Who is Kyle Wright? It almost pains me to say that is something we are all still trying to figure out.
At this point of his career, Kyle has appeared in 14 games over three different seasons along with some strong spring training outings, but still continues to mix borderline dominance with maddeningly inconsistent command particularly when he tries to go through a lineup for a second time.
Flashback to June of 2017 and not only were we high on Kyle, but everyone else was as well as you can see by the draft rankings from other sites. It was easy to see why as he was a projectable college arm from an elite SEC program with four above average or better pitches on paper looks like a lock to be a top end of the rotation guy.
That only tells part of the story, as Kyle actually struggled mightily to open his junior draft season in 2017. Going in as a projected number one overall pick candidate, he seemed to be overthrowing leading to a loss of command. About a month into that season, he seemed to figure it out and put up a more than respectable stat line, leading many to believe it was just a blip on the radar for the guy everyone assumed to be the top pick heading into that spring.
However, here we are four years later and Kyle’s inconsistent command and results are still here. No matter how good he has looked in the minors, or in spring training, or even the first time through a lineup, the issues continue to pop back up.
Make no mistake, this Kyle isn’t the same Kyle we saw at Vanderbilt. Really, he isn’t the same pitcher we saw last year. He has continued to evolve on the mound, in a fairly significant way so far (small sample size disclaimer), but the same issues that plagued him back in college are around today in some form.
Kyle’s college issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they are now. To illustrate that, look at his walk rate, going from 3.5 BB/9 as a freshman to 3.1 as a sophomore, down to just 2.7 in that junior season. Despite the career low walk rate, it was the junior season where he had the issues. He managed that low walk rate in spite of those issues mostly because the issue was only around to start the season. He worked his way out of it by April of 2017, and pitched very well the rest of the way. Coming into the draft, it was widely recognized that he had the potential for average command, but that he was going to need to tighten it up a little bit in order to reach his potential.
Kyle threw just 267.1 innings in his minor league career, with 17 of them coming after signing in 2017, and made his big league debut late in 2018, before pitching much of 2019 back in the minors. Kyle’s walk rate wasn’t bad, walking 3.1 per nine, but he definitely got by on his stuff a little bit to help deflate the walk totals. The low walk rate had more to do with that than it did perfect command.
In addition we saw something else with Kyle that has carried over into the guy we see right now. That is once he gets in trouble, things had a way of escalating. It was almost as if it was mental to the point it felt like after getting in some trouble he would try to pitch his way out of it- at times overdoing/overthinking things, leading to more trouble to follow.
One example of this is a start I attended on the road last year. He pitched arguably his best game of the year against the Mets AAA team. Early in the game he was cruising along, but a two out routine pop fly was dropped by the right fielder for an error. Instead of settling in and just getting the next out to get out of the inning, he seemed to overthrow the next pitch- leading to a two run homer. He got out of the inning quickly after and rebounded to strike out 10 over 7.2 innings of two hit ball, giving up just those two unearned runs.
Kyle came into 2019 and reports from some pro scouts called him one of the best pitchers they saw in Florida during spring training. He opened the season in the big league rotation and started a Sunday Night ESPN game in March in Philly. March in Philly brought some brutal weather and Kyle had a hard time commanding the ball, but that’s a normal thing for a pitcher in that type of 30 degree weather. He gutted through that game, pitching pretty well given the circumstances while allowing three runs over 4.1 innings. That was followed by two runs over six innings in his next start against the Marlins, before a rough outing against the Mets, ultimately leading to his demotion after that April 12 start.
Kyle stayed in the minors until July 18, and had another rough outing against the Nationals. This once again led to his demotion. He didn’t get called up again until after the Triple-A season, and pitched three one inning stunts out of the pen in mid to late September and looking good.
You do have to wonder if the overthinking/overthrowing he showed may have been a result of his being jerked around a bit, seeing as a single rough start would immediately get him demoted twice last year. It is definitely fair to believe that was at least a small part of his issues.
With the injury to Cole Hamels, followed by Felix Hernandez opting out, Kyle came into 2020 locked into a rotation spot in Spring Training 2.0/Summer Camp. Suddenly, there was no longer a real threat of losing his job based on a rough start.
His first start came against Tampa. Things looked good early. A 1-2-3 first and then getting through the second in only four batters giving up just a single. Then he started the third with a walk before getting the next two guys out, and things just imploded. Kyle went from commanding his pitches fairly well to unable to find the zone at all and put the next five guys on base with three hits and a pair of walks. He left the game not recording another out.
After the game, he said the humidity was a factor as he couldn’t lick his fingers to gain a better grip on the ball due to the 2020 COVID rules. I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt as this was basically a first for him having to adapt. Maybe a learning experience, because he really did have fairly solid command leading up to things falling apart.
Then came his next start against the Mets. It’s fair to say Kyle didn’t have any real command here. However, he gutted through 3.1 scoreless innings despite giving up five hits and four walks. At this point, I have to admit I was confused to as to exactly what Kyle is right now, but him getting out of it scoreless was a net positive since the Braves got the win.
His third start against the Phillies was another mixed bag. He started off shaky, getting two outs before a single and a walk, but got out of the inning untouched. He started the next inning giving up a single, but got a fielders choice and a pair of strikeouts to escape again. He only needed three batters in the third, despite a walk, as he was able to force a double play.
Then the fourth inning came. JT Realmuto led off with a homer. Didi Gregorius singled and stole second. It was starting to look like the wheels were about to come off. And they did, as Jean Segura walked, and Jay Bruce followed with a two run homer. However after that second homer of the inning he settled in and got the next three batters out. He came out in the fifth and got a 1-2-3 inning, and escaped a two out double in the sixth to make it another scoreless inning.
If you look at the box score it doesn’t tell you the story here, as four runs in six innings is a 6.00 ERA. In reality, he allowed three hits and two walks over those six innings if you take out that tough four batter stretch.
Was this the thing he needed? To see some real adversity, struggle through it, and finish fairly strong? It’s impossible to know the answer for sure, but it will be something to watch going forward.
What Wright Is
It’s hard to say exactly what Wright is in part because we haven’t been able to see Kyle consistently do something from start to start. However, he has also changed his arsenal quite a bit from last year to those three starts this year. Look below and you will see how Kyle’s use of pitches differs in this short sample to illustrate my point.
|Pitch||2019 % Used||2020 % Used|
|Pitch||2019 % Used||2020 % Used|
|Four seam fastball||42.7||24.1|
Short sample size disclaimer, but these are major changes. The four seam fastball has been cut in half almost, while the use of the changeup has nearly doubled and the slider usage has increased by 10% to become his most utilized pitch.
As if that isn’t enough to digest, when you look further into things the questions only rise. Like despite the use of the change nearly doubling, he went from throwing 9 of his 27 total changeups to right handed batters in 2019 to throwing all 35 used in 2020 to lefties and none to right-handers.
Last year the four-seamer was used 150 times in total, with 105 being to right-handers. This year just 18 of his 53 four seamers are to right-handers.
Similarly the sinker, which is another type of fastball, went from mostly used against lefties in 28 of 41 pitches to now being used just 10 out of 35 times against lefties.
Whats with those changes? It isn’t the velocity, as most of his pitches are right where they were last year minus the addition of 2 MPH to both the change and curve. It’s also not related to the spin, as he has improved his spin rate slightly from what we saw in 2019.
So why the changes?
I think that’s a two part answer. Despite the standard four seam fastball being Kyle’s most used pitch in 2019, it was not his most effective pitch. That honor belonged to his slider, which is the pitch he has relied on the most so far in 2020. The pitch hasn’t been quite as effective in 2020, but he produced unsustainable numbers with it last year and it has been his second most effective offering this year. That is partly because his change has really taken a step forward and is used more because of how effective it has been- of course all coming against left-handed hitters.
The other reason for the change is the command. The below heat map shows where Kyle’s four-seamer was located in his first two starts - it does not include his most recent start.
As you can see, command of the four-seamer has not been a strength for Kyle this year- though things were a little better with the third start against Philly. This probably plays into his arsenal change just as much as the 2019 and 2020 success of his slider as well as the improved change.
What He Is Going Forward
This is a very tough one to answer. The lack of consistency mixed with the flashes of a frontline starter make it hard to pinpoint exactly what Kyle will be. It is clear to me that Kyle is still figuring out exactly who he is as a big league pitcher.
The upside that made him the fifth pick in the 2017 MLB Draft is certainly still in there, but he needs everything to click to get there. Of course he definitely needs to improve his command in order to get there, especially after he gets through a lineup the first time.
I expect Kyle to continue to be uneven this year. I believe we will see some great moments from him mixed with some frustrating outings. That’s okay, because in the long run. this is exactly what he needs. He needs to figure out who he is as a big league pitcher through trial and error, and mix successes when some failures to be able to grow. It may not be in the Braves best interests in 2020 to let him try to find his way out of trouble, but it is definitely in the Braves long-term best interests to allow him to do so.