It took Kyle Wright a while, but he’s delivering now

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

On the day Kyle Wright was introduced to the Atlanta audience, Braves general manager John Coppolella said of the 2017 draft’s No. 5 pick: “He could start a playoff game for us.”

In 2020, Wright started Game 3 of the NLDS. He went six scoreless innings. It was his 13th big-league start. He’d made it to the majors 15 months after being drafted, but he hadn’t managed to stick around. Only at the end of the COVID-shortened 60-game season had he given reason enough to stay on the big-league roster, and by then the Braves were desperate.

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Mike Soroka was lost after tearing his Achilles tendon for the first time. The Braves got 3 ⅓ innings from Cole Hamels before he hurt himself again. Felix Hernandez opted out due to COVID. Mike Foltynewicz, an All-Star in 2018, was designated for assignment six days into the long-delayed season. The Braves claimed someone named Robbie Erlin off waivers in August and allowed him to start five games before waiving him themselves.

Wright started four of the Braves’ first 21 games. He didn’t pitch again until the 42nd game. He was pretty good in September 2020, yielding five earned runs in 19 innings over his final three starts. He was even better in the clinching game against Miami. Then he started Game 3 of the NLCS against the Dodgers. He faced nine batters. Seven reached base. All seven scored.

Wright made two well-spaced starts for the 2021 Braves – one in April, the other in June, neither good. He spent the bulk of the season at Gwinnett, where he struck out 137 over 137 innings. He didn’t work in the postseason until the final two innings of a losing World Series Game 2.

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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.

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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.