For weeks, Scott Kingery tried to fix his wayward swing while also competing in a four-way race to be the Phillies’ everyday center fielder.
In the end, he did neither.
The Phillies optioned Kingery to minor-league camp Sunday and informed nonroster utility infielder Ronald Torreyes that he will make the team, a decision that seemed increasingly likely over the last 10 days as Kingery’s strikeouts piled up and he slipped further behind in the center-field derby.
But the announcement still rippled through the organization because of how far the 26-year-old former top prospect has fallen. Even manager Joe Girardi seemed to struggle to reconcile Kingery’s potential with what he saw in spring training.
“I have a lot of belief in Scott Kingery. I really do,” Girardi said. “We’re just trying to get him back to where he’s a line-drive doubles hitter that runs into some home runs and uses the whole field. It’s creating habits, creating the swing path that he wants to get him back to where he was a couple years ago.”
Three years ago, to be specific, Kingery forced his way on to the opening-day roster by hitting .411 in spring training and accepting the Phillies’ six-year, $24 million contract offer before he played in a major-league game. He won a batting title in college at the University of Arizona and dominated the high minors. Scouts compared him to Dustin Pedroia. It seemed just a matter of time before he became the Phillies’ everyday second baseman.
But Kingery was thrust into a utility role as a rookie, playing almost every position other than his natural second base. His swing began changing, too, becoming longer and more of an uppercut. He gained weight and added muscle, perhaps at the expense of his speed.
And save for the first half of the 2019 season, when he appeared poised for a breakout, Kingery hasn’t approached his potential. Among 132 players who have gotten at least 1,000 at-bats since 2018, Kingery is tied with Milwaukee’s Orlando Arcia for the worst on-base percentage (.284). He also ranks 125th in batting average (.233) and 129th in OPS (.677).
In a March 17 interview, Kingery admitted he occasionally peeks at video from his minor-league at-bats to identify how his swing has changed. He outlined his work with hitting coach Joe Dillon to “overcorrect” in search of a more level swing.
“It takes a while, I think, to figure out what’s going to work for you,” Kingery said. “There’s a little more pressure and the grind’s a little harder in the big leagues than the minors. But I think I’m closer this year than I have been in the past couple years to that player.”
There were reasons for Kingery’s struggles last season, when he batted .159 with a .511 OPS in 113 at-bats. He got sick with COVID-19 in June, reported a few days late to training camp in July, and dealt with back and shoulder injuries.
Kingery lost about 15 pounds in the offseason. He believes the work with Dillon is taking root, just not as quickly as he hoped. He thought he’d figured it out after belting a double off New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole on March 11, but he went more than a week before his next hit.
And Kingery needed to get results in exhibition games to keep up with center-field candidates Adam Haseley, Roman Quinn, and Odúbel Herrera. Instead, he went 7-for-44 (.159) with 19 strikeouts in 15 exhibition games.
With Kingery having lost the center-field job, the Phillies had to choose between giving him a spot on the bench or optioning him to the alternate training site in Lehigh Valley, where he could get regular at-bats and work through his swing changes in intrasquad games and exhibitions against the New York Yankees’ triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre club.
They opted for the latter, believing so much that the time away from the big-league spotlight will be good for Kingery that they will clear a 40-man roster spot for Torreyes, a Girardi favorite from having managed him with the Yankees in 2016-17.
“[Kingery] could earn his way back and be an everyday player somewhere. I believe that’s truly possible,” Girardi said. “When he puts the ball in play and he’s hitting the ball in the gaps he’s a dynamic player. There’s a lot of tools here. I believe he’s an All-Star. He gets back the way that he was hitting before, I believe he can be an All-Star.”
For now, though, Kingery is a minor leaguer again.