The fifth overall pick in 2017’s MLB Rule IV Draft, Kyle Wright came into the 2019 season as the Braves’ fifth-best prospect (per Fangraphs). He had a substantial opportunity to make the leap to the big leagues, and the path before him became wider and wider as injuries to Atlanta arms mounted in Spring Training. Even if he couldn’t stick initially, he had a chance to at least make the Braves think hard about promoting him out of the minors. None of that really happened, and Kyle Wright will enter the 2020 season in a similar position as he entered 2019 — still hoping to solve his inconsistency and break through as a major league contributor.
What were the expectations?
There wasn’t necessarily much of a sense that Wright would be ready for a full-time starting gig in the majors, despite him making the Opening Day roster and making his first major league start in his team’s third game of the season. While there was the hope that Wright could make good on his draft position and prospect ranking to give the Braves adequate-if-not-better starting pitching from the get-go, he had only been good-not-great at Double-A and Triple-A in 2018, so there was no reason to assume his effectiveness was set in stone.
The projection systems similarly saw Wright as having the potential to be an average-y major league starter. He didn’t really get a chance to flaunt his stuff over a large sample, but when he did pitch in the bigs, that’s definitely not what happened.
What went right in 2019?
For one, he did make the Opening Day roster on the heels of a dominant Spring Training (and a bunch of the other pitchers on his team getting hurt). He stuck around to make three starts before being sent down to Gwinnett, was called up to make another start in July, and finished his season with three short-stint relief appearances in September.
Most of these major league outings didn’t go too well, though. The exception was his second overall start, on April 6, which was fine. Wright threw six innings of two-run ball, with both runs coming on solo homers. He struck out four and issued just one walk — and as weird as this is to type, this was his only start in four tries this season where he had more strikeouts than walks. Unfortunately, the Braves still lost the game, as the two homers Wright allowed tied the game in the sixth, and A.J. Minter would allow a go-ahead two-run homer to Jorge Alfaro (who had also homered off Wright earlier) in the ninth; the Braves would load the bases with two outs in the bottom of the inning but fail to score.
After being sent to the minors, Wright initially struggled, but eventually found his footing. Between June 14 and the end of the Triple-A season in August, he made 12 starts with a combined 3.83 FIP, an impressive feat considering the offensive avalanche comprising the International League run environment at the time. His K%-BB% in that span was 21.1 percent, and he only had one or two bad starts in the entire stretch.
What went wrong in 2019?
You can more or less piece this together from the above. For one, he wasn’t particularly good in the majors, though he didn’t get much of a shot, either. Including his three late-season relief appearances, he finished his 19 2⁄3 major league innings in 2019 with a composite 196 ERA-, 141 FIP-, and 123 xFIP-. He walked 14 percent of the batters he faced, which is abominably horrific and horifically abominable. He only managed a good start against the Marlins — he was bombed by the Phillies, bombed by the Mets, and when called up in July to make a spot start, bombed by the Nationals. He did show better verve in his three one-inning September stints, but they all came during garbage time.
His spot start against the Nationals was particularly ghastly — while he didn’t allow any homers, he allowed a .497 xwOBA-against (not a typo). Things seemed to be going at least survivably well during his first two scoreless innings (three singles, but a strikeout and zero walks), and then horrifically collapsed afterwards, as Wright retired just two of the nine batters he faced in the third, walking three of them. The last walk forced in a run, and to make matters stupidly worse, Touki Toussaint came on after the Braves were already down 5-1 and allowed a three-run homer to Stephen Strasburg for some reason.
Despite a full-fledged five-pitch mix, Wright’s pitch-level data were also not particularly impressive. His four-seamer is hard but generic movement-wise. His sinker has good downward movement, especially given how hard he throws it, but this is hardly the time to be a sinker guy (and he doesn’t throw it much anyway). His slider is his second pitch but has underwhelming lateral and vertical break; one wonders whether emphasizing his sweeping curveball over his slider could yield better results. Worth noting, though — his slider was the pitch with his best results in 2019, so perhaps it works despite its odd movement profile; in any case, Wright and the Braves have some stuff to figure out for 2020.
On top of that, Wirght’s early-season struggles at Gwinnett kind of tanked his seasonal minor league line. He finished with a 4.17 ERA / 4.32 FIP / 4.24 xFIP across 112 1⁄3 innings and 21 starts in Triple-A, fine enough numbers, especially considering that everyone was getting shelled in the International League this season, but nothing eye-popping. As mentioned, his last 12 starts were good, but his first nine starts (7.22 ERA, 5.25 FIP, K%-BB% under 10 percent) were definitely not.
What to expect in 2020?
It’s hard to say that expectations for Wright in 2020 are particularly different than expectations for the right-hander coming into 2019. Maybe he’ll compete for a rotation spot. Maybe he’ll get one. Maybe he’ll be good. Maybe he’ll be just okay. Maybe he’ll be bad. Maybe he’ll spend a lot of time in Gwinnett again. It doesn’t look like much happened in 2019 to make 2020 look particularly different, but that doesn’t mean things can’t start clicking next spring, either.