Kyle Wright had a forgettable 2019 with the Braves, finishing the season with an 8.69 ERA over 19.2 innings. Thanks to a few injuries, Wright broke camp with the Braves starting rotation but after a 7.07 ERA in his first three starts, he was optioned to AAA. Wright was allowing a ridiculous amount of contact (94.7% zone contact) and he wasn’t able to make batters expand the zone against him with just a 20.9% chase rate.
On April 13th he was sent to AAA and was recalled on in July for a spot start against the Nationals. After another awful effort (seven runs over 2.2 innings), Wright was sent to the minors once again. Wright had a solid season in AAA but began to come into his own from June-on, posting a 3.17 ERA, 3.77 FIP, 26.7% K%, and a 7.0% BB%. In the 14 starts, Wright threw 82.1 innings and this stretch was good enough to get him another call up to the major leagues. Just like when Wright debuted with the Braves in 2018, he would be pitching out of the bullpen for the Braves in September.
This time though, things went very differently for him.
In three relief appearances for the Braves, Wright posted an 18% swinging-strike rate, a 40% chase rate, and a 71.4% zone contact rate. His SIERA dropped from 6.32 as a starter down to 1.81 as a reliever, and his hard-contact rate also dropped from 46% to 14%. We know that prospect growth isn’t linear and that young players bloom at different times than others, but this wasn’t only his growth as a player.
This difference is extremely clear.
Out of the bullpen, Wright started throwing his best pitch — the slider — significantly more often and his results were predictably much better.
The Wright Mix
During his four-game stretch as a starter with the Braves in 2019, Wright’s pitch mix mirrored the mix that he used in the bullpen in 2018 when making his major league debut. His fastball sat around 50% usage, curveball and slider both around 20%, and his changeup at 6.3%. Wright’s slider increase wasn’t just a bullpen philosophy for him, but rather this was an entirely new approach to pitching for him.
In 2018 Wright’s slider rated as a league-average pitch according to Fangraphs’ PitchFX, but in 2019 it made the jump to an above-average pitch with a pVal of 4.9. There wasn’t much of a difference in Wright’s slider itself between 2018 and 2019 with his horizontal and vertical movement, along with the spin rate, being similar between the two seasons. He simply just started throwing the pitch more often and slightly harder.
Hitters posted just a .174 wOBAcon against the pitch in 2019, which rated as the 14th-best in the league among pitchers (minimum 80 sliders thrown). An 80 pitch sample is an arbitrary endpoint, but it’s enough of a sample where we can begin to come to conclusions about how effective the pitch can be. He did outperform the expected metrics on the pitch with it’s xwOBAcon being .336, making his -.162 wOBAcon-xwOBAcon among the bottom 10 for this same sample of pitchers. If you break that same size down though to just the sliders he threw as a reliever (20 total), his xwOBAcon was .035 and the pitch posted a negative FIP. The in-zone usage on Wright’s slider dropped down from 40% as a starter to 30% in relief while seeing his whiff rate on the pitch jump to 54% overall, including a 40% mark on sliders in the zone.
Part of what makes Wright’s slider so effective is the combination of velocity and late break on the pitch. Quality of Pitch Baseball has Wright’s slider in the 62nd percentile for late-break while also sitting in the 67th percentile for velocity. Considering Wright has slightly below league-average horizontal and vertical break on the pitch, the late break and velocity help disguise it until it gets closer to the plate. Simply put, the pitch looking like a fastball until it isn’t.
Speaking of Wright’s fastball, Wright’s fastball rates as his highest pitch in terms of its components from Quality of Pitch Baseball, but it was an unquestionably awful pitch for him in terms of results with a pVAl of -6.5. Via Baseball Savant, his fastball sits in the 76th percentile for velocity and has a well-above-average spin rate sitting in the 79th percentile but the pitch’s active spin ranks 604th in all of baseball. Active spin is the spin on the ball that is attributed to the movement pitch and when the backspin on a pitch can counteract the effect of gravity, it makes it appear that the pitch is rising. Generally, the more active spin you can get on a fastball the better, so the lack of active spin for Wright can be a piece of the puzzle as to why the pitch has been so bad at the major league level. In three of Wright’s four starts in the majors last year he did not generate a single swing and miss with his fastball despite using the pitch over 40% of the time
In his relief stint, his fastball became a useful pitch despite being the exact same fastball he’s always thrown. Its wOBAcon in his four starts early on was .503 on fastballs and once he ramped up his slider usage in September as a reliever it dropped down to .290. Unlike his slider that greatly outperformed its expected metrics, Wright’s fastball xwOBAcon was .287. The average exit velocity off the pitch dropped to 72 mph after sitting at 92 mph as a starter. His swing rate on the pitch jumped from 34% as a starter to 60% as a reliever where he was even generating whiffs on the offering, something he had never done in the majors until this point.
Not Quite Wright
Wright’s stuff has never been in question ever since the Braves drafted him fifth overall out of Vanderbilt, but his control is something that needs to improve at the major league level.
Putting it frankly, Wright’s control at the major league level has been awful to this point in his career. In 2018 he posted a -3.6% K%-BB% and in 2019 it was 5.4%, though helped heavily by his three-inning stretch in relief where he had zero walks. He’s never going to be a control artist, but in the minors he has shown significantly better control with anywhere from a 13% to 27.3% K-BB% across all levels, including his strong stretch in AAA last season referenced earlier, where he posted a 17% K%-BB%.
Wright’s other current knock is that he doesn’t pitch particularly long into games. Last season in AAA Wright threw 121 innings over 21 starts, averaging out to 5.1 innings per start. This could become an issue for Wright when it comes to tallying counting stats, but the Braves bullpen has gone from a weakness to open last season to one of the best in all of baseball. With a more robust relief group, the Braves only need their starters to go five innings before turning the ball over to the pen.
Putting The Wright Foot Forward
Wright’s 2020 spring training has gotten off to a fantastic start, ranking second on the team in innings pitched with 12.1. His 15 strikeouts in that span leads the entire team and batters are hitting just .152 against him and he’s posted a 0.75 WHIP over his four appearances.
More importantly for him beyond the strong stats, Wright is continuing the pitch mix that saw him excel out of the bullpen down the 2019 stretch.
Wright’s first spring appearance wasn’t televised so there’s no data for the first game, but his second outing was against a Red Sox team that featured starters, including JD Martinez and Rafael Devers. Wright was outstanding. He tossed three scoreless innings while striking out five batters and allowing just one hit.
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I’ll make a note here that there was no radar gun on the broadcast for this outing so it was just my interpretation of the pitches on how they looked. There could be some changeups that were slower fastballs and some sliders that also could be categorized as curveballs, it’s not an exact number.
The most obvious thing to see is his continued heavy use of breaking pitches. In the outing, he generated five whiffs on the offering with three called strikes to go along with it, good for a 57% CSW.
Here are two gifs from the outing, both featuring that slider that generated whiffs against both right and left-handed hitters.
He also generated three whiffs on his fastball, continuing the ability to use that pitch as a swing-and-miss pitch as he did down the stretch.
The most interesting development from the outing was how often he used his changeup, including three straight to lefty, Jonathan Arauz.
The second pitch does seem to have more velocity than the two around it, but the extra little wiggle to it makes me fairly certain that it was also a changeup. Wright’s changeup rates as his best offering in terms of active spin, but it is by far his least used offering. What we’ll need to see though is how this usage continues over the rest of spring and into the regular season. This ultimately could just be a situation of him wanting to try to work on the pitch by throwing it more.
Wright’s third outing of the spring came against the Red Sox as well but it featured far less talent than his prior appearance. He threw two scoreless innings before getting into a little trouble in the third thanks to some bad BABIP luck and poor defense, but still allowed just two runs on three hits with five strikeouts over 3.1 innings. His slider once again was extremely effective, with all five of his strikeouts coming via the breaking ball.
Kyle Wright had the good good working with his offspeed stuff yesterday. All five strikeouts came via it pic.twitter.com/y2QEG5vsQR
— 👑gaurav vedak👑 (@gvedak) March 7, 2020
Wright’s final outing of the spring outing came against the Detroit Tigers (not televised) on perhaps what was the last day of baseball for a good chunk of time, March 12th. It was more of the same for him as it has been all spring allowing just one run over 5.0 innings with three strikeouts. He continued to show more control with just one walk over the five innings and he allowed just two hits.
The Wright Time
Entering spring training, the Braves were going to be searching for at least one starting pitcher to round out the rotation. With Cole Hamels suffering a shoulder injury in the offseason that will keep him out until around mid-May the team is looking to find two starters. Bryse Wilson was a potential rotation candidate but was sent to Gwinnett in the first round of roster cuts. This leaves veteran Felix Hernadez, Sean Newcomb, and Wright to battle for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation.
The news that baseball is going to shut down operations, for the time being, does make things interesting in terms of Hamels’ availability once games start back up, but there’s no way to know what the MLB has in store at this point.
Hernandez is having a very strong spring, but the Braves can’t fully ignore the fact he’s coming off a season where he posted a 5.02 SIERA. It’s not just last year either where we’ve seen Hernandez’s step back; he’s recorded SIERAs of 4.60 or higher in three of the last four seasons. The Braves have had success with reclamation projects in the past so maybe they feel like they can strike gold again.
Newcomb is interesting because he was a highly-touted prospect coming through the minors but hasn’t been able to stick in the rotation in the majors. He shifted to the bullpen last year and found some success but the Braves have said multiple times that they still believe in his ability to start. Newcomb has posted 2.00 ERA over nine innings for the Braves this spring and has struck out 11 batters while walking just two.
Hernandez is on a minor-league invite to camp so the team will need to create room on the 40-man roster for him if he makes the team. Both Newcomb and Wright have two minor league options left so either could conceivably start in AAA to begin the season if the team goes with Hernandez and one of the two younger arms.
The Price is Wright
The best part about Wright beyond his breaking pitches is that he’s free in drafts. Since February 15th, Wright’s NFBC ADP is 612 and that comes with a minimum pick of 302 and a max of 522. Now quick math doesn’t land you at 612 based on that min-and-max but then accounting for the fact he’s not being drafted in 53% of leagues, it plummets his already low ADP. Closer to home, in the Pitcher List offseason mock drafts, he was taken just once at pick 265. He has no fantasy draft capital as a player that has been a consensus top 100 prospect since he was drafted, and has even cracked the top 50 at times.
Wright makes for a fantastic late-round dart throw in drafts, especially now that we’ve seen the continued pitch mix that made him so effective down the stretch.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)