By jordan shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer
as the braves marched into 2022 on their quest to repeat as World Series champs, much of the focus was on two storylines: 1) Atlanta’s decision to let franchise icon Freddie Freeman walk in free agency in favor of trading for fellow first-base star matt olson; and 2) superstar Ronald Acuna Jr.‘s much-anticipated return from his ACL injury.
Historically, it’s not uncommon for World Series champions to bring back a relatively high percentage of their rosters compared to those teams that come up short of the title. Opting not to retain the face of the World Series team was quite the bold choice for GM Alex Anthopoulos. Most of the Braves’ other familiar faces remain in place, however, ready to defend their crown. That includes Acuña Jr., who has returned even earlier than originally expected and is surely eager to contribute after not being able to participate in the postseason last year.
With Freeman gone, Acuña Jr. will likely emerge as the face of this Braves team, even as Olson has gotten off to a scorching start in Freeman’s place. On the pitching side, however, the biggest development for Atlanta has been the emergence of someone who threw only 6⅓ innings for the champs during the 2021 regular season: 26-year-old right-hander Kyle Wrightwho will start for the Braves on Thursday in Acuña’s first game back.
Though not a completely fresh face like Olson or Atlanta’s other biggest offseason acquisition, kenley jansenWright is finally starting to look like the ace the Braves envisioned when they selected him fifth overall in the 2017 draft.
We got a glimpse of what was possible last October, when Wright delivered one of the most impressive relief outings in World Series history to help the Braves win Game 4. Still, even after his impressive Fall Classic cameo, Wright was not a player, most fans or analysts were factoring into the team’s effort to repeat. It likely seemed he would enter spring training with a good chance to win the fourth or fifth starter spot behind Max Fried, charlie morton and Ian Anderson. But this? Wright looking like one of the best pitchers in baseball? That was not on the radar for anyone.
Before his unlikely postseason heroism, Wright spent nearly all of 2021 in Triple-A refining his repertoire and mechanics. He had posted a 6.56 ERA through his first 70 big-league innings — a far cry from what would be expected from a pitcher of his prospective pedigree.
So what has changed?
Repertoire-wise, Wright has started to lean much more heavily on his curveball, something he worked on extensively in the second half of 2021 and even flashed in his relief outing in the World Series. In Game 4, 29 of Wright’s 75 pitches (39%) were curveballs, which was something of a sneak-peek into how his arsenal would be deployed this season. After only accounting for about 13% of Wright’s pitches before this season, 34% of the right-hander’s offerings in 2022 have been curveballs, and the pitch’s velocity is up about 4 mph on average as well.
Mechanics-wise, Wright has dramatically lowered his arm slot. His vertical release point averages 5.29 feet, significantly down from the 5.9 mark he was at in 2020. With this lower arm slot has also come greater extension, or, how far down the mound a pitcher gets before releasing the pitch. Wright’s extension, which had plateaued at 5.9 feet in 2019, is now up to 6.6 feet in 2022, comfortably above league-average.
The results have been staggering: a 1.06 ERA through 17 innings with 26 strikeouts and just two walks. The tweaks may seem minor, but they sure have worked wonders.
We are often far too quick to cast off prospects who struggle to stick in the big leagues immediately because we have such high expectations, especially for those selected at the top of the draft. But development takes time, and there are so many circumstances that can impact a player’s ability to find success at the MLB level no matter how talented he is.
We need look no further than two other pitchers off to exceptional starts this season — Kevin Gaussman and Carlos Rodon — to realize that Wright’s possible breakout is hardly behind schedule. Both Gausman (fourth overall pick in 2012) and Rodón (third overall pick in 2014) were the first college pitchers selected in their respective drafts. We know them now to be frontline aces on postseason contenders, but it took a while. They each made their first career All-Star Game in 2021; that was Gausman’s eighth full season in the big leagues and Rodón’s seventh. Even Aaron Nola (seventh overall pick in 2014) and Gerrit Cole (first overall pick in 2011) took a few seasons before they became All-Stars.
All of those pitchers had significantly more MLB starts before their breakouts occurred than Wright had coming into this season. If Wright maintains this level of performance and earns a trip to the 2022 All-Star Game, he’d arguably be ahead of schedule.
For the Braves, all that matters is that Wright is delivering here and now. They obviously managed to do great things over the past few seasons without him as a primary contributor. But a full-blown breakout from Wright in 2022 would surely be welcomed, especially as the Braves try to keep pace in a division that should be much more competitive than it was a year ago.
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He lives in DC but is a huge Seattle Mariners fan and loves watching the KBO, which means he doesn’t get a lot of sleep. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.
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