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Scott Kingery is trying to win the Phillies’ center-field job amid strikeouts and swing changes

Once regarded as a key piece of the Phillies' future core, Kingery is fighting to recapture his potential while maintaining a spot on the roster.

Scott Kingery is searching for the swing that produced big numbers in the minors and made him the Phillies' top prospect in 2017.
Scott Kingery is searching for the swing that produced big numbers in the minors and made him the Phillies' top prospect in 2017.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Every morning, Scott Kingery grabs a bat and goes to work with Phillies hitting coach Joe Dillon. But Dillon changed it up last Wednesday. Instead of their usual routine, he introduced swing drills to help shake Kingery from a slump that is suffocating his bid for the center-field job and perhaps endangering even his spot on the opening-day roster.

The next day, on the first pitch of his first at-bat — against New York Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, no less — Kingery drove a 96-mph fastball over the center fielder’s head for a double.

“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s that easy, huh?’” Kingery said the other day.

Kingery paused. He chuckled. If he has learned anything over the last three years, it’s that nothing in baseball is easy.

The double against Cole was Kingery’s last hit. Since then, he’s 0-for-12 with a sacrifice bunt, one walk, and five strikeouts, dropping his spring-training average to .111. In 30 plate appearances, he has struck out 12 times.

This isn’t what Phillies officials envisioned. They hoped that Kingery — or 2017 first-round pick Adam Haseley, or fleet-footed Roman Quinn, or even former All-Star Odúbel Herrera — would rise up and seize the job. But Haseley is out with a groin strain, and Quinn is still striking out too often. Herrera, 7-for-26 (.269) with three home runs and an .885 OPS, has impressed in spurts.

And Kingery? To hear him tell it, he’s merely trying to rediscover the hitter who won the Pac-12 batting title in college and hit .304 with 29 doubles, 26 homers, and an .889 OPS between double A and triple A in 2017.

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“Back then it was just, play baseball. Get on the field and play,” said Kingery, who will turn 27 next month. “Some things can take you away from that. Sometimes it’s tough to get back to where you’re just out there playing baseball the way you know how to.”

It has been a while since Kingery could just play ball. He admits now to feeling pressure in 2018 to live up to signing a six-year, $24 million contract before his major-league debut and struggling with bouncing among five positions. He had a strong first half in 2019 but went into a tailspin after the All-Star break. Last year, he coped with aftereffects of COVID-19, which preceded back and shoulder issues that conspired to cost him the second-base job.

And somewhere in the middle it all, he lost track of the player he was supposed to be.

Drafted out of Arizona in the second round in 2015, Kingery came up as an athletic second baseman who hit line drives from gap to gap and made things happen with his speed. One National League scout who saw him in the minors recently recalled writing a report that compared him to Dustin Pedroia.

But Kingery underwent a transformation after reaching the majors. He bulked up, gaining weight and muscle perhaps at the expense of speed. He altered his mindset and swing mechanics to launch more balls in the air. He traces the roots of that change to the low minors, where he was told he hit too many ground balls. But his swing really lengthened out in the big leagues.

The result: a Frankenstein’s monster who struck out in 27.8% of his plate appearances from 2018 to 2020, the 12th-highest rate among 164 players with at least 1,000 plate appearances in that span. In three seasons, he’s a .233 hitter with a .284 on-base percentage and .677 OPS.

“When I was in high A, I was hitting a lot of ground balls, so I started working to get a flatter [swing] path,” Kingery said. “From there, it just kept going backwards to where I was scooping under the ball a little bit. Now, it’s all about getting back to finding the flat path and one that allows me to stay in the zone long and really just hit line drives all over the field.”

That’s what the morning sessions with Dillon are about. Kingery, leaner and nearly 15 pounds lighter than last season, said the new drills force him to “overcorrect” in search of a more level swing.

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“He’s a small, compact, powerful, explosive guy,” Dillon said by phone in the offseason. “I think having a small, compact, explosive swing would bode well for him.”

Dillon keeps telling Kingery to be patient, that it takes time to break down a swing and put it back together. It begins in the cage, then carries into batting practice and finally games. Dillon’s voice echoes in Kingery’s head: “It’s not going to show up right away. It’s a process.”

And that would be cool with Kingery except that he’s simultaneously competing for the only vacancy in the Phillies’ lineup. Each 0-fer is magnified, especially measured against a better game for one of the other candidates.

“It’s hard to block that stuff out,” Kingery said. “But something I’ve realized is, the more I’m thinking when I’m in the box, the harder it is for me to hit. I haven’t thought too much about what’s going on other than how I can put myself in the best position to win a starting job. The more I focus on that stuff, the less I think about the competition and what’s going to happen.”

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If Kingery doesn’t rally in the next 10 days and win the center-field race, it’s likely he will revert to a bench role. But he also has options and wouldn’t need to clear waivers to be sent down. The Phillies might be tempted to do it. Steady at-bats at the Lehigh Valley alternate site could be what he needs.

Kingery might be spared a demotion, though, because of injuries to utilityman Brad Miller (oblique) and reserve outfielder Matt Joyce (hamstring).

Regardless, Kingery keeps working. He also takes the occasional peek at video from 2017 and wonders how he can become that player again.

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“I’ve looked back and thought: What was I doing then that was allowing me to have that much success?” Kingery said. “I try to just see what the main points were of my swing and how I can get back to that. The more I keep looking at it, the more it’s just I was letting my athleticism take over.

“It takes a while, I think, to figure out what’s going to work for you. 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.”

If that player is ever going to reappear, now would be a good time.

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