If there is one principle to live by in sports, it’s that development is not linear. While we expect players to operate like those in video games, where their rating goes up by a few points every season, this is the real world, and human beings are far from predictable.
When you are a top-five pick, especially out of college, expectations are that you’ll hit the ground running, make your MLB debut in short order, and establish yourself as an All-Star player from there. Oh, if only baseball, and life in general, were that simple! Bumps in the road come where you least expect it, and it’s about how you react to those bumps that ultimately define who you are.
Of course, though, it’s not a given you will have the opportunity to overcome those bumps in the road. After all, most teams have an incentive to win right away, and it’s hard for them to go through the growing pains of shaky development, seeking a later reward. This can particularly be true with highly-drafted players, who often get categorized as a “letdown” by the team’s fanbase, leading to the term that every athlete desperately wants to avoid – “bust.”
Ah, there’s nothing better than a singular term to place all players who don’t match expectations into a specific bucket. The negative stigma that comes from this term can be overwhelming, and in a sport predicated on failure like baseball, the mental health ramifications from it cannot be overstated. Oftentimes, this is extremely difficult to overcome, and players can start to let that define who they are.
There are exceptions, however. In the case of Braves starter Kyle Wright, it appears that the breakout that we have long anticipated is finally here. Yet, is this merely a flash in the pan, or is Wright simply becoming the pitcher he was expected to be? This is the type of difficult question that makes baseball analysis so exciting!
Kyle Wright: The Clear Future Ace
In college baseball, it’s fair to say that Vanderbilt University is generally seen as a top-tier university. Now, it may not be on the level of Alabama football, but when it comes to developing big-league talent, particularly on the pitching side, their track record is exceptional:
RECENT MLB PLAYERS FROM VANDERBILT
- SP David Price
- SP Mike Minor
- SP Sonny Gray
- SS Dansby Swanson
- SP Walker Buehler
- OF Bryan Reynolds
- OF Mike Yastrzemski
Then, of course, there is the fact that they have had a top-five pick in THREE straight drafts, which is tremendously impressive. Multiple general managers are on record saying that they specifically look to target players from this university, and it speaks to the fabulous job head coach Tim Corbin has done there.
Thus, when you can contribute as a freshman, and then become the ace for such a talented rotation, the spotlight is going to shine bright on you. This certainly was the case for Wright. After being utilized as a high-leverage reliever as a freshman, the talented righty transitioned into the rotation as a sophomore, and the results from there were very strong:
- Sophomore: 93.1 IP, 27% K, 8.1% BB, 18.9% K-BB
- Junior: 103.1 IP, 28.6% K, 7.3% BB, 21.3% K-BB
A projectable pitcher with college production? That is going to appeal to all scouts and front offices. As a result, MLB Pipeline and Fangraphs each listed Wright as a top-three prospect in the 2017 MLB draft, with Fangraphs going as far as to list him as the top player in the draft. In the end, though, he lasted to the #5 pick, where the Braves were more than happy to snatch him up. As scouting director Brian Bridges stated after the draft, there was no doubt regarding that pick:
“It’s far-fetched when you get the guy who is still on the board who shouldn’t still be on the board who is advanced for his age,” Bridges said. “He brings everything we want to see. He was definitely No. 1 on our board, so we feel really good about where we are.”
Being drafted by your favorite team growing up is a bittersweet moment; while it is the ultimate “feel good” moment, it also tends to add even more pressure. Immediately, MLB Pipeline labeled Wright as a top-30 prospect in all of baseball, and the report on him was extremely exciting:
“Wright has four pitches, all of which will flash at least better than average, with the ability to throw all of them for strikes. He throws his plus fastball in the 94-98 mph range and can comfortably sit around 95-96 mph, maintaining his velocity deep into starts. He has two distinct breaking balls, with his hard curve a plus pitch that is just a touch ahead of a power slider. His changeup might be a touch behind the other three, but it’s a usable weapon and he will throw it at times with above-average deception and movement.
While Wright struggled a little with command during his junior year, he is physical and athletic enough to repeat his delivery and throw more than enough strikes. His combination of size, stuff and projectability point to a future frontline starter, one who should move up the Braves ladder quickly.”
Between Ian Anderson, Max Fried, and other intriguing young pitchers, Atlanta was looking to build a championship team based on their pitching staff, and Wright was expected to be the anchor of it. Less than one year after being drafted, he debuted right away in Double-A, represented the Braves in the Futures Game, and later worked his way up to make his MLB debut. In many ways, he was accomplishing exactly what he was supposed to do. After another strong season in Triple-A, Wright appeared to simply need the opportunity to shine, which he got in the shortened 2020 season.
At the time, Wright had struggled at the MLB level, but it also had been a very small sample size. In 2020, though, Wright, with a very poor 5.83 skill interactive ERA (SIERA) and 3.6% K-BB in a 38 innings, was starting to run out of mulligans for a Braves team with championship aspirations. Ultimately, he pitched just 6.1 MLB innings for Atlanta in 2021, and while he made a spot start in the World Series, he wasn’t expected to be a part of the defending World Series champions’ rotation this season. Sometimes, though, things happen for a reason.
Why Was Kyle Wright Struggling So Much?
In total, entering 2022, Wright’s MLB career had not gone anywhere close to as planned. In 70 career MLB innings, there really wasn’t a lot of optimism to be had. After all, he wasn’t missing bats (9.6% swinging-strike rate), was walking a lot of hitters (14.8%), wasn’t inducing chases (25.7% O-Swing), and also was allowing a lot of hard contact (10.8% barrel, 40.1% hard-hit). That is certainly not a recipe for success.
For starters, Wright’s fastball simply did not miss any bats, and got hit extremely hard (.476 weighted on-base average/wOBA). Based on his location of it from 2018 through 2021, we can clearly see why:
Perhaps even most concerning was the struggles of his curveball (.440 wOBA allowed), which was supposed to be the pitch that engineered his success. Then again, this appeared to be a location issue:
That is WAY too much of the heart of the plate for a curveball. Particularly with a horizontal arsenal, command becomes even more significant, particularly to left-handed hitters. Yet, this has been the major qualm with Wright’s profile, and it clearly got the best of him. Given the concerns about both the arsenal and his ability to locate it properly, it was fair to conclude that he wasn’t going to miss enough bats, while he would have the propensity to get hit very hard at times. Fortunately, human beings can evolve over time.
Kyle Wright’s Sudden Development In 2022
As alluded to, Wright was not expected to fit into the Braves rotation plans in 2022. However, the Braves didn’t look to make any substantial additions to their rotation, leaving the door open for Wright to compete with the likes of Huascar Ynoa, Kyle Muller, and Tucker Davidson for one of two open rotation spots.
After a strong spring training, Wright found himself in the opening day rotation, and, from there, the rest is history. In 11 starts this season, the 26-year-old sports a 3.37 SIERA and 18.7% K-BB ratio, and is in the top-15 in starting pitcher Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), per Fangraphs. That is quite the remarkable turnaround, and there are very few red flags to worry about.
After all, his 12.8% swinging-strike rate indicates his 27.2% strikeout rate may even be slightly too low, while his 8.6% walk rate should come down; he’s pounding the zone with authority (53%) so far this season. What he has done this season appears to be 100% legitimate, and is remarkably impressive.
So, case solved, right? Not exactly. See, the analysis doesn’t just end by describing how Wright has performed this season, but why he has performed at the level he has. For Wright, it all starts with his pitch shapes, which have changed a lot over time:
Truly, there hasn’t been one pitch that has not been altered dramatically from when he first entered the league. For instance, both Wright’s fastball and sinker have much more horizontal run than they had in the past. Meanwhile, he’s made his curveball and changeup more vertical pitches, while decreasing the drop on his slider. All of a sudden, he’s reworked his arsenal to feature five strong pitches, which is quite the turnaround from a time where he may not have had one pitch he could count on.
Plus, Wright’s usage of his pitches is quite strong. He’s throwing his four-seam fastball (23.5%) and sinker (22.1%) at a similar rate, and is throwing those two fastballs less than half the time. Meanwhile, he’s made his curveball (31.7%) his most featured pitch, while also throwing much fewer sliders (6.3%), his worse off-speed pitch. This is clearly a pitcher who went into this offseason ready to do whatever it took to succeed, and it’s paying off for him.
Add it all together, and Wright this season possesses a 108.8 stuff+, which, based on Eno Sarris’ predictive model, ranks 26th among starters this season. These are type of underlying data points we expected to see from Wright when he was a top prospect, and are another basis of confirmation based on what he has accomplished this season.
However, we’d be foolish to not give some credence to Wright’s command of his arsenal, which has been truly special this season. In today’s game, hitters are being taught to have much steeper bat angles, allowing them to tap into more power by hitting for more loft. At the same time, this can leave them vulnerable to pitches on the upper outside concern, which is where Wright has thrived this season against lefties:
If you’re going to feature 4.1 more inches of horizontal movement with your fastball than the average pitcher, you might as well use it to your advantage. There’s a reason Wright’s four-seam fastball (26.6% whiff, .296 wOBA) is performing so well against lefties, and it’s a pitch he leans on (38.6%) against them. In fact, it’s quite telling how different his usage is based on the side of the pitcher he’s facing:
KYLE WRIGHT PITCH USAGE
- Four-Seam Fastball: 38.6% vs LHB, 10% vs RHB
- Curveball: 29.6% vs LHB, 33.5% vs RHB
- Changeup: 21.9% vs LHB, 11.5% vs RHB
- Sinker: 6.1% LHB, 36.4% vs RHB
- Slider: 3.8% vs LHB, 8.6% vs RHB
Fastballs up and away to lefties, sinkers down and in to righties – that’s a recipe for success, and it’s a very mature style of pitching. It’s one thing to command your arsenal, but knowing how to properly utilize each pitch in certain situations is even more paramount. Don’t look now, but all of Wright’s five pitches serve a specific purpose:
- His curveball gets plenty of whiffs (36.7%) and ground balls (56.6%), while it’s a vertical pitch that can be utilized against lefties.
- His fastball works well up and away to lefties due to the exceptional horizontal movement it has
- His sinker is inducing ground balls at an absurd 72.7% rate and can be lethal against righties
- His changeup also induces a lot of ground balls (50%) and whiffs (32.9%)
- His slider is a sharper change-of-pace offering when needed
What else needs to be said? He induces ground balls, is pounding the zone, gets plenty of swing-and-misses, and has demonstrated the ability to go deep into games. Consensus projections may have not caught on yet, based on his previous struggles, but this is a completely different pitcher and he needs to be treated as such.
Player development in sports can be incredibly fickle. Generally, the game’s better pitchers establish themselves early, but between Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, and others, we are starting to see many more late bloomers. This speaks to the improvements in pitch design and overall coaching, which allows players of all kinds to maximize their skill set.
That has clearly happened for Kyle Wright. Not only has the former top-five pick completely reworked his arsenal to now feature five strong pitches, but he his utilization of those pitches is as impressive as it gets. The ability to have an intriguing arsenal, command it well and know how to locate it doesn’t always come around, yet that’s where Wright is currently.
The Braves lack the rotation depth you would hope for, but Wright looks destined to build a 1-2 tandem with Max Fried for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to try to throw cold water on potential breakouts with concerns over a small sample size, but as new information comes in, we need to be quick to adjust. Wright has truly come into his own, and now is the time to buy into the hype train. As they say, the price appears to be Wright here!