- Gabriel Burns
Kyle Wright, who fell in love with baseball watching the 90’s Braves, intends to help restore the franchise’s lost success.
In due time, of course.
Wright, 22, was selected out of Vanderbilt with the fifth overall pick in last June’s draft. The Huntsville, Alabama native finished his three-season Vanderbilt career with a 2.78 ERA, 290 strikeouts and a 19-11 record across 255-1/3 innings (35 starts, 26 relief appearances).
The right-hander started his final year as a Commodore with mixed results, but went on to showcase the ability that once had him penciled in as the No. 1 overall pick. He pitched a three-hit, 13-strikeout shutout against Florida on April 14 and took off from there.
In the NCAA regionals, the first-team All-SEC pitcher threw 114 pitches across seven innings, helping Vanderbilt eliminate Clemson. It was his final start before the Braves drafted him.
Wright signed with his childhood favorite team for a then-record $7 million bonus ($2 million above slot value) and was introduced at SunTrust Park on June 16.
“I’m the same person, same player,” Wright said in November, looking back on that day. “I’ve just learned more about pro ball, the adjustments you have to make from college to pro. The main one is the five-day rotation I’ve had to learn more about. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from this staff and other players as well. So that’s really the main thing that’s changed. As a person, I feel the same as I did before I got drafted.”
Due to a heavy college workload, Wright only pitched 17 innings in the Braves’ system. He pitched five innings in the Gulf Coast League, then made 11 starts with the Class-A Florida Fire Frogs.
“We took it easy to finish out the year, so I was a fan of that,” Wright said. “I wanted to be careful with it, ease my way into the rotation. I feel good, pretty fresh.”
Wright’s repertoire gives reason to believe he’s an emerging ace. He has an easy, comfortable delivery by the estimation of most scouts. His fastball sits in the low-to-mid 90’s and has topped out at 97 miles per hour. He boasts a better than average curveball and slider, though a developing changeup is what he’s deemed the focus of his offseason.
“I think for me, it’s continuing to grow the changeup,” he said. “That’s the big pitch for me. Just being able to consistently throw for strikes in different counts is I guess the main focus.”
Among Wright’s strengths are the attention to detail and willingness to learn. Wright has sought the tutelage of other Vanderbilt-turned-MLB pitchers, including Sonny Gray, David Price and Mike Minor.
“When I was in school, they’d come back and workout at Vanderbilt,” he said. “The cool thing about them is that they’re not going to come up and push something on you, but if you have a question for them, they’ll gladly answer it. I’ve talked to some of those guys a good bit. Sonny probably the most. But David’s always been there. He’s a great guy. Mike Minor is a great guy. It’s kind of cool to have those guys while I was at school.”
Wright’s curiosity isn’t an acquired taste. Baseball, and specifically the Braves, captivated Wright at an early age.
“We would be watching the Braves together on TV and I would just scratch my head,” Roger Wright, Kyle’s father, told The Post and Courier last June. “Kyle would pick out these small details: the pitches the pitchers threw, the positioning of outfielders. Things someone that age just shouldn’t notice.”
In 17 minor league innings, Wright learned that A-level hitters are a bit more restrained than those in college.
“I’d say probably that guys don’t chase as much in the dirt, 0-2 (count), breaking balls in the dirt,” he said. “Guys now check off a little bit, whereas guys there sometimes may not necessarily be able to check their swing. So that could just be difference in strength between college and pro or skill in general. Probably a little bit of both.”
Wright was one of nine pitching prospects to participate in an organizational 10-day camp at SunTrust Park in early November. The prospects worked with major league coaches and trainers, and also spoke with former Braves pitcher Tom Glavine. The team organized the event as an extra means to prepare its prospects for life in the majors.
“I think it’s awesome,” Wright said. “I’ve really enjoyed this week that we’ve gotten here. This place is unbelievable. Everything is nice. They have just about everything you could possibly want or need. It’s a little bit surreal being here and working out and following the staff with these other guys. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Wright will be working out at Vanderbilt until spring training. He’s likely to start the 2018 season with Double-A Mississippi, though he said he’s received no indication yet.
But seeing the 21-year-old Luiz Gohara, the 20-year-old Ozzie Albies and other ripe prospects make early major league debuts motivates Wright. If all goes well, he could crack the majors late next year or opening day 2019.
“I think it’s very encouraging,” Wright said. “Me and the rest of the guys here, it gives us a goal that’s probably closer than we could maybe think. So it keeps us on our toes and helps us inch to becoming better and better.
“We’re going to try to get as good as possible and help the Braves win.”