Kyle Wright was the fifth overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft out of Vanderbilt, and he was the first player in that draft class to make his major league debut, which came about 18 months after his draft date. Given that, it might seem like Wright had a clear shot to a productive major league career, but in reality, it was hardly roses and rainbows and the right-hander. After years of struggling in cups of coffee in the majors, Wright finally broke through and broke out with a strong 2022 season, showing he belonged in Atlanta for good.
The Braves gave Wright a $7 million signing bonus in June 2017 to secure his services through the MLB draft. His debut season in 2018 consisted of four late-season relief appearances. After making the rotation out of Spring Training in 2019, he washed out after just a few starts; he made eight starts for the team in 2020, but they didn’t go well either. As a result, he got more dedicated work at Triple-A Gwinnett in 2021, coming up to make just two spot starts (which again, went terribly).
What were the expectations?
Wright’s experience after being drafted by the Braves was not exactly a thrilling ride of success. His continued yo-yoing/shuttling to and from Triple-A was made worse by the fact that he really struggled in the majors. Coming into 2022, he had thrown 70 major league innings with an awful 147 ERA-, 152 FIP-, and 131 xFIP-, adding up to -0.8 fWAR. He also had some rough playoff appearances, including getting obliterated in Game 3 of the 2020 NLCS to the tune of seven runs (including two walks and two homers) while recording just two outs.
On the flip side, Wright had shown some small-sample success, including a few starts at the tail end of 2020 before the Dodgers blasted him, and his Triple-A numbers were generally okay if not revelatory. The projections continued to think he probably fit somewhere as a No. 4 starter type, though time was running out to make good on that expectation. Beyond that, the pitch mix he showcased before 2022 seemed out of whack, with a pretty underwhelming four-seamer and slider featuring heavily into his proceedings.
Armed with a new pitch mix, Wright turned his career around with a strong 2022. Things looked different right from the get-go, as Wright dominated the first four lineups he faced: through his first 24 frames of 2022, he had a 34/6 K/BB ratio, a 27 ERA- / 37 FIP- / 57 xFIP- line, and four Braves wins in four starts. He was never quite that good afterwards, as he was mostly throwing FIPs and xFIPs in the 3.00s afterwards, aside from some homer issues in July and September, and a really nice four-start run where he again dominated hitters in August (which unfortunately came on the heels of a horrible, pivotal start against the Mets).
In total, Wright tallied 2.9 fWAR across 30 starts and 180 1⁄3 innings, with a 77 ERA-, 91 FIP-, and 83 xFIP-. He missed a bit of time with arm fatigue in the summer and warped his pitch mix here and there, losing the exaggerated sweep on his curveball but still coming out no worse for wear as a result.
In the postseason, amidst Max Fried showing lingering effects from an illness, Spencer Strider coming back from injury and fading fast, and Charlie Morton not being able to fix his gopherball issues, Wright was the only Atlanta starter to stifle the Phillies, and his six scoreless innings helped the Braves to their only playoff win of the year.
What went right? What went wrong?
For Wright, the season as a whole went right and really resuscitated a career that may have been trending towards a “bust” diagnosis. Some people, maybe even Wright himself, might care about the fact that he was the Braves’ 20-game winner since Russ Ortiz in 2003, but his success honestly went much, much deeper than that. He didn’t really pitch poorly in any way — even his propensity towards somewhat-hard contact was mitigated by keeping the ball on the ground. He showed a nice combination of both pounding the zone and getting reliable whiffs when going outside of it.
If there was anything to nitpick, it was probably the usage of his four-seam fastball, which was meant as a pitch to throw up-and-away to lefties. Its combination of command and shape made it a consistently weak offering with consistently poor results, and part of his evolution over the course of the season was to either remove it from his arsenal altogether, or be more judicious in when he used it. Doing so helped shore up his arsenal when he lost the horizontal break on his curveball, which transformed him from the “tunneled sinker/curve, each breaking in a different direction” that he used the first four months of the year to more of a location-oriented attack approach with a harder, tighter curve down the stretch.
Wright had a lot of wonderful starts in 2022, but one that comes to mind was early on, as he threw up an 11/1 K/BB ratio in six scoreless frames against the Marlins on April 22. That was the game in which the Marlins loaded the bases on Wright in the sixth with two outs while he held a one-run lead, and Brian Snitker came out of the dugout... only to return without pulling Wright, who got a second-pitch comebacker from Avisail Garcia to end the inning and his outing.
Wright’s groundball tendencies helped him out of jams — here’s a similar situation in his next start, where he made light of the times-through-the-order penalty with a timely comebacker once again.
Overall, Wright was not immune to this penalty, but it wasn’t really a huge deal for him.
And, of course, here’s a video clip of him actually being useful in the Braves’ playoff series.
That said, Wright did have some, rare, blowups. There was the four-homer start against the Mets that came as a result of him losing the horizontal break on his curve, but the craziest bad outing came in Oakland on September 6. In a game the Braves eventually won 10-9, the Braves had a 3-0 lead and then a 6-1 lead, but Wright allowed a five-run third to bring the Athletics within a run. Then, after the Braves scored three more to make it 9-5, Wright went walk, HBP, wild pitch, walk in the fourth before leaving the game; the Athletics would then tie the game at nine before the Braves scored the game’s final run in the top of the sixth to win it.
Here’s new Brave Sean Murphy taking Wright deep in that game:
And then there was the start that made everyone think maybe Wright’s fantastic run in April was just a mirage, and he was going to go back to struggling (he didn’t). On May 10, after Wright came out of April with a mediocre outing against the Mets, he faced down the Red Sox, and had his first awful outing of the year, capped by this Rafael Devers grand slam.
Needless to say, this sort of meltdown was relatively rare for Wright in 2022, and his ability to not let this sort of stuff linger and plague him for multiple outings was a huge part of his success. In the end, Wright never had more than two consecutive starts with a Game Score (v2) below 100 or an FIP- above 100, and only had one four-start stretch with xFIP-s above 100 (which featured a 101 and a 110 to go with a 118 and 145).
It’s safe to say that Wright’s outlook for 2023 is the brightest it’s ever been. Sure, he’s only actually had one good season so far, but that’s way better than the zero good seasons he had coming into 2022. The projection systems seem to be pricing in some regression, seeing him as more of an average-y, No. 3 starter type rather than the No. 2 starter he presented as this past season, and that is a strong possibility given that his method of attack is probably not going to be a surprise to anyone at this point. Still, Wright actually got somewhat unlucky with his HR/FB rate in 2022, so perhaps factoring in regression might be harsh. Either way, Wright should be a key member of the Braves’ current core and is controlled through the next four seasons, so we’ll get to watch him keep evolving for a long while yet.