ATLANTA — He’s ahead of the likes of Max Scherzer, Shohei Ohtani and reigning Cy Young winners Corbin Burnes and Robbie Ray in fWAR. He’s an owner of a top-10 ERA and possesses a strikeout rate (39.4 percent) that ranks in the 95th percentile.
Suffice to say, at this level, Kyle Wright has yet to experience a run like the one he’s been on.
“It feels great, but it’s still early,” said Wright, who has a 0.9 fWAR and 1.08 ERA through three starts.
While we collectively saw the seeds of his 2022 success when he took the ball in Game 4 of the World Series, following opener Dylan Lee and proceeding to hold the Astros to one run over 4 2/3 innings, the work for Wright to find his groove again began months before.
After a June 23 outing against the Mets in which he allowed five runs on four hits and lasted just two innings, Wright was back with the Stripers and was still looking for some semblance of consistency. He gave up four earned vs. Durham on July 1, then blanked Nashville over seven in his next start, only to get roughed up for six runs by Charlotte when he took the mound again.
But then he went on a run, and from July 21-Oct. 2, Wright posted a 2.29 ERA over 13 starts, allowing two or fewer runs 11 times, including four shutouts.
“It was the middle of the year last year in (Triple-A) Gwinnett,” the right-hander said. “Kind of started to hit the reset button a little bit and tried to look back at some old video and see what I did well and really tried to work hard to getting back to that. I kind of feel like slowly, each start, it started to get a little bit better, a little bit better.”
The World Series was the culmination, Wright coming in with one out in the first with the bases loaded. He got Carlos Correa — who has hit 17 postseason home runs — to ground out and struck out Kyle Tucker to get out of the jam. He had allowed one runner past second before Jose Altuve hit a solo home run in the fourth, and along the way struck out Alex Bregman and Yordan Álvarez.
“It’s kind of hard not to gain some confidence from that, pitching at the highest level, the biggest games in our sport,” Wright said. “Definitely those two (Triple-A and the World Series) kind of that marriage together. ... That’s kind of where it’s all came together.”
During his struggles, Wright went back to video from his final college season at Vanderbilt, and during his first year in the pros. His focus was on fine-tuning his mechanics and getting down the mound faster, but without going too fast.
“In years past, I would kind of start flying open my front side and start getting out of whack,” he said. “I think by me getting my momentum going down the mound, I don’t have to feel like I’m forcing it with my front side. It’s just kind of doing its thing and everything’s coming out on time. Getting better extension, spinning the ball better. I feel like I’m holding my velo a little bit better. Everything’s just kind of coming a little bit easier.”
Wright’s average four-seam velocity is currently at a career high of 95.3 mph, an uptick of nearly two mph year over year, but the biggest change has been in his reliance of a curveball that’s become the foundation of his arsenal.
Kyle Wright, Filthy 85mph Breaking Ball...and Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/3DP5xkszdR— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 22, 2022
In 2020, the only season in Wright has thrown more than 19 2/3 innings at the major-league level, he was heavy with the sinker, throwing that pitch more than any other at 33.2 percent of the time and had a 13.1 percent usage rate with the curve. Fast-forward to this season, and Wright’s thrown 33.8 percent curveballs and is generating a 42.9 percent whiff rate and .125 average against. Among all starters, those figures rank 10th and 14th, respectively, and in terms of wCB, his 2.5 is secondly only to Burnes (3.2).
“That’s been my focus, is using that pitch,” Wright said. “Out of college, my pitches were fastball/curveball, and early in my pro career (I threw a slider) and I had some success with that. We started using that a lot, and it just wasn’t my best pitch, I don’t think. I just didn’t have the best feel of it. It’s still a good pitch, but just didn’t have great command of it.
“Really started, probably in the 2020 season, was when we started to put a focus on the curveball, it was when I first got optioned. ... That’s when I really started to pick up the usage and what I did then is really carrying into this season.”
At 26 years old, Wright is older than both Ian Anderson and Mike Soroka, who were drafted before him, and he’s just nine months younger than Max Fried. Anderson has penned one of the best resumes of any pitcher to start their career, when healthy Soroka has been an All-Star and Fried has become a legitimate ace.
Wright was part of that same wave of pitching acquired by the Braves amid their rebuild, but he’s yet to put together a season on par with those other young Atlanta arms. While he’s had his struggles, he’s also lacked consistent opportunities.
Five years into his career, Wright has made 24 appearances with 17 starts, and when he takes the mound in Thursday’s series finale against the Cubs, it will be just the second time in which he’s had four consecutive turns in the rotation. The last was from July 28-Aug. 14, 2000, when Wright had a 7.20 ERA and 5.68 walks per nine, and was subsequently optioned to Gwinnett, beginning that retooling of his arsenal that the Braves are now reaping the benefits of.
There were more than a few moments of frustration, and while Wright has watched those other young Braves starters flourish, it wasn’t that he was measuring himself against them, he was his own measuring stick.
“I did have a ton of frustrations with myself and how I was performing, just because I knew I was capable of pitching a lot better than I was,” he said. “That’s where I have to give a ton of credit to a lot of people.
That includes his parents, teammates and the work he’s done with Braves mental performance coach Zach Sorsensn, who helped Wright better focus on compartmentalizing failure and success by, as he stressed, not getting too high or too low.
“Control what you can control is the big thing (and) don’t worry so much about the results if you just execute,” Wright said. “If you’re constantly worried about the result, you just kind of find yourself in a bad place. That’s kind of where I found myself a lot of the times.”
Watch Kyle Wright strike out 11 and try not to get hyped for his 2022 season pic.twitter.com/s2ZhSd7eHJ— Bally Sports: Braves (@BravesOnBally) April 23, 2022
But he’s appeared to put those times in the past and is part of a top end of the 2017 draft that is having a collective moment. The Reds’ Hunter Greene, the No. 2 overall pick, has the league’s highest average fastball velocity at 98.9 mph, and MacKenzie Gore, who was taken third by the Padres, has posted a 1.74 ERA.
Then there’s Wright, who has shut out Cincinnati over six innings with six strikeouts, fanned nine Padres over five two-run innings and then, most recently, struck out 11 in six shutout frames vs. the Marlins. In all, Wright has walked just two with 26 strikeouts.
The starter who had a 6.75 ERA the past three seasons, including 9.95 last season, has become one of the most surprising arms of the season’s first month.
“Want to keep doing this for a full season,” Wright said. “Kind of goes back to the point: you can’t get too high, can’t get too low. Got to stay in the middle. There’s going to be struggles. There’s going to be games when I feel like I have even better stuff. It’s just when you don’t have your stuff, find a way to give the team a chance to win.”