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Scott Kingery recounts ‘daily struggle’ to find swing during dismal rookie season for Phillies

"I feel like I've never picked up a bat before," said the 24-year-old infielder, who ranked as one of the worst hitters in the majors this season.

Scott Kingery struggled badly at the plate during his rookie season with the Phillies.
Scott Kingery struggled badly at the plate during his rookie season with the Phillies.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Once it finally ended, Scott Kingery was able to say what everyone plainly saw for the better part of six months. There were times during his rookie season when he felt utterly lost at the plate.

"To be honest," Kingery said after the 2018 Phillies played their final game, "I don't know what happened this year."

What happened, quite frankly, was that Kingery got chewed up by big-league pitchers. Of the 183 players who made at least 450 plate appearances, the 24-year-old infielder was 177th in slugging (.338), 179th in on-base percentage (.267), 180th in on-base plus slugging (.605), tied for 165th in walk percentage (5.0), and 21st in strikeout percentage (26.0). And what about weighted runs created plus and weighted on-base average, modern metrics preferred by the data-driven Phillies? Kingery ranked 180th in both.

Put another way, as Kingery said, "I feel like I've never picked up a bat before. There's days that felt like that."

It was a disappointing development for both the Phillies and their former top prospect, especially after a spring training in which he hit his way into a six-year, $24 million contract and onto the opening-day roster despite having played only half a season in triple A. And while it hardly disqualifies Kingery from eventually reaching his potential — plenty of players have gone on to solid careers after struggling through their first 500 or so at-bats — it does beg the question of why he was unable to shake the worst slump of his life.

Kingery has a few theories. For one, he believes the search for a solution caused him to tinker too much in the batting cage and lose what he calls his "natural swing." For another, his playing time got cut after the Phillies traded for Asdrubal Cabrera in late July, a move that Kingery concedes was prompted by his own struggles. With fewer consistent at-bats, it became more difficult to go on a hot streak.

Then there was the stress of trying to justify both the contract and the hype. Kingery said it was a "daily struggle to figure out my swing." And it couldn't have helped his self-confidence when manager Gabe Kapler lifted him for a pinch-hitter before his first at-bat of a Sept. 15 game at Citizens Bank Park.

"I just put too much pressure on myself, and it made me start thinking, 'All right, I need to do something to fix this,' " Kingery said. "When I did that, I dug too deep into my swing and started messing with things when I didn't need to. Then I changed my swing and it was constantly changing after that. I think the learning experience is to simplify everything. I think that the less you do, it can almost help you."

Time away from baseball might help, too. Kingery will take a few weeks off before getting back in the cage again. When he does, he likely will spend time working with Richard Schenck, a hitting guru based in St. Louis whose client list includes New York Yankees star Aaron Judge. Through Kingery's agent, David Matranga, Schenck declined to comment for this story.

Phillies coach John Mallee said he will be in touch with Schenck to oversee Kingery's offseason. Mallee gained a reputation of working well with young hitters in his previous jobs with the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs. But when he joined Kapler's staff with the Phillies, he brought a "selective aggressive" philosophy that involves a hitter's waiting for a pitch in his zone and jumping on it, regardless of the count.

Looking back, Mallee suggested that Kingery might have taken the selectivity to an extreme. In taking pitches early in at-bats, he fell behind to an 0-2 count in 153 of his 484 plate appearances, the highest percentage of any player in the majors. But in 31 plate appearances in which he jumped on the first pitch, he went 13-for-29 with three doubles and slugged .552.

"In the minor leagues, he could take strike one and not worry because he's going to get another pitch to hit in the at-bat, probably another fastball, so he was OK spotting the pitcher strike one," Mallee said by phone Wednesday. "He learned what selective-aggressive hitting truly is. It's not just taking pitches, which we don't talk ever about. It's about getting a pitch in your strength and being ready to attack it. And if it's there on pitch one, you go."

To Mallee, Kingery's approach was a bigger problem than his swing. And Kingery rejects the suggestion that his swing was adversely altered by a team-wide focus on lifting the ball, even though he had the second-highest launch angle (16.8 degrees) of any Phillies regular, behind slugger Rhys Hoskins (22.4), and was the team's third-highest extreme fly-ball hitter (40.8 percent), after Hoskins (51.7) and Carlos Santana (43.7).

"I don't think I've tried to put the ball in the air more. It's just happened," Kingery said. "I think there's a lot more high fastballs being thrown now than there was last year. If you don't get on top of those, they're going to turn into fly balls."

If anything, Mallee believes Kingery began over-rotating his hips, a change that caused his swing to get too long and slow to catch up to fastballs. It got to the point, Mallee said, that Kingery's "back was almost facing the pitcher." Late in the season, when the Phillies broke Kingery of the bad habit, his at-bats improved.

"All young hitters, [Anthony] Rizzo, [Kris] Bryant, all the guys I've had, as soon as they don't get hits, it's automatically a mechanical thing in their mind — 'I must be doing this. I'm doing that. I'm here. I'm there,' " Mallee said. "It's not the case at all, and that's part of what my job is, not letting their mind get too involved."

The offseason gives Kingery a chance to finally clear his head of all the self-doubt. The Phillies still view him as a prominent member of their core, alongside Hoskins and ace Aaron Nola. Team officials aren't ignoring how badly Kingery struggled, but they also insist they still believe in him.

"He's going to be in a really good place when he comes back," Mallee said. "Now he knows how to train; he knows what to expect. He's stood in the box against these guys. You're going to see a different dude — I promise you."