All Matt Wright does is throw strikes

October 29, 2007

By Conor Nicholl / MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Royals’ management and Team USA officials reached the same conclusion on Matt Wright: He throws strikes.

The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Wright isn’t overpowering and doesn’t have one dominant pitch. He isn’t advanced as Royals’ pitching prospects Luke Hochevar or Billy Buckner nor matches the pure stuff of other national team starters.

But he consistently pounds the strike zone.

Used as a starter and reliever at Triple-A Omaha this season, Wright finished with a 10-5 record and 4.06 ERA, seventh in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League. In his first full season of Triple-A, Wright walked just 40 batters in 137 1/3 innings, one of the top marks among PCL starters.

He will likely contend for a spot on the Major League roster in 2008 or 2009. J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ director of player development, said Wright “quietly had a very good year.”

“He made strides and was a very consistent performer,” Picollo said. “Command is so much of what we preach. He has a chance to be a starter or long reliever at the Major League level.”

Wright, a late addition to Team USA, has also become one of the national team’s top starters. In two appearances against Arizona Fall League opponents, Wright has allowed three runs in seven innings (3.86 ERA). He has covered 21 outs in an impressive 79 pitches, including 55 strikes – good for an excellent 70 percent rate.

“He is a strike thrower,” Team USA pitching coach Marcel Lachemann said.

One year ago, Wright was a different pitcher and far from Team USA’s radar. Wright, signed and drafted by the Braves, posted a 10-8 record at two levels, including a 3-5 record and 5.59 ERA at Triple-A Richmond. Wright, a sixth-year Minor League free agent, wasn’t placed on the 40-man roster and signed with the Royals.

He instantly became a better pitcher and impressed KC’s staff.

Bob McClure, the Royals’ pitching coach, is a former instructor in the Rockies’ organization. He started to send Lachemann, a special assistant in Colorado, reports on Wright during Spring Training.

“It was kind of a quick thing,” Lachemann said. “Mac said he threw strikes.”

That’s what Wright did the entire year for the O-Royals. Wright joined Omaha’s rotation in late April and posted a 3.10 ERA over the first two months of the season. Wright became a consistent starter: Only four times in 28 appearances (21 starts) did he allow more than three earned runs.

“He is one of those guys who doesn’t get down when he is having a rough day,” Royals’ pitcher and Team USA teammate Neal Musser said. “He stays out there and battles and will eat up some innings for you. That is what you want out of the starting rotation. You don’t want to be that guy who once every five days the bullpen knows that they will get some work in a little more than they want to.

He does a great job and goes out there and battles every game and gives your team a good chance to win.”

Wright’s control improved tremendously. At Richmond, Wright walked 29 batters in 48 1/3 innings.

This season, helped by Triple-A pitching coach Tom Burgmeier, Wright improved his changeup and walked 29 in his first 110 innings.

The pitch also was a factor against left-handed hitters. In 2006, lefties batted .366 in 93 at-bats at Richmond. A year later, that number was lowered to .270.

“He has always had a good curveball,” Picollo said. “That is his best off-speed pitch. The changeup gave him another pitch to left-handers.”

“We worked on throwing off-speed and working on my changeup a little bit whenever hitters are in their count and in their favor,” Wright added. “Something to get them off my fastball. … I am more consistent with it and throw it more in the strike zone. A year ago, I might have thrown it and it may have been out of the strike zone and hitters wouldn’t swing at it.”

In late summer, Wright was told he had a chance to play for the national team. However, Wright didn’t make the original 24-man roster and headed to the Dominican for winter ball.

But he negotiated an out-clause in his contract. If Team USA called, Wright was headed back to the United States. Ten days before the national team started workouts, Wright received a call from Paul Seiler, the executive director for USA Baseball.

The national team had an opening.

“I told Matt the situation and he said, ‘Okay, I’m at the first plane out of here,” Seiler recalled. “For a guy to already take pride in his country before he already knows it or touched it in a real tangible sense, it just tells you something about makeup and character.”

“It is almost to the point where if the guy was any good, you want people like that as part of your program because they understand what it is all about,” Seiler added.

Wright has been plenty good – he started Team USA’s first game against the Peoria Javelinas last Thursday and impressed Lachemann with his changeup and command. Four days later, he permitted two runs in four efficient innings against the Scottsdale Scorpions.

Wright pounded the strike zone with his 88-91 mile an hour fastball, curve and change. No at-bat encapsulated Wright’s maturation more than a first-inning meeting with Travis Snider, a Blue Jays’ prospect. Snider, a left-handed hitter, carries a .375 average in the Arizona Fall League and is one of baseball’s top young hitters.

With a runner on first and one out, Wright threw a 1-0 changeup to Snider. He grounded into a 1-6-3 inning-ending double play.

“I am getting more comfortable with [the changeup] being a contact pitch where I want guys to hit it,” Wright said. “That is what that pitch is designed for, to get guys out in front and get them to roll over and get outs with it. It’s something that I am trying to carry over to Team USA and Taiwan and hopefully it will work next season.”

Overall, Wright covered four innings in just 35 pitches, including 27 strikes. Only four batters saw more than two pitches.

“I threw strikes and got ahead of hitters,” Wright said.

Just like he has all season.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com.