On Mike Wright: A PITCHf/x Analysis
Yesterday Mike Wright made his MLB debut with a dazzling performance that helped right the O’s proverbial ship during an early season lull. His performance was, if one only looks at the results, spectacular. He pitched eight innings allowing just four hits, five total bases, and zero runs of any sort while striking out six Angels. He played the role of the stopper, and did so with an appropriate display of skill and aplomb.
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Wright’s final line though serves as a facade for what was, in may ways, a concerning display of command from the prospect. That isn’t to say that Wright isn’t going to be a good major leaguer, or that he can’t play a role on a good O’s team. It’s simply to say that the reasons he was still in Triple-A a week ago are now fairly clear, despite having just 90 pitches on which to judge him. Before we dig too deep into what Wright was and wasn’t yesterday though, let’s first consider what we knew about him up until now.
Mike Wright was considered to be a decent prospect coming into the season, routinely making the middle-ish portion of various O’s Top 10 prospect lists. Wright was ranked 7th by Baseball Prospectus and MLB.com, and 8th by Baseball America and Fangraphs. Here was BP’s take on Wright coming in to the 2015 season, with my emphasis in bold:
Wright is all but likely to return to Triple-A to start 2015 and will look to prove his final month of the season was more the norm than an anomaly against quality competition. This large right-hander offers promise as a workhorse starter, who can take the ball every fifth day and give the ball club more good performances than bad. The 24-year-old’s bread-and-butter is a heavy low-90s fastball with which he likes to aggressively pound the zone. The pitcher isn’t afraid to come right after hitters and understands the value of getting ahead in sequences. Wright’s strike throwing ability can be both a strength and a weakness, however. When the righty is consistently snapping off his slider in the mid-80s while mixing the changeup in sequences, there’s enough to miss bats. The slider plays down with some frequency, mostly spinning and sweeping into the zone, which leaves the changeup and fastball prone to a lot of contact given their around-the-plate nature. The pressure of churning through lineups may ultimately be too much for this arm’s stuff, but a rebound in the International League this season will at the very least get the player a call to The Show in some capacity sometime this summer.
According to pretty much all of the major prospect sites, Wright’s likely future was as a backend starter or late inning reliever. His most laudable trait as a starter is his knack for eating innings, but his less than elite stuff might hinder his ability to be much more than that.
Now the Wright we saw yesterday doesn’t quite match the one described above. BP noted that Wright typically sat in the 91-93 mph range last season, but we saw that he was pumping quite a bit more velocity than that. He even showed the ability to maintain that velocity into the late innings of his start. All of his scouting grades hovered in the 40-55 range, but it’s safe to say that if he is able to maintain yesterday’s velocity that his fastball grade could get a bump.
There’s some noise in the data, but Wright’s fastball ranged from 91.4 mph to 99.7 yesterday. That range gets even larger if you include his sinker, which ranged from 88.7 mph to 98.6 mph. The average velocity for those two pitches was 96.2 mph and 93.3 mph respectively.
Wright threw his fourseam fastball about 56% of the time, and his sinker 17% of the time in yesterday’s game. He also threw his change up and slider 12% of the time each, and mixed in a few curves at 3%. Wright’s non-fastballs will be a crucial component of his success, so they’re worth looking at in a little more depth.
Wright’s curveball is essentially a show-me pitch, ranging from about 70 mph to just over 75 mph, something he uses largely as a change of speed for opposing hitters. In that way his curveball, which can be as much as 30 mph slower than his fastball, works almost eephus-like to throw opposing hitters off. The changeup is better than the curve, but not by much. It lacks fade, and it didn’t even have as much “drop” or vertical break as his sinker. His slider on the other hand looks like a solid average pitch, if not slightly better. It has a good velocity differential off the fastballs, and the movement is decent enough considering the pitch comes in between 85 and 90 mph.
The repertoire will play for Wright, though he’ll want to work on the change a bit to help him get opposite-handed hitters out. The velocity on the pitch is solid, around 82 mph, but the pitch could use some more fade or drop. Ideally he’d throw the slider a bit more, even to left-handed hitters, but one can’t really complain when he’s throwing 70% fastballs about how the other 30% of pitches are broken up.
My real concerns with Wright come from two things. First his command and location, and second his pitch selection. Let’s start with an example of how his command yesterday worked out, but doesn’t bode well for the future. Wright’s first career strikeout was of Mike Trout in the first inning, an accomplishment, no doubt. Here were the pitches he threw to Trout:
Trout’s 1st Inning PA
You’ll notice that all of Wright’s five pitches to Trout were up. All five were fastballs ranging from 97 to 99.74 mph. The problem is that two of those pitches were VERY easy takes, and the other three were all up and over the middle of the plate. Wright got the strikeout here, but is lucky Trout didn’t deposit one of these heaters into the bullpens.
Wright worked up for most of the game. Sometimes this was intentional, as it was on his strikeout of David Freese in the 2nd inning, but mostly it was just where Wright pitched. Take a look at his zone breakdown from yesterday’s start:
The vast majority of Wright’s pitches were in the middle of the zone vertically, or above. In fact, two of Wright’s pitches AVERAGED more than 6 inches above the middle of the strikezone in yesterday’s game. His fastball came in 9 inches above the middle of the zone on average, and his slider was more than 11 inches above the center of the zone. Now Wright did a good job of keeping his curveball and change up down, but he could stand to benefit from bringing down his slider and sinker below the midpoint of the zone. The fastball will play up in the zone, but the other pitches will get crushed if left up too often.
The other issue is pitch selection. Wright likes to pitch backward, which makes a lot of sense, given his repertoire. In the second inning plate appearance against Erick Aybar, Wright went:
Curveball (69) – Ball
Change Up (79) – Called Strike
Sinker (92) – Foul
Sinker (94) – Ball
Sinker (93) – Foul
Change Up (79) – GB to Davis
Wright started Aybar off with a super slow curve, and followed it with a change up. Luckily the change was a strike, and Wright was able to get the count back to even. If it had been a ball, he would’ve been down 2-0 needing to hit more of the zone with subsequent pitches in order to avoid walking him.
Wright ran into the same issue later in the game, this time facing Johnny Giovatella in the fourth:
Change Up (80) – Ball
Slider (83) – Ball
Sinker (93) – Called Strike
Sinker (89) – Foul
Slider (89) – Swinging Strike (K)
Wright would have a similar approach to Giovatella in the 7th. He pitched backwards to many of the Angels’ lesser hitters including Giovatella (twice), Freese (twice), Aybar (twice), Joyce, and Calhoun. Now this approach isn’t wrong or bad, but it’s interesting that the Angels’ better hitters (Trout, Pujols, etc.) saw mainly fastballs, and definitely fastballs early in the count. Perhaps this is part of Wright’s strategy, but it seems interesting to work so hard to get the weaker hitters out.
My thought here is that Wright should pound low in the zone with sinkers against the likes of Giovatella and Freese, while giving Trout and Pujols more to think about. Maybe that will come in time, but Wright threw a high number of pitches to the Angels’ 4,5,6, and 7 hitters; a result of the early balls he threw when facing those hitters.
Now, to be fair, just 3 of the 24 pitches seen by the 8 and 9 hitters were non-fastballs. So perhaps this is just an interesting nuance from a one-game sample, that’ll be something to watch moving forward.
As for Wright’s final role? Well, I think that with some minor tweaks he could easily be a rotation arm for the O’s. He needs to get his command under control and continue working on his secondaries if that’s the case. A more realistic home for him is probably the bullpen, but I think he’d be stellar in that role. His fastball would carry him and the secondaries would be good enough to excel in a late inning role. We can hope for more out of Wright, but that’s actually a pretty good outcome from a 7/8 prospect in a pretty weak system.
Mike Wright was spectacular against the Angels, but I don’t think he’ll be able to replicate that sort of success without some tweaks to his approach. Maybe the O’s lucked into a dominant starter that nobody expected to be great. The reality though is that they probably just got a good start out of a power arm that the Angels didn’t get a chance to scout properly. And hey, that’s exactly what they needed yesterday.