Kyle Wright has very clearly had a breakout year in 2022 for the Atlanta Braves. We had seen glimpses of his potential in three of his four postseason games, but he never really seemed to be able to harness his skills in the regular season.
It may seem hard to believe, but Kyle Wright has made appearances for the big league Braves in every season since 2018, having generally struggled in most of them before 2022, combining for -0.8 fWAR across 70 innings, with no positive fWAR in any seasonFrom 2018-2021, in the regular season Wright’s numbers were not exactly the type that would keep you on a competitive MLB roster with an ERA- of 147 (47 percent worse than league average in that timeframe), FIP- of 152, , and a terrible walk rate of 14.8 percent, which helped equate to a dismal K/BB rate of 1.23.
To be fair, from 2018-2021 he only pitched 70 innings, and rate stats can be volatile in small sample sizes. However, a lot has clearly changed for the good for Kyle Wright.
In 2022, Kyle Wright’s surface numbers seemed to have taken a full 180. At the time of this writing, in 170 innings Wright has an ERA- of 77, an FIP- of 92, and a walk rate now half of his previous rate: 7.3 percent. 3.61 FIP, 1.146 WHIP, and walking 2.7 batters per 9 innings. His strikeout to walk ratio has been 3.29. His xFIP- of 82 actually suggests that on an FIP basis, he’s been somewhat unlucky with fly balls leaving the park, though his ERA hasn’t suffered as a result.
It is easy to look at these surface numbers and conclude: “he’s walking fewer hitters and striking out some more, so it obviously leads to success!” But, let’s dig deeper into why this is happening.
Why have Kyle Wright’s numbers improved so drastically?
The first thing that draws the eye is the pitch selection. Kyle Wright has completely changed his approach over the years to one that obviously seems to be working quite well. Earlier in the season, as his breakout was beginning, Wright credited the change to Braves’ minor-league pitching coordinator Paul Davis and Assistant General Manager for Player Development Ben Sestanovich.
As can be seen by the rolling pitch selection chart below, Wright’s curveball usage is way up in 2022, and his slider and 4-seamer usage are way down. The quote from The Athletic article linked above sums it all up:
“[Davis and Sestanovich] told him he had a very good two-seamer (sinker) and curveball, and he needed to use those pitches more… Wright said it wasn’t until the second half of the next season, which he spent almost entirely in Triple A, that he invested fully in the curveball.”
(Side note: Avid followers of the commentariat here will also note that this wasn’t some kind of hard-to-uncover approach – it was clear to even uniformed observers that given Wright’s pitch movement data, a sinker-curve combo looked like a better path to success than a four-seamer-and-cutter/slider one.)
Wright’s use of the curveball is up to 34.1 percent this season, having never been higher than 22.7, and dropping to 14.3 in 2021. His four-seamer has dropped to being used 19.6 percent of the time in 2022. Other that 2020, where he threw a lot of sinkers and was slightly less awful as a result, his four-seamer had been used between 34.6 and 50.8 percent of the time.
His slider/cutter usage has also dropped drastically as well. Prior to 2022, Wright never used his slider/cutter thing less than 19.5 percent of the time. In 2022, his usage is down to 7.1 percent, following below his changeup into fifth pitch territory.
Wright has also been more selective regarding which pitches he uses based on if he is facing a lefty or righty. While his new favorite pitch (curveball) usage varies very little at 33.6 percent against righties and 34.5 against lefties, it is the opposite on his sinker.
Kyle Wright’s sinker has the biggest usage difference between splits. Against lefties he only throws it 9.9 percent of the time, but against righties he pitches it 39.9 percent of the time, making it his most-used pitch against righties. This makes sense since the sinker darts back towards third base, which is a dangerous pitch to throw as it can back up into the barrel of a left-handed batter.
Interestingly, outside of his tiny-sample, 6 1/3 inning 2021, there has not been a drastic change on his usage splits against lefties and righties on most pitches except for one; his curveball. Prior to 2022, Wright did not use his curveball against righties more than 21.1 percent of the time. In 2022, he has used his curveball against righties 33.6 percent of the time.
By changing up his pitch selection, Wright has really honed in on throwing what works, and cutting out some of what didn’t.
Wright’s put away percentage (which is the rate of two strike pitches that result in a strikeout) has skyrocketed with his slider. By not using it as much in 2022 his put away percentage is at 60 percent. Yes, 60 percent of the time when a hitter has 2 strikes and Wright throws a slider, the hitter strikes out. It is even more impressive against specifically righties, where Wright’s put away percentage sits at 66.7 percent.
What is interesting is that Wright’s overall slider swing and miss percentage is down, but it still is working as his put away pitch. In fact, the swing and miss percentage on his slider is the lowest it has been since his debut in 2018 at 23.2 percent. Prior to 2022, the lowest it had been was 29.3 percent.
As mentioned earlier, Wright’s curve usage is way up, and his four-seamer is way down. It appears that this has resulted in the swing and miss percentage of his four-seamer jumping up. Wright’s four-seamer swing and miss rate is up to 24.5 percent of the time. In 2021, Wright’s swing and miss rate on his four-seamer was an abysmal 5.9 percent (albeit in only 6.1 innings). Prior to 2022, the only time Wright’s swing and miss rate on the four-seamer was anywhere close to his 2022 rate was back in 2018 when he only pitched 6 innings, and it was 22.2 percent (which, honestly, should be taken with a grain of salt anyway on such a small sample size). Altogether, prior to 2022, Wright’s swing and miss percentage on his 4-seamer in his career up to that point was 13.1 percent. Of course, mixing up his approach is only part of the puzzle as to why he has seen more success with his four-seamer. Placement matters as well.
This mixture of pitches has allowed for Wright’s changeup to be sneaky good as well. In fact, as far as hitter’s slash lines go, it is arguably his best pitch. Hitters have a .152 batting average, .263 slugging percentage, and a xwOBA of .260. For reference, his next best pitch (curveball) has allowed for .207, .304, .259 respectively. Against righties, his changeup has been especially lethal. Righties are hitting .143 with a slugging percentage of .190, while whiffing on the pitch 35.8 percent of the time.
Beyond pitch usage changes, there are other variables as well. Pitch movement, pitch placement, and how pitches are hit obviously play an important part.
One reason that Wright’s repertoire has been successful in 2022 is that hitters are having issues getting the ball in the air at a good launch angle. For reference, the league average launch angle on every batted ball combined is 12.7 degrees.
Of Wright’s pitches, only two allow an average launch angle higher than that 12.7 degrees, and it is no coincidence that they are the two pitches that he has de-emphasized in 2022: the four-seamer and the slider. Meanwhile, the three pitches that he has started to use more often (sinker, changeup, curveball), all have average launch angles well below that 12.7 degrees. Wright’s curveball has an average launch angle of 4 degrees, his changeup 4 degrees, and his sinker an exceptional -6 degrees. Wright’s overall launch angle of all his pitches combined is 4.6 degrees. Prior to 2022, he never had one better than 10.1 (in 2020).
These launch angles (among other variables) have helped allow Wright to have a groundball percentage well above the league average. MLB league average for groundball percentage is 44.9. Wright’s groundball percentage currently sits at 55.4 percent. Also, as a side note, Wright has never had a groundball rate above 46.5 percent prior to 2022.
Topped percentage, which refers to the rate of poorly-hit grounders that rarely turn into hits, typically goes hand and hand with overall groundball percentage, but Wright also has excelled in this arena as well. In 2022, hitters are hitting “topped” balls at a 40.7 percent rate, whereas league average is much lower at 32.9.
Wright’s pitch movement tells a story as well. His vertical movement vs average (accounts for gravity and speed of pitch type) has also played a part in his success. His pitch movement has gradually gone up on three of his five pitches. By now, you can probably guess which two pitches have not gone up in vertical movement, his four-seamer and slider.
Wright’s changeup has had its drop jump to 5.2 inches, having never been higher than 0.6 inches prior to 2022. His sinker has had its drop jump to 3.6, when it hasn’t been as sizable as 2.5 since 2019. His curveball has also seen a shift to 0.9, never being higher than 0.4.
Wright’s sinker and changeup are both top 10 percent of MLB as far as vertical movement, and his curve is top 45 percent.
Interestingly, his horizontal movement on both his slider and curveball in terms of horizontal vs average (accounting for speed of pitch type and gravity) have both gone down, with all 3 of his other pitches going up. This likely relates, at least to some extent, to him throwing his breaking pitches harder, which gives them less time to move.
Wright’s four-seamer has seen its horizontal movement increase to 3.4 inches, having only gone above 1.2 once before (3.2 in 2020). His sinker is up to 1.3 inches of horizontal movement above average, when he has only had one season where it came close prior to 2022 (1.1 in 2020). Finally, his changeup also has horizontal movement increases in 2022. His movement on this pitch is up to 1.6 inches relative to average when he only had one season prior to 2022 in which the movement was above 0.8 (1.8 in 2020).
of his pitches but his slider are at least in the top 30 percent of MLB. His curveball has dropped from top 10 percent to top 20, again, as it’s gotten to the plate faster. But, let’s be honest, that is almost semantics at this point.
Pitch placement has also been a key variable to success. The proportion of Wright’s pitches inside the strike zone has jumped up to 52.7 percent. This is 6.1 percent better than his best season, which was only 6.1 innings in 2021. 2020, in which he had his best stuff outside of 2022, and pitched 38 innings, Wright’s pitches were in the zone only 45.1 percent of the time.
Kyle Wright finally has seen sustained success and has been a key player in the Braves success this season. Wright has seemed to finally truly break out, and here are what seem to be the main reasons why:
- Wright changed up his arsenal to where he is pitching more curveballs, less sliders, and less 4-seamers.
- A true put away pitch has been found. Kyle Wright’s slider has worked wonders at putting away over 60 percent oh hitters when they have 2 strikes.
- Ground balls have become Wright’s bread and butter, having gone from below league average ground ball rate to well above it. This seems to be due to a combination of hitters not getting good launch angles on his pitches, and hitting the top of the ball at much higher rates than prior to 2022
- Wright has seen vertical movement on his changeup, sinker, and curveball increase
- Horizontal movement on Wright’s pitches have also increased on 3 pitches: his 4-seamer, changeup, and sinker
Kyle Wright probably won’t win Cy Young in 2022. However, it has been fun to watch him become the type of pitcher that will, at a minimum, get some down votes.