When a team makes a run at a World Series title, questions about sample size and overall contribution often get overshadowed by big moments. Who cares if a guy hit .180 during the regular season if he gets the walk-off homer to secure a key postseason win, right? The Braves had a few guys that fit that sort of mold during their postseason run, but none may stand out quite as much as Kyle Wright did in 2021.
The Braves used the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft to select Kyle Wright out of Vanderbilt. It was, in some ways, fortuitous that Wright was even available to be picked at No. 5, as there was a sizable group of analysts that had him as a prime candidate to get selected No. 1 overall. If that happened, it would have been likely we would have seen Austin Beck or Keston Hiura in a Braves uniform.... which is kind of a fascinating “What if?” scenario when you think about it.
Wright was moved very aggressively through the minor leagues. This made sense given his college arm nature, but his results were middling in a lot of ways and there were some red flags. Nevertheless, he ultimately made his major league debut in September 2018.
In short, expectations were not particularly high for Wright in 2021. While he was still in consideration for a starting rotation spot, the competition for that spot was pretty crowded with guys like Kyle Muller, Huascar Ynoa, Bryse Wilson, and Tucker Davidson having seemingly caught up to Wright on the depth chart while competing for limited playing time. Wright didn’t make the roster out of Spring Training, but was basically thought of as either 1A or 1B of the “fill-in starter” candidates, along with Wilson.
If we are looking at ZiPS projections for 2021, they were maybe a bit more bullish than that assessment, as ZiPS pegged Wright for 1.7 WAR in 2021. Some of that was likely due to the fact that there was one rotation spot available coming into Spring Training, and it was anticipated that Mike Soroka wouldn’t be ready to start the season, so ZiPS saw a bit more playing time available and perhaps had Wright getting a good chunk of it. Both Steamer and ZiPS saw Wright as basically providing starter innings at a marginally-below average rate, with the ability to pitch around half of a 200-inning workload. None of that happened, however.
2021 Season Results
Kyle Wright 2021 MLB Season Stats: 6 1/3 IP, 9.95 ERA, 9.64 FIP, -0.3 fWAR
After all of that speculation as to how much of a role that Kyle Wright was going to play with the 2021 Braves, the answer ended up being, well, not much at all. The numbers above do look ugly, but it was just two starts at the big league level. His first outing was against the Cubs on April 16th, where he gave up two earned runs in 4 1/3 innings of work. The “two runs” thing was pretty fortunate, considering Wright walked two and hit four batters while getting those 13 outs. It was back to the minors for him, and he didn’t return until June 23 where he gave up five earned runs in just two innings of work against the Mets. He didn’t hit anyone, but did walk three while striking out just one. After that outing, he had a pretty depressing self-assessment:
#Braves' Kyle Wright: “I never really had anything going from the get-go. The only pitch I had OK was my curveball, but even then I tried to do a little too much with it. Fastball command was really bad. And then the slider kind of flattened out and…yeah, it wasn’t very good.”— David O'Brien (@DOBrienATL) June 24, 2021
In short, not good but a very, very small sample.
The bigger takeaway is that despite numerous opportunities and times of need for the Braves rotation, the team was very hesitant to give Wright another chance. Bryse Wilson, Huascar Ynoa, Tucker Davidson, and Kyle Muller all saw far more time with the team while Wright, for one reason or another, did not. The team even gave a start to Jesse Chavez at one point, and used him as an opener a few times. It is worth noting that Wright’s time in Triple-A was productive, particularly in the second half where he was quite good. He posted a 3.02 ERA, 3.33 FIP, 24.2 percent K%, and 8.0 percent BB% line in 137 innings for Triple-A Gwinnett during the 2021 season.
What went right? What went wrong?
For Wright, the biggest thing that went wrong was that the Braves, at least in the regular season, very clearly did not trust him in the rotation. There is good reason for that. He has had numerous opportunities to latch on to rotation spots in previous seasons and had, to put it generously, failed to do that. Sure, he had two horrid starts in 2021, but the bigger issue is that the Braves didn’t even want to give him the shot despite a real need at times which... is a problem.
However, it’s wise to not completely dismiss Wright’s performance in the minor leagues this season. While we have been fooled by him putting together a good stretch of starts in Triple-A before, he was legitimately awesome the last two months of the season for Gwinnett. He had a sub-3 ERA and 2.50 FIP with 73 strikeouts in 68 2⁄3 innings against just 15 walks. You are forgiven if you are skeptical, but maybe there is something to it especially as he did look better deeper in starts for the first time in, well, forever.
The biggest challenge for Wright remains figuring out how he can attack hitters at the major league level. That quote above summarized a key issue: it’s not clear what Wright has that consistently works, and the Braves also haven’t seemed particularly proactive at implementing a functioning gameplan for him.
Road to the Title
Kyle Wright 2021 Postseason Stats: 5.2 IP, 1.59 ERA, 4.93 FIP, 24.0% K%, 12.0% BB%
Remember that opening paragraph where I said the postseason often changes the focus to individual moments rather than a guy’s overall production? That is exactly what happened to Kyle Wright on the biggest stage possible. After keeping Wright off the postseason roster completely through the first two rounds, the Braves added him to the World Series roster as the Braves were set to face the Houston Astros. It was likely that the Braves were going to have to throw at least one bullpen game and it appeared as though Wright was going to be, hopefully, the bulk guy for that game.
However, disaster struck when Charlie Morton broke his leg in Game One. All of a sudden, the Braves had themselves a situation. In all likelihood, they were going to have to back-to-back bullpen games, which they’d have to navigate without murdering the Night Shift or their win probability for the series.
Enter Kyle Wright.
In Game Two, Kyle threw a scoreless inning of relief where he struck out the side, though the Braves were down five at the time. Then, in Game Four, he entered the game having to deal with an absolute mess left for him by Dylan Lee, but gave the Braves exactly what they needed: innings. While it wasn’t always pretty, those 4 2⁄3 innings where he gave up one earned run on five hits, three walks, and three strikeouts not only allowed the Braves to win a really close game in come-from-behind fashion and put themselves on the precipice of a title, but it also kept the Braves from having to completely destroy their bullpen in order to do so. It’s a bit of an unsung moment from the World Series, but Wright’s performance (and the performance of the defense behind him, given that a 3/3 K/BB ratio isn’t exactly a big credit to one’s personal pitching effectiveness) was a big reason why the Braves ended up winning the whole thing. Wright got a hefty cWPA over 5% for his efforts in the World Series, which is pretty cool considering that it’s the only “stint” that he’s ever had positive WPA or cWPA in the majors.
Outlook for 2022
Wright is still somehow a pre-arbitration, league minimum guy (it feels like he has been around forever, doesn’t it?), so the really hard questions about his future can be avoided this offseason, and he can tread water in the organization for another year. The fundamental problem is that there are a lot of starting pitching prospects in the pipeline that have shown themselves to have higher ceilings and/or most consistent production than Wright up until now. With Mike Soroka out for the foreseeable future, there are a couple of opportunities in the Braves rotation in 2022 (at least at the moment) with only three spots (Max Fried, Charlie Morton, and Ian Anderson) firmly locked in. The question is: would you really give Wright one of those two spots over guys like Muller, Ynoa, or Davidson or even young up-and-comers like Bryce Elder or Spencer Strider?
That isn’t an easy question to answer. Wright has had two straight postseasons with a big game... but he also has folded a few times when handed a golden opportunity to lock down playing time in the regular season. At 26 years old and on the cusp of an arbitration-eligible salary (assuming rules remain the same in the new CBA), the Braves are going to have to make a decision soon about Wright’s role in their future.