In his third game after getting promoted to double-A Reading in 2016, Scott Kingery went 3-for-4 with a home run and three runs scored. Dusty Wathan might have been quoting directly from his report that night when he recently recalled his first impression of the young second baseman.
“He was kind of the total package,” Wathan said by phone.
Wathan was managing Reading then. A year later, he managed triple-A Lehigh Valley. And for the last three seasons, he has been the Phillies’ third-base coach. It’s doubtful that anyone in the organization has seen Kingery play more often in the last five years.
It seems, then, that Wathan is the perfect person to answer a difficult question: How can a prospect who turned so many heads in the minor leagues be statistically one of the worst players in the majors since 2018?
“I think it’s a couple of things,” Wathan said by phone. “A lot of people look at his contract. But really it was a tough start to his career because here’s a guy that’s played second base his whole life and now we’re asking him to play all over the place. It’s really difficult.
“It takes a while to establish yourself sometimes in the major leagues. All of those things have led to Scotty not being able to establish himself yet as an everyday major league player. But I think we’re going to see it. I think Scotty’s going to have a big year.”
Wathan isn’t alone in that belief. After the Phillies’ first full-squad workout Monday in Clearwater, Fla., manager Joe Girardi noted that Kingery “looks great,” having dropped nearly 15 pounds in the offseason, and is primed to compete with Roman Quinn and Adam Haseley for the center-field job.
There will be plenty of time for that. Let’s back up to the factors that have contributed, to varying degrees, to Kingery’s profound struggles: a long-term contract signed before he played a major-league game, an adjustment to a utility role as a rookie, a swing that got wildly out of whack, and an illness- and injury-filled summer last year.
Kingery, 26, batted .292 with 36 doubles, 28 homers, and an .826 OPS in 169 games in double-A and triple-A in 2016-17. Wathan recalled him lining doubles to all fields while possessing the strength in his 5-foot-9 frame to power the ball over the fence without consciously trying.
After a torrid spring training in 2018, Kingery signed a six-year, $28 million contract and made the opening-day roster. Since then, 193 position players have appeared in at least 250 big-league games. Kingery is 182nd in OPS (.677) and tied for 174th in wins above replacement (1.0).
“I think Scotty’s put a lot of pressure on himself, wanting to earn the money that he was given,” Wathan said. “I think he wanted to live up to the contract that they gave him from the get-go.”
It didn’t help that the Phillies had Kingery play six positions as a rookie. He reprised the utility role in 2019, gaining more experience in center field, and took to it more easily. After slashing .226/.267/.338 with eight homers in 484 plate appearances as a rookie, he improved to .258/.315/.474 with 19 home runs in 500 plate appearances.
Last year, the Phillies finally pegged Kingery for an everyday role at second base, his natural position. But he got COVID-19 in June, reported late to summer camp, began the season in a 4-for-40 tailspin, and went back to a utility role. By the time he was sidelined by back and shoulder injuries at the end of August, he was batting .127 with a .367 OPS.
“I’m not going to make any excuses for him, but [COVID-19] is real,” hitting coach Joe Dillon said recently. “The guy in spring training 1.0 [in March] and then the guy that showed up for spring training 2.0, it was two different guys, physically.”
But even if the Phillies flush Kingery’s 2020, they still haven’t seen the player who was expected to be a core member of their next contending team. For one thing, his swing became a long uppercut with enough holes that he has struck out once every 3.6 plate appearances in the majors.
“Back in the minors, it was very consistent and that’s something that has been a problem for me for the past couple years,” Kingery said last year. “There’s been stretches of two weeks, three series where my swing feels amazing. The thing I’m trying to figure out is, what can I do and how can I prepare to be consistent even if I am struggling.”
Although Girardi said the idea of trimming down this winter was Kingery’s, not the team’s, the Phillies hope that being less bulked up could help yield what Dillon described as a “compact, explosive” swing.
“That’s a focus of ours – gap to gap, line drives all over the place,” Girardi said. “He’s strong enough and has enough power, he’s going to run into home runs. He’s just going to run into them. We need him on base and causing havoc and being the player that he’s capable of being.”
As Wathan called it, the total package.
“Once you’ve seen something like that you know it’s in there and you want to fight with everything you can to get it out of him, not only for the Phillies’ sake but for Scott Kingery’s sake,” Wathan said. “Once you see it click a little bit, it could be really special.”
The Phillies are still waiting to unlock it.