Kyle Wright, Are You for Real?
Coming into the 2022 season, Kyle Wright had a matching 6.56 ERA & FIP. The former 3rd overall pick had been seen as a disappointment, if not a bust, by Braves fans like myself.
But 3 starts into the season, Wright is looking like a different animal.
In his most recent start on April 22, Wright went 6 scoreless innings, striking out 11, allowed 5 baserunners, and lowered his season ERA to 1.06.
Wright's lowered his career ERA over a full run (1.08) in just 17 innings this year.
But is Wright's early-season success for real, or is it just early-season SSS?
The first thing I look at is whether a pitcher is overperforming their FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
FIP works to take fielding out of the equation by looking at what a pitcher can control the most. Walks (of the unintentional variety), HBPs, and homers are used in the equation that produces the stat.
FIP favors pitchers with high K% and low BB%, as they are limiting free passes and picking up outs without the ball entering the field of play.
In the early parts of the season, it's a great tool to see whether a pitcher is getting lucky with sequencing and BABIP or if they've turned the corner. If a player's FIP is much higher than their ERA, there's a good chance they're getting lucky.
Let's look at Madison Bumgarner as an example of someone who's probably overperforming. In case you've missed it, Bumgarner isn't the dominant pitcher he once was, as he's had a poor track record over the past few seasons. If you were to solely look at his 1.38 ERA in his first 3 starts, you might think that MadBum might be having a resurgence.
However, Bumgarner's FIP is over 3.5 runs higher than his ERA. It's not surprising, either. After all, you'd expect a pitcher with BB% is higher than his K% (17.5% to 15.8%) to allow more than 2 earned runs through 13 innings.
Kyle Wright is not getting lucky. In fact, after Friday's start, Wright lowered his FIP to 0.69, lower than his 1.06 ERA. Meaning, if anything, the former Vanderbilt standout is getting unlucky.
So what's changed for the 26-year-old?
Let's look at his BB% and K%, first. Coming into the season, Wright wasn't only walk prone, he was strikeout averse. This is a horrible recipe for a pitcher because not only was he putting on runners for free, he was relying (with little success) on BABIP to get outs.
This year, he's completely flipped the script. Prior to 2022, Wright's previous K% high was 19.4%, while his previous low for BB% was 14.0% (both in 2019, where he only pitched 19.2 innings.
This year, in 17 innings, the righty has recorded 26 punchouts and only 2 free passes. This is good for a 39.4 K% and a 3 BB%. He's essentially making every batter he faces look like a pitcher at the plate.
Wright's not the same pitcher he was the previous four seasons. Look at his Baseball Savant percentile rankings this year and compare them to 2020 (the year he pitched his career-high 38 innings).
This is where Wright stood percentile wise in 2020:
And this is where he stands in 2022 (as of April 23):
Kyle Wright's stuff, for the most part, hasn't changed. Sure, he's made gains in FB Spin, but it's not like Wright's had sudden gains in velo or learned how to spin a curveball. He already had that skill set. If it's not his stuff that's changed, what is he doing differently?
Let's take a look at his pitch usage.
While the most obvious change is Wright's increased usage of his curve, I want to focus on the slider.
For much of the starter's career, the slider had been his second pitch, throwing it roughly a quarter of the time.
From 2018 to 2021, it hadn't been an exceptional pitch, but it was by no means horrible. According to Baseball Savant, the pitch had registered a -4 Run Value (RV). It was actually his best pitch, with his sinker right behind it, at -3.
So why abandon your best pitch?
One is that it's just not the same pitch it was in 2019. Whether intentional or not, his slider has gone from being this:
The new version of the slider is 2 MPH faster on average (89.4 MPH this year vs. 87.1 MPH in 2019), but has significantly more drop and break. It's not a slider that's a part of the sweeper revolution, as this new pitch has less horizontal and vertical movement.
Wright's thrown his slider 18 times this year, and it's averaged 26.8 inches of drop, and 0.2 inches of break. Three years ago it had 34.5 inches of drop, and 3.3 inches of break.
Aside from the 91 times he threw the pitch in 2019, it's been worth 1 RV, which is a below-average pitch.
What did Wright do to counteract the decline in his slider? Improve movement everywhere else, obviously.
This is the movement on all of his pitches in 2022:
Compare that to 2020:
Wright now has three pitches with legitimate movement, instead of just one. This has certainly helped improve his Whiff%, up nearly 10% from 2020.
More impressive, however, is his improvements with pitching in the zone. In 2020, Wright was throwing more pitches out of the zone than in it (54.9%), and batters were only chasing 26.1% of the time. His Chase% and Whiff% were in the bottom 1/3 of all pitchers.
This year, in addition to a much improved Whiff%, the righty (or is it "The Wrighty"?) has gone from a Strike% of 60.2% to 68.9% thanks to a 10.1% improvement in Chase%. He's throwing nearly 9% more strikes than he did in 2020.
This improvement in the zone and in getting swings and misses has obviously helped Wright in his jump in Ks and decrease in BBs, but it's also helped in one more area.
Getting 20% more outs by opponents not putting the ball in play is going to help lower your ERA, but doesn't tell you anything about the balls that are hit.
In 2020, hitters managed a .283 XBA and a .512 SLG. If this was a batter, this would be someone like Gianacarlo Stanton or Paul Goldschmidt, but for the entirety of a pitcher's outing (not great).
This year, hitters have only managed a .180 XBA and a .242 XSLG, which is, as mentioned earlier, like having each batter in the opposing lineup be a pitcher.
His xwOBA rates 14th in all of baseball (as of 4/23), but rises all the way to 4th if you qualify for 25 balls in play or more. The only pitchers who have been more effective on balls in play are Nestor Cortes (Nasty Nestor), Keegan Thompson, and Garrett Whitlock
Wright's raised his GB% by 4% and his raised his IFFB (infield fly balls, essentially automatic outs) by 11.1%.
So, is Kyle Wright for real? If you believe that his body of work to this point is believable, then absolutely. If you have a pitcher who's punching out 40% of the batters he faces, while almost eliminating free passes, you're going to have a Cy Young candidate
However, it's important to take 17 innings with a grain of salt. The Reds, who he faced in his first start are the worst offensive team in baseball to start the season, and the Padres and Marlins are solidly middle-of-the-pack (13th and 15th in wRC+) as of this writing (4/23).
The question becomes whether or not Wright can continue this type of dominance against more impressive lineups.
That's not likely to change in his next start, as he's on track to face the Cubs on April 28. However, the start after will most likely come against the red-hot Mets at the beginning of May.
Regardless of the opponent, however, it'll be interesting to see if the former 5th overall pick can continue his breakout year, especially considering the defending champs' slow start out of the gate (7-10 after the Marlins series), and issues with the latter half of the rotation.
If the Braves want to repeat, they'll need a huge year out of the Vandy alum.