleball pitchers.
“My priority is the knuckleball, so I have to do whatever I can to repeat it so I can be more consistent with it,” he said. “But it’s nice to have other pitches still. Other guys have gone to the knuckleball because of injury or something. I’ve been blessed that I didn’t get hurt or anything. It’s just something that I wanted to pursue.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Aeros blog at www.ohio.com/aeros. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.