Scott Kingery was in the majors for nearly four weeks earlier this season, but he started just two games. He spent the offseason reworking his swing after the Phillies wanted him to hit line drives the way he did when they gave him $24 million before his first big-league at-bat.
But those adjustments came along slower than expected. He started 70% of the team’s games over the last three seasons, but he was a deep reserve this April and May. The Phillies tried to fine-tune his swing in the batting cages and in practice games during the afternoon, but there was no way to replicate the real thing.
Sitting on the bench for nearly a month — Kingery totaled 19 at-bats over 15 games — was not helping his swing.
So Kingery, once expected to be a cornerstone of the next great Phillies team, became open to the idea of being sent to triple A. But simply being sent to the minors was not sufficient; Kingery knew he could still be shuffled back to the majors and sit on the bench while his swing remained stagnant. He knew he needed to be designated for assignment if he was going to play consistently at triple A.
It’s usually a crushing blow, but for Kingery being designated for assignment was a welcome transaction.
“The whole time it was in my head: If I go down there it’s not the end of the world. If I get DFA’d, they can’t call me back up. I’m off the 40-man roster,” Kingery said Friday afternoon. “Regardless of what happens, I’ll be able to stay here and have some consistent at-bats and playing time. In my head, I’m like ‘That’s what I need. At this moment, what I need is to play every single day and get consistent at-bats.’ So I think it was a positive thing.”
Kingery was designated for assignment three weeks ago and the contract he signed before the 2018 season assured that he would clear waivers. He’s playing every day for the IronPigs, receiving the consistent at-bats he said he needed, and trying to find the swing that made him one of baseball’s premier prospects.
He entered Saturday with just 13 hits in 69 at-bats with 12 walks and 26 strikeouts since returning to triple A. Progress remains slow, but the Phillies are comfortable with giving Kingery the time he needs to fix his swing. Now that he’s off the 40-man roster, there’s no rush to get him back to the big leagues.
“I’m trying to get back to myself,” Kingery said,
“To be honest, when people talk about swing changes, I think it’s very, very minimal things that you’re trying to change, but they make a big difference. Sometimes it’s just taking consistent at-bats and really figuring out based on a swing and making adjustments in the next at-bat that really help you. Right now, I think every at-bat is getting better. I think it’s really close.”
It’s hard to determine what went wrong for Kingery. There was the pressures of the contract, the handling of playing multiple positions, and the swing changes as Kingery struggled to hit major-league pitching.
He has a .229 average in 1,042 major-league at-bats and an OPS (.667) that’s 25% below league average. He hit .304 with 26 homers as a minor-leaguer in 2017 and was in the majors the next year as one of the team’s highest-paid players.
“You would think that it would have the opposite effect where you can kind of relax and just play baseball,” Kingery said of his six-year contract. “But I’m the kind of guy who wants to prove that the contract was the right call and I was given it because I can live up to it. That’s something that’s always in the back of your mind. You try not to think about it. It was an unprecedented deal and it’s something that’s always in the back of your head.”
He played primarily second base in the minors after being drafted in the second round in 2015, but Gabe Kapler and Matt Klentak wanted to use Kingery in a super-utility role as a rookie. He started just two games that season at second base and played seven of the nine positions. The majority of his time came at shortstop, a position he played for just 18 innings in the minors.
As a rookie, Kingery was not only adjusting to major-league pitching but learning how to play new positions, all while dealing with the pressures of a contract that was the richest for a player who had never reached the majors. The year, Kingery said, “was a little bit crazy.”
“I don’t think it necessarily changed my swing or anything, but I think at points my mind was racing so much trying to figure out ‘OK. Where do I need to be in this situation? Where do I need to be if the ball goes here? How do I cover a base here?’ It’s just all that stuff goes around in your mind when you’re playing a position that you’re not too comfortable at,” Kingery said.
“You’re never really getting into that comfortable routine of showing up to the field and knowing where you’re playing and not even having to look at the lineup. That’s one of the things I think that’s underrated in baseball. You know you’re going to be in the lineup regardless of what happened the night before, you know where you’re going to be playing, and it’s just one thing you’re focused on. I think the more simple you make things, the better you are.”
When Kingery returns to the majors, he says he does not care what position he plays. He just hopes it’s in the same spot for an extended stretch. Kingery now has enough experience at several positions to feel comfortable.
And when he returns to the majors, he hopes to return not only with a new swing but a new mindset. He beat himself up, Kingery said, over every result and took “every at-bat to heart.” Going to the minors refreshed him. And now he just needs the results to show.
“One good at-bat is not going to change anything,” Kingery said. “One bad at-bat isn’t going to change anything. For me, it’s just to get back to myself and playing baseball. Let things work themselves out.
“Baseball is a game of failure, so it’s not always going to feel good. That wasn’t the first time that I felt like that. There’s been times in my career where I went through a little cold streak and you beat yourself up. I’ve been pretty good at being able to flush it and move on to the next day.”