Kyle Wright Reaches a Rare Milestone in His Breakout Season

Kyle Wright
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

For being the defending champions and on track to return to the postseason (and in position to snatch the NL East away from the Mets, whom they trail by one game at this writing), the Braves have certainly benefited from their share of surprises this year. Rookies Michael Harris II, Spencer Strider, and Vaughn Grissom have all made significant contributions to the team ahead of schedule. But one other notable breakthrough has come via a player many had written off: former first-round pick Kyle Wright, who after four seasons of bouncing between the minors and majors has stuck in the rotation for the entire season, and who on Sunday became this year’s first 20-game winner.

The fifth pick of the 2017 draft out of Vanderbilt, Wright debuted in the majors just 15 months later, making four appearances out of the bullpen. He broke camp with the team the following spring as a member of the rotation but didn’t last long, either in that season or in subsequent stints in 2020 or ’21. The Braves called his number in some important spots in the postseason in those last two years, and in fact, he made as many appearances in last year’s World Series as he did in the regular season (two), spending most of the 2021 campaign at Triple-A Gwinnett. Entering this season, he owned a 6.56 ERA, 6.56 FIP, and -0.8 WAR in 70 career innings, driven by unsightly walk and homer rates (14.8% and 1.93 per nine, respectively).

That’s not a pitcher that most contending teams would pencil in for 30 starts, regardless of his pedigree, but the Braves were particularly impressed by Wright’s performance in Game 4 of last year’s World Series against the Astros. Entering with two on and one out in the first inning in relief of rookie Dylan Lee, Wright limited the damage to one run by retiring both Carlos Correa and Kyle Tucker and allowed only a solo homer to Jose Altuve before departing after 4.2 innings. The Braves trailed 2–0 at the time, but their bats woke up in time to win, 3–2, giving them a 3–1 series lead.

Atlanta went into spring training with a couple of rotation openings behind Max Fried, Ian Anderson, and Charlie Morton, and the now–26-year-old Wright seized the opportunity to claim one. Even as the team stumbled out of the gate, he pitched well, posting a 1.13 ERA and 1.41 FIP in four April starts; the Braves went 4–0 in those and 6–12 in the rest of their games that month. After he spun six shutout innings in his season debut against the Reds on April 9, manager Brian Snitker told reporters, “I just think he looked like a completely different guy from the outset of Spring Training, when he came in a little more focused and driven. I think the best thing that happened to that kid was he spent a whole year at Triple-A. He pitched and figured out who he was and changed some things.”

Wright hasn’t been as dominant since April, but he’s been more than solid, only once allowing more than three runs in back-to-back starts. Until this month, he hadn’t posted an ERA above 3.94 in any calendar month this season, or a FIP above 4.36; an eight-run pounding by the A’s did a number on his September numbers, interrupting what was otherwise a stretch of seven outings allowing two runs or fewer. Overall, he’s pitched to a 3.18 ERA and 3.62 FIP (both 13th in the NL) as well as 2.8 WAR (23rd). His 23.9% strikeout rate ranks ninth in the league, and his 16.6% strikeout-walk differential and 175.1 innings both rank 11th. The latter is second on the team behind Fried’s 180.1 — no small matter given Anderson’s collapse and the struggles of Jake Odorizzi since the Braves traded for him in August.

Wright’s overall contact numbers aren’t great. His 88.9 mph average exit velocity places him in the 39th percentile, and his 41.2% hard-hit rate is in the 21st percentile. He is managing to avoid the barrels, however, with a 6.8% rate (61st percentile). As you might ascertain by that pattern, most of the contact he allows is on the ground. In fact, his 55.7% groundball rate is third in the majors among ERA qualifiers, behind only Framber Valdez and Logan Webb.

A few years ago, while writing about Luis Castillo, I tapped into our then-new “Plus Stats” — specifically our league-indexed strikeout and walk rates — to produce something called KGB+, a junk stat that shines a light on pitchers who combine strikeouts and groundballs. That’s generally a good strategy for success, if not the only route there. Sure enough, Wright pops up among the top 10, a couple rungs above Castillo himself:

KGB+ Leaders
Rk Pitcher Team IP K%+ GB%+ ERA- FIP- KGB+
1 Framber Valdez HOU 191.0 105 157 69 79 262
2 Shane McClanahan TBR 161.1 140 120 68 79 260
3T Gerrit Cole NYY 188.1 147 99 90 87 246
Alex Cobb SFG 139.2 105 141 93 77 246
5 Shohei Ohtani LAA 153.0 149 95 62 61 244
6 Corbin Burnes MIL 191.0 135 107 76 81 242
7 Kyle Wright ATL 175.1 106 129 77 92 235
8 Dylan Cease CHW 179.0 139 92 53 71 231
9T Shane Bieber CLE 189.0 115 114 72 72 229
Luis Castillo CIN/SEA 144.1 120 109 76 78 229
11 Zac Gallen ARI 172.0 120 108 60 74 228
12 Aaron Nola PHI 192.1 127 100 80 65 227
13T Sandy Alcantara MIA 220.2 103 123 59 78 226
Carlos Rodón SFG 172.0 146 80 75 62 226
15 Brady Singer KCR 142.0 110 114 71 90 224
16T Max Fried ATL 180.1 104 118 60 69 222
Zack Wheeler PHI 142.0 118 104 73 72 222
18T Logan Webb SFG 187.1 90 131 74 81 221
Kevin Gausman TOR 171.2 128 93 85 59 221
20 Brandon Woodruff MIL 141.1 134 86 78 79 220
Minimum 120 innings pitched. KGB+ = K%+ plus GB%+

As for the wins, we all know that they aren’t the best measure of a pitcher’s performance, and as noted, in terms of run prevention and value, Wright’s season puts him somewhere in the top dozen or two of NL starting pitchers but nowhere near the league leads. Still, 20-game winners don’t come around often these days as pitcher workloads recede. Over the past five full seasons (2017, ’18, ’19, ’21, and ’22), just five other starters have reached that plateau: Corey Kluber (20 wins in 2018), Blake Snell (21 also in ’18), Cole and Justin Verlander (20 and 21, respectively, in ’19), and Julio Urías (20 in ’21). Given that the next-highest total for any pitcher in either league is 17 (Urías and Verlander), nobody else is getting to 20 this year.

Even for the Braves, 20 is a comparatively rare number. Hall of Famer Tom Glavine reached 20 five times between 1991 and 2000, with fellow Hall of Famers Greg Maddux and John Smoltz each doing so once (Maddux also won 20 with the Cubs in 1992). But aside from them, only Denny Neagle (1997) and Russ Ortiz (2003) have done so since the Braves emerged as a pitching-driven powerhouse in 1991. That’s right: it’s been 19 years since an Atlanta pitcher last reached 20 wins.

Winning 20 games takes exceptional support from one’s teammates — offense, defense, and bullpen — and Wright has had all of those going for him in reaching the plateau. On the offensive side, he’s received 5.1 runs per nine of support, which puts him in the 75th percentile among starters with at least 120 innings. On the defensive side, his .280 BABIP puts him in the 54th percentile, though we know that’s only a rough proxy for what the fielders do behind him, as is the fact that they’re just two runs above average based on Statcast’s Outs Above average metric.

More impressive has been Wright’s bullpen support. The Braves’ bullpen has the NL’s lowest FIP (3.29) and second-lowest ERA (3.05), and while I don’t have the splits for Wright’s starts, Baseball Reference tracks the number of times that a pitcher leaves the game in position to earn a win only to see it coughed up by the bullpen (see Wlst, for Wins Lost, here). The Braves’ bullpen has cost Wright just one win. While there are pitchers whose bullpens haven’t lost them any (Verlander, Tyler Anderson, Madison Bumgarner, Ohtani, and Cal Quantrill among them, to limit the list to those with 150 or more innings), one is still an acceptably low number, especially compared to Fried and Morton, both of whom have seen six wins slip away at the hands of the ‘pen, tied for the major league lead.

It’s that kind of support that has enabled Wright to reach 20 wins in such economical fashion. This probably won’t hold up because he’ll make one or two more starts, but if Wright throws five or fewer innings the rest of the way, he’ll claim the record for the fewest innings thrown by a 20-game winner:

Fewest Innings Pitched in a 20-Win Season
Rk Pitcher Team Season GS W L IP
1 Kyle Wright ATL 2022 29 20 5 175.1
2 Blake Snell TBR 2018 31 21 5 180.2
3 Julio Urías LAD 2021 32 20 3 185.2
4 Jered Weaver LAA 2012 30 20 5 188.2
5 J.A. Happ TOR 2016 32 20 4 195.0
6 Clayton Kershaw LAD 2014 27 21 3 198.1
7 Bob Grim NYY 1954 20 20 6 199.0
8T Gio González WSN 2012 32 21 8 199.1
Pedro Martínez BOS 2002 30 20 4 199.1
10 Mike Mussina NYY 2008 34 20 9 200.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

That’s wild. Offhand, I knew his total looked low for a 20-game winner, and that winning 20 in under 200 innings was historically rare, but I didn’t realize just quite how rare it was. Wright’s total isn’t just the lowest for the Wild Card era or the expansion era, but also for the whole modern era dating back to 1900.

Anyway, the 20 wins is interesting, but it doesn’t answer the question of how Wright turned his career around. The answer seems to be rooted in the mental aspects of pitching as much as the mechanical, with a return to the offerings that made him a top-five pick. Via The Athletic’s David O’Brien, Wright connected in 2020 with Zach Sorenson, the team’s mental performance coach, who helped the pitcher see how important his routines were:

“[W]hen I started pitching well that year it was really all just mental capacity, all my routines. My mechanics still weren’t where I wanted them to be, and I didn’t realize that because I was having some success. But that was a big piece for me in 2020, starting to get back to doing all those things — just having my routines, knowing when I’m starting to get out of whack and how to get back into it, being able to (mentally) reset.

“That helped me a lot, and I didn’t worry so much about results. Before I was like, ‘I have to pitch well, I have to do this.’ Obviously, you need results. But whenever you’re just stuck on trying to always get results, you’re not going to have much success. Because you’re worried about all the wrong things. So he kind of helped me switch to the whole ‘control what you can control’ and that’s what I can do on the mound and executing the pitch. Once the ball leaves your hand, there’s nothing you can do.”

That same season, Braves minor league pitching coordinator Paul Davis and assistant general manager Ben Sestanovich encouraged Wright to rely on his sinker and curveball instead of emphasizing his four-seamer and slider (which Wright calls a cutter, but I’m sticking with Statcast’s designation). Comparing his 2018–21 offerings and outcomes to what he’s throwing this year, you can see the extent to which he’s reworked his arsenal and the way his results have improved:

Kyle Wright Pitch Arsenal: 2018-21 vs. 2022
Pitch Period % PA AVG SLG wOBA Velo EV Whiff
4-Seam 2018-21 28.6% 78 .333 .667 .476 94.4 90.8 13.6%
4-Seam 2022 19.4% 118 .343 .576 .442 95.2 92.4 24.4%
Changeup 2018-21 10.9% 33 .333 .407 .387 87.0 84.9 29.1%
Changeup 2022 15.6% 111 .154 .288 .209 88.1 88.9 32.0%
Curve 2018-21 13.9% 35 .300 .667 .440 81.3 88.0 29.1%
Curve 2022 34.1% 261 .205 .303 .247 84.7 88.4 33.5%
Sinker 2018-21 22.2% 86 .229 .386 .332 93.9 87.6 20.3%
Sinker 2022 23.9% 188 .240 .317 .289 94.4 87.1 15.7%
Slider 2018-21 24.5% 90 .195 .402 .283 87.5 86.4 35.8%
Slider 2022 7.1% 36 .257 .429 .307 90.1 86.4 23.8%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Relative to his up-and-down years, all of Wright’s offerings have gained velocity, particularly his breaking pitches. He’s tweaked their release points as well, generally moving to a less overhand arm slot, about three inches lower, and getting four to six inches more extension, more active spin, and more movement. The result is far more groundballs than before (55.7%, up from 43.3% in 2018–21).

Back in May, Baseball Prospectus’ Brian Menéndez did a close analysis of Wright’s mechanical changes, complete with visuals that compared his 2020 form (the year for which we have the largest major league sample) with ’22. To summarize: he’s moved to the first base side of the rubber even more than before; is maintaining a more athletic posture, with his head lower and more over his toes than heels and his shoulders less tilted backwards and more parallel to the ground; has increased his stride length; has reworked his delivery to be more across his body, yielding more rotational energy and therefore more velocity; and is using a lower release point. “His delivery from 2020 is more ‘reach back and fire’ while his 2022 delivery is more ‘drop and drive,’” Menéndez writes.

As for the results, Wright’s four-seamer averages 95.2 mph and 2,386 RPM (both of which place it in the 69th percentile) and gets nearly twice as many whiffs as before. Nonetheless, it gets knocked around because its movement is unremarkable; his heater’s horizontal and vertical movement sit right on the 45-degree “line of normality” that former colleague Kevin Goldstein would draw on our pitch graphs. The good news is that he’s using that pitch less and his sinker more; the former has a Statcast run value of 14 runs (very bad, in the fifth percentile), the latter -12 runs (third-best in the majors).

But wait, there’s more! Wright’s reemphasized curveball, which he’s throwing more than twice as often as he did previously, ranks ninth in the majors at -9 runs, and his changeup has emerged as an exceptional pitch as well, ranking 11th at -8 runs. The combination puts him in some exclusive company, as only four other pitchers have three pitches valued at -6 runs or better this season over a minimum of 50 plate appearances: Bieber (slider -10, cutter and curve both -8), Kershaw (four-seam and slider -7, curve -6), Alek Manoah (four-seam -19, sinker and slider both -6), and Nola (four-seam -12, sinker -10, curve -7).

All told, Wright’s season has been quite the breakout, as well as yet another reminder that pitching development takes time and patience. That’s something the Braves probably didn’t show enough of in the early years of his professional career, but they’ve stuck with him when it would have been easy to pack him off to another team as a trade throw-in. The reward is a pitcher who in all likelihood will be making postseason starts for the defending champions, something few people could have foreseen a year ago.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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Dave Stewart
1 year ago

Finally some one got to 20 win’s!! This is why the Brave’s are going to win the World Serie’s last year!

1 year ago
Reply to  Dave Stewart

This is a true fact