2021 or Bust: Kyle Wright

The hype was once bright for Kyle Wright, maybe a little too bright

There is a point in a prospect’s career where the hype fades and they can get caught in a purgatory of not playing against the elite competition to improve, but also not doing enough to justify giving them a spot to play more elite competition. Very few prospects have the talent to force a franchise to bring them up and give them a spot. So many factors come into play when deciding whether to bring up a prospect. The most important one is the timing. Is there an opening for them on the depth chart? Were there free-agent signings? Did the team just draft someone with a similar skill set? Have they been healthy enough? Have they been brought up and sent down so much that your confidence is shot? Are they in an organization that pushes and challenges prospects? Or are they in an organization that sits on talent until it absolutely has to promote it?

Any one of these is reason enough to slow a prospect’s development or career. If a prospect experiences more than one of the questions above, he might not ever get a real chance despite having all-star talent. That’s how you get late-bloomers like Max Muncy, Jacob deGrom, Mitch Haniger, Josh Donaldson, and so on.

 

2021 or Bust
Brendan Rodgers (1/12/21) Victor Robles (1/19/21) Brendan McKay (1/5/21) Andrew Benintendi (1/26/21)
Kyle Wright (2/2/21) Luis Urias (2/9/21) David Dahl Brent Honeywell
Royce Lewis Zack & Nick Burdi Austin Meadows Franklin Barreto
Nick Senzel Readers’ Choice

Unlike some of the other articles in this series, this one is less of a “What happened to?” and more of an “I told you so.”

I am going to really try to separate my opinion from the numbers when it comes to Kyle Wright. Once thought to be one of the jewels in the Atlanta Braves’ organization, Wright has struggled mightily at the major league level. It can be perplexing to see a player with so much previous success have such difficulty when it matters most.

 

History

Wright was once thought of as the frontrunner to be the first pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. Although not being drafted as a high schooler in 2014, Wright was a touted prospect coming into Vanderbilt. He was a two-time all-state player in Alabama, nearly unhittable as a prep athlete and pursued by multiple SEC programs. Taking no time to assert his ability in college baseball’s premier conference, he posted a 1.23 ERA in 58.2 innings as a freshman for a team that finished runner-up for the national championship. He was named to the all-freshman team in 2015.

He was moved to the starting rotation for his sophomore and junior seasons, where he earned second-team honors as a sophomore and first-team honors as a junior, posting ERAs of 3.09 and 3.40 respectively. Heading into the 2017 draft, the book on Wright was that he had three potential plus offerings: fastball, slider, changeup, and good enough control to be a starter at the highest level.

The Braves picked him fifth overall, surprising some that he fell that far in what was considered to be a slightly below-average draft class. The hype on Wright didn’t reach a high until he was finished rocketing through the minor leagues, with a 3.30 ERA and a near 10 K/9 rate in 155 innings across four levels in the minors in just one full calendar year.

 

Hype

Wright was called up in September of 2018. He was used as a reliever for a Braves team filled with young, talented arms that won the division. Showing poise and an ability to get out of jams, there was a strong indication that Wright was headed to finding his way into the starting rotation soon. It actually happened the very next season, as he earned a starting job out of spring training. Wright was thought of as an equal to the already successful Mike Soroka and burgeoning Max Fried as the third of a Braves triumvirate that fans hoped could rival their 90s pitching staff.

 

What Went Wrong

While both Soroka and Fried continued on the successful path, Wright has hit speed bumps — hard. His results were what you expect from a rookie making his debut (4.50 ERA), but there were warning signs even in his six innings in 2018. He walked six batters in those six innings of work. Sure this is a small sample, but control problems would begin to be an issue for him. Of all the things that could trip Wright up, control was not thought to be one of them. His 3.10 BB/9 in the minors wasn’t elite by any means, but it wasn’t a red flag either, especially when you combine it with his perfectly adequate 9 K/9. The relationship between those two ratios, however, is where we start to see the wheels coming off.

Wright’s MLB BB/9 rate is 6.12. His K/9 is 7.55. It doesn’t matter how many strikeouts you can get, if you walk six guys in nine innings, you will never be successful. In Wright’s case, he’s walking six guys per nine but only striking out seven. That is a recipe for disaster. Why are these numbers so drastically different between the minors and majors?

One criticism of Wright as he ascended through the minor leagues is that despite having good velocity, he does not have one great pitch. Instead, all of his pitchers were merely very good. How can this be a bad thing? In the minor leagues, Wright’s stuff was just good enough to hold effective ratios. He could get strikeouts when he needed and limited the number of baserunners to an acceptable level (1.23 career MiLB WHIP). In the majors, however, Wright’s stuff is not good enough to induce swings and misses. Combine that with his control issues and that spells trouble. He allows a lot of base runners (1.68 career MLB WHIP). Even in the minors, Wright mustered just a passable swinging strike rate of around 11%. In the majors, however, that dipped to 9.5%. Simply put, batters can make too much contact. So far, Major League hitters are making contact with Wright’s pitches 77% of the time, which is a borderline acceptable number. A number of pitchers have seen marginal success with that number. For example, Brandon Woodruff had a similar contact rate two years ago. The difference is that Woodruff induces 3-4 percent more swings-and-misses. The combination of a low swing-and-miss rate and a borderline high contact rate leaves very little room to get outs. Instead, hitters can foul off Wright’s pitches or simply wait him out, which is why in three of his four 2019 starts, he reached 60 pitches by the beginning of the third inning. This is a problem that plagued him for most of the 2020 season as well.

 

Why 2021?

From a depth chart perspective, something has to happen for Wright to get a chance in 2021. He’s already in trouble. He turns 26 at the end of the season and at this point in the offseason, Wright is maybe the seventh option for starting pitcher and the Braves also have no shortage of pitching prospects. Ian Anderson has replaced him in the triumvirate of young pitchers. In the future, he will be fighting for maybe the fifth spot in the rotation or replacing the guy who beats him out for it in the case of an injury. Where will he spend 2021, in the bullpen or back in the minors? It’s difficult to say at this point. Since he has trouble getting people out, I’d assume he goes back to Triple-A, which means he could turn 26 this season before we see him throw for the Braves again. The worst-case scenario is he goes back to the minors to work on being a reliever. This is bad because he doesn’t have lights-out stuff, so he’s not going to be a high-leverage guy. He’d be a middle reliever/spot starter.

 

Verdict

Even if Wright made the necessary adjustments over the upcoming season, the Braves’ roster lays before him an uphill battle. I wasn’t high on him when he was in the minors, and that hasn’t changed. I am not convinced he can effective enough to be a starter. Further development on his pitches is a necessity for this to happen. There is no other way around it. Maybe if he becomes a reliever he can unlock some additional velocity that would likely translate into success, but even that seems a way out.

Travis Sherer

All Seattle Mariners fans have learned the future is all we have because the present is always too painful. I am Western Washington University alum, a local sportswriter, an official NCAA basketball statistician, a freelance radio and television production statistician, and a minor league standup comedian. Follow me @ShererTravis on Twitter.

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