In 1995, thanks to a quintet of dominant starting pitchers, Atlanta secured their third World Series championship. Their staff, fronted by three future Hall-of-Famers, combined for a 3.24 ERA.
In the mid-2010’s, the Braves’ ownership opted for a new wave of front-office executives. The new hires decided to replicate the success of their predecessor by banking the team’s success on a group of young, homegrown starting pitchers, a movement that was spearheaded by John Hart and Alex Anthopoulos.
The plan: to develop a rotation that would slowly accumulate in the Minors and debut in the Majors, all within a span of each other.
Through a combination of shrewd drafting and a knack for acquiring young pitching talent, the Braves brought Max Fried, Touki Toussaint, Kyle Muller, Mike Soroka, Sean Newcomb, Mike Foltynewicz, Bryse Wilson, and Ian Anderson into the organization between 2014 and 2016. The makings of new Smoltz-Maddux-Glavine trio.
The capstone to their project came in 2017, when they selected Kyle Wright with the fifth overall pick in the Amateur Player draft. At the time, Wright was considered an elite arm from a strong SEC program.
During his time in the Minors, MLB Pipeline credited Wright with four potential plus offerings. His fastball sat in the 94-98 mph range, with his three above-average breaking pitches giving him all the makings of a potential top-of-the-rotation arm.
Through four stops in Atlanta’s minor-league affiliates, he logged a 3.72 ERA with a 9.0 K/9. His minor-league performance wasn’t Casey Mize-esque, but it was enough to earn a September call-up in 2018.
During his first Major-League stint, Wright couldn’t find his footing, running up a 4.50 ERA/8.83 FIP. His line at the end of the season represented a man pitching his way out of baseball, rather one attempting to live up to a sky-high prospect pedigree.
There’s more to a pitcher than just his first Major-League season. The Braves believed in that philosophy and for good reason: no one associates Carlos Carrasco with the 8.87 ERA he posted in his debut season anymore. Wright deserved more starts to show why he warranted his 25-man roster spot and the Braves seemed willing to give it to him.
Despite Atlanta’s trust in him, Wright battled through a messy 2019 campaign, earning a demotion to the bullpen. Nevertheless, despite another substandard campaign, the Braves slotted Wright in their 2020 starting five, although that had a lot more to do with Felix Hernandez’s opt-out than Wright’s performance.
His first couple outings of 2020 weren’t too promising either. In three of his first four starts, he didn’t last past the fourth inning. After his first four outings, his ERA sat at an unsightly 7.20 ERA.
His fastball wasn’t fooling anyone. Batters were posting a .340 wOBA against it. His offspeed deliveries were being tattooed to the tune of a .515 wOBA. He seemingly was destined for clean-up pen work or the dreaded 4A moniker.
There were plenty of reasons to fault his performance: his sinker was lacking anything resembling 40-grade command and his breaking balls induced poor swinging strike rates. He simply wasn’t getting the job done.
For the sake of his career, he needed the services of an omnipresent baseball God-like figure that knew the motions of pitching like the back of his hand.
Rather unexpectedly, that God materialized in the form of Josh Tomlin.
Tomlin, a veteran right-hander stashed in Atlanta’s relief corps, suggested to Wright that he make a slight change to his mechanics and move a couple of inches left on the rubber.
Throughout his time in the Majors, he’s thrown from the left-middle side of the mound, but Tomlin was hoping that throwing closer to the first baseman could allow him to maximize the effectiveness of his pitches.
Thanks to fellow BaseballCloud contributor John Moore, I was able to visualize how his release point has varied throughout the season.
Since instituting Tomlin’s recommended change into his delivery, Wright’s enjoyed a career renaissance. In the three starts since, he’s logged a 2.37 ERA and a .516 OPS against. On September 20th, he spun his best outing of his career, shutting down the Mets over 6.1 frames. Short Sample Size (SSS), but there’s certainly potential he’ll run with these changes.
For a pitcher that relies on pitches that need exceptional arm-side movement to succeed, this news that Wright’s changed his stance on the rubber deserves more than a simple tweet or a throw-in in an article. When a former number five overall pick makes a significant adjustment on the mound, then rolls off three of the most dominant starts of his career, it’s worth noting.
After his start on September 13th, he mentioned how comfortable he’s become since changing his mound position.
“”I like that I’ve moved over, and today I had a good feel for my slider and my curveball,” Wright said. “Even threw some good changeups at times. Left a couple (up), but for the most part, I had a good feel of everything, and because of that, my pitches were able to hold the plate longer. My two-seam was good. I think it’s definitely been a big help.””
To understand why I’m writing 1450 words on Wright (and currently trying to trade for him in every fantasy league I’m in), it’s essential to understand how pitches like two-seamers and changeups move.
Alex Speier of Weei.com added
“A lot of two-seamer guys, they’re either in the middle of the rubber, or on the first base side of the rubber. Webby was way on the right side, so you see him chasing right-handers a lot because he’s so far away. So when you move him over it gives him an easier plane to throw his sinker,” said Nieves. “Instead of sitting on the third-base side trying to throw a sinker, you place him in the middle and the sinker plays a little more on top of the plate and you can run balls into righties. He can sink it away from a lefty. He can actually front-door a lefty or back-door a righty at a different angle.”
For Wright to succeed, he’ll need to emphasize his usage of pitches that offer better break when thrown from the left side of the rubber. Based on his last four appearances, it looks like he’s done just that.
Author’s note: Since Baseball Savant changed their pitch classification system and has started to put sinkers and two-seamers into the same category, I’m using the terms interchangeably.
The graph shows a clear difference in the release point on his sinker, before and after his mound move. It was his best pitch in 2020, and his new stance on the rubber should only help going forward.
His move on the mound has had profound impacts on the rest of his repertoire.
Since his adjustment, he’s increased the usage of his slider, a pitch that earned a 60 grade,—on the 20-80 scouting scale—from MLB Pipeline. SSS, of course, but in the three starts since changing his rubber position, he’s induced a .103 wOBA with the pitch.
Per Baseball Savant’s Active Spin leaderboards, Wright’s 22.9 spin efficiency on his slider placed him 66th in the Majors in 2020, well above names like Dylan Bundy and Zack Wheeler. A strong spin efficiency isn’t the be-all end-all of effective starters, but it’s certainly a good start.
Wright’s arsenal also features a change-up, a pitch that he’s thrown 15% of the time. His move on the rubber has enabled it to be another weapon in his arsenal; in his last three outings, he’s allowed a .111 wOBA with it.
Furthermore, his curveball has some appealing features: most notably, its horizontal break has 74% more movement than the average curveball, adjusted for velocity.
Thanks to his mechanical change, Wright’s ceiling is still extremely high. It’s just a matter of putting it along together and with pitching savant Josh Tomlin only a text away, there’s a rather high possibility he lives up to his potential. The dreams of him fronting an All-Worlds rotation may have vanished, but I would bet on him being an above-average hurler going forward.
He was trusted with yesterday’s Game 3 start against a surprisingly strong Marlins offense. Wright dominated Miami over shutout six frames, permitting only three hits. During his start, it was evident his regular-season adjustment transitioned to his postseason outing; he was clearly pitching from the left side of the rubber.
Here’s to hoping that he’ll turn out all-Wright.
Opening Image by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images