Three nights later, he was summoned in relief of overmatched starter Dylan Lee with one out and the bases loaded in the first. That was the night we remembered why Wright was once a big deal. He left after the fifth inning with the Braves trailing 2-0. Back-to-back homers by Dansby Swanson and Jorge Soler did the deed. The Braves won 3-2 to take a 3-1 Series lead.
Wright has started five games in 2022. Only in the latest did he allow even three runs, and those seven innings against the Mets still met the criteria for a quality start. He ranks among the National League’s top 10 in ERA, strikeouts and wins above replacement. He’s third in fielding independent pitching.
What changed? He’s throwing his fastball harder. He’s throwing his curveball harder and more often. Per Baseball Savant, opponents hit .286 against his four-seamer last season; they’re hitting .185 now. They’re hitting .186 against his curve.
When the rebuilding Braves drafted Wright, they deviated from their norm. Their first two picks in 2015 were Kolby Allard and Soroka. Their first three in 2016 were Ian Anderson, Joey Wentz and Kyle Muller. All were high school pitchers. Wright spent three seasons at Vanderbilt. Industry belief holds that high school arms have a greater upside because they’ve worked fewer innings. A criticism of Frank Wren’s tenure was that his Braves drafted too many college pitchers.
The lure of college pitchers is that they tend to reach the majors faster. As noted, it took Wright barely a year to make his MLB debut at 22. Anderson was likewise 22 on his big-league arrival, but he has returned to the minors only for injury rehab. This time a year ago, Wright was laboring in Gwinnett on the high side of 25.
A Braves scout saw every start of Wright’s junior season at Vandy. Brian Bridges, then the scouting director, kept telling himself: “There’s no way he’ll be there at No. 5.” But there Wright was, and they handed him a record slot-era signing bonus of $7 million. (Kris Bryant, a future MVP, received a $6.7 million signing bonus after being the No. 2 pick in 2013.)
Said Coppolella: “With the quantity we have (in younger pitchers), we felt it was the right move to go for quality.”
Four years later, Wright logged 278 innings in Triple-A, unusual for a high-end pitching prospect. Anderson worked 39 ⅓ innings at Gwinnett, Soroka 36 ⅓. A fast-tracked draftee had, under a new administration, gotten stuck in neutral. Sometimes that happens.
To his credit, Wright changed his delivery and maybe changed his life. It’s again possible to imagine the Braves having a dominant rotation with him as a central piece. Sometimes that happens, too. Baseball’s a funny old game.