For years the Pirates have gone with a strategy of drafting projectable prep pitchers in the middle rounds, giving them above-slot bonuses, and hoping they develop into a great pitcher one day. There are plenty of examples of this happening. Go through the history of top college pitchers and you’ll find tons of guys who were either drafted low out of high school, or weren’t even drafted at all. Perhaps the biggest example would be Stephen Strasburg, who went from being undrafted out of high school, to the best draft prospect ever three years later.
Expecting someone to become the next Strasburg would be unfair. But it’s not out of the question to expect a strong number three starter, a number two, or even an ace to emerge from this approach of drafting prep pitchers and giving them over-slot deals. The key to the approach is quantity. Not every prep pitcher is going to break out, but if you draft enough of them, you’re more likely to find one or two that will break out. If you get one guy who breaks out as an ace, the experiment pays off. The Pirates paid Gerrit Cole $8 M because they expected him to be an ace. They paid their middle round prep pitchers from 2008-2011 a total of $8,615,000. If Cole is worth $8 M because he’s a future ace, then spending $8,615,000 should come with the expectation of producing one ace.
Here’s the problem with Cole and all of the prep pitchers. Cole came in with the hype of being an ace. He had an upper 90s fastball that hit triple digits. He had a plus slider and a plus changeup. So from the start, you looked at him as a future ace. But what about a prep pitcher who comes in to the system throwing 88-92 MPH? Those pitchers don’t come in with the hype, and it can be hard to get a reputation of being a potential top of the rotation pitcher if you didn’t enter the league with that reputation.
One of the prep pitchers the Pirates drafted between 2008 and 2011 was Nick Kingham. The right-hander was taken in the fourth round of the 2010 draft. That was the same draft that saw the “draft hard to sign prep pitchers” approach backfire, as almost all of the middle round picks passed on above-slot deals and went to college. The Pirates might have signed the best of the group, as Kingham has constantly improved in his time in the minors.
I first saw Kingham pitch in his second start with the State College Spikes in 2011. He was sitting 88-92 MPH with his fastball, with a nice curveball and a promising changeup. I saw Kingham once again that year, and he once again had an impressive fastball, although his curveball had gotten a bit rusty due to a focus on commanding the fastball and improving the changeup in the lower levels. Still, what I saw was enough for Kingham to be placed in the top ten of the system that off-season, with the thought that he could be a strong number three starter with 200 inning per year potential.
I have since called Kingham a number three starter with 200 inning per year potential due to the stuff and the frame. But along the way, Kingham has slowly been improving his stuff. In the Spring of 2012 he started seeing an increase in his velocity, jumping up to 95 MPH on a few occasions. This Spring, Kingham was sitting 93-95 MPH and touching 96. Throughout the 2013 season with Bradenton he has been working 92-95 MPH and touching as high as 98 with his fastball.
Labeling a guy as a potential number three starter when he’s throwing 88-92 is looking more at the potential. That label shouldn’t be in stone, especially when the player in question would have been draft eligible out of college this year. If he was draft eligible this year, Kingham probably would have come in as a first rounder, with totally new expectations due to where his stuff is right now. So let’s clear the slate and look at where his stuff currently is.
Kingham has seen his velocity slowly increase. In his first year he worked 88-92, touching 93. He usually was 90-92 the first few innings, and 88-90 in his final innings. He has seen the top end of that velocity jump to 95, then 96, and now 97-98. He has gone from sitting 88-92 to sitting 92-95. He has also done a better job of maintaining the velocity.
Kingham showed improvements this year throwing extension fastballs inside on left-handers. That can be the hardest side for a pitcher to throw to, and Kingham was doing a great job working inside against left-handers. One issue I saw with Kingham in 2011 was that he occasionally elevated a few fastballs. He improved in that area last year, and this year he has been down consistently with his fastball.
There’s also the command to consider. Kingham has plus command, with the ability to spot the fastball wherever he wants. He showed off great control this year, with 14 walks in 70 innings in Bradenton.
Right now Kingham has a 92-95 MPH fastball that has touched as high as 98. He has seen his velocity slowly creep up each year, so expecting him to remain at the current level probably is the wrong approach to take. He throws the pitch on a downward plane, and has great command of the pitch, with an increased ability to throw it inside to lefties.
Ever since seeing the pitch in State College, I’ve felt that Kingham’s curve has been his best pitch. It starts off coming in like a fastball, then has late, sharp break, dropping off the table and down through the zone. Carston Cistulli of NotGraphs had a pretty awesome video of Nick Kingham’s curveball from his Double-A debut.
If you go through the video, you’ll notice how much movement Kingham has on the pitch. The first curve starts off chest high then drops to the knees. The second curve in the video starts off at the waist and drops to the dirt. The third one is another that starts chest high and drops to the knees. The fourth one looks like a fastball that is coming in at the waist, then somehow the pitch ends up hitting the dirt as the batter looks foolish waving at the pitch. The fifth one had huge movement, starting out chest high and finishing around the ankles. The last one was another that looked like a fastball coming in at the waist, and actually bounced in front of the plate with the batter swinging.
Notice a trend? In each case Kingham’s curveball starts out in one zone, then has a late drop of about 2-3 feet. In some cases it legitimately looks like a fastball coming out of the hand, only to quickly bottom out and leave hitters confused. That’s great movement, and the command of the pitch is excellent as well.
“He has the ability to throw that baby for a strike or a strikeout,” Bradenton pitching coach Justin Meccage said.
When grading a fastball, you’re looking mostly at velocity and control of the pitch. A plus fastball is considered 94-96 MPH, and an elite fastball is anything over 97. It’s not as simple for off-speed stuff. A lot of the grades are subjective, but generally for a curveball you’re looking for what Kingham has — late break, falling off the table, and the ability to command the pitch. So does Kingham have a plus curveball? I’d say so.
The changeup has shown a lot of improvements for Kingham this year. Kingham throws it the way you want to see a changeup thrown. He’s got fastball arm speed, and the body and life of the pitch are both excellent. Scouts who have seen Kingham this year grade the changeup high. When I asked Justin Meccage about the quality of the two off-speed pitches, the changeup really stood out to him.
“I’d put them as good as I’ve seen at this level, especially the changeup,” Meccage said.
I’m not sure if I’d call the changeup a plus pitch, but I don’t think above-average would be out of the question.
The Overall Mix
Kingham has a 92-95 MPH fastball that touches as high as 98. He’s got a curveball that you could argue is a plus pitch due to the big, late break and the command of the pitch. He’s got a changeup that looks like a fastball coming out of the hand and has good, deceptive movement.
“I think the biggest thing that you saw this year is you saw three pretty good pitches develop,” Justin Meccage said. “I think the changeup really came a long ways. And then the curveball has always been there, but he had the ability to throw it a little bit more consistently, especially in the end in the time before he left.”
Baseball America has the following checklist for each pitcher type.
#1 Starter: Two plus pitches, average third pitch, plus-plus command, plus makeup.
#2 Starter: Two plus pitches, average third pitch, average command, average makeup.
#3 Starter: One plus pitch, two average pitches, average command, average makeup.
I’m not sure I would put Kingham’s ceiling at a number three starter anymore. His command and makeup are closer to “plus” than “average”. A plus fastball is 94-96 MPH, and while Kingham sits just south of that range, he’s shown a constantly increasing velocity, and can hit higher than that range. He also arguably has a plus curve. So you could argue that he has two plus pitches, or the potential for two plus pitches. He definitely doesn’t fall into the description of “one plus pitch and two average pitches”, since all of his pitches are above-average at the very least.
I’m not sure I would say he’s a number one starter, but I wouldn’t rule it out. I think he’s got the two plus pitches needed for the #1-2 starter spot (fastball/curveball), and his third pitch is above-average at least (changeup). As for the command and makeup, I wouldn’t put it at average like a number two starter, but I’m not sure I’d go plus-plus on the command for a number one starter. Overall I think you could make a strong argument that Kingham’s ceiling is now a strong number two starter or a poor man’s number one starter.
The thing about Kingham is that he’s probably not finished developing. If he wouldn’t have signed in 2010, some team would either be asking “when will he sign” or talking about his very first pro appearances. He’d be coming in with a fastball that has touched 98, and two good off-speed pitches. And since he’s only 21, I don’t think anyone would rule out further improvements in either scenario.
About a month ago — before the promotion to Altoona — Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington had an interesting comment about Kingham in a media Q&A.
“We’ve liked Nick for a long time,” Huntington said. “We’ve turned down multiple trade asks for him in the past when he was kind of an off-the-radar name. Publicly, but privately there’s some people that saw what is now coming out. We do like the size, the frame, the athlete. We like the makeup, the competitiveness. We like the stuff. And he’s coming into his own. We’ve still got some challenges, still got some work to do, but Nick’s taking those steps, and it’s good to see the results coming.”
It’s interesting that other teams have been asking about Kingham. It’s also good to see that the Pirates have been valuing him higher than other teams, or at least high enough where they haven’t parted with him. He’s already off to a good start in Altoona, with a 3.50 ERA in 18 innings after today’s game, along with an 18:5 K/BB ratio and a .212 BAA that is identical to his Bradenton numbers.
Kingham could be up by this time next year. He’s a guy who is constantly improving his game, and after a re-evaluation he looks more like a top of the rotation guy than a strong number three. That said, with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon in the mix, Kingham won’t have much pressure on him to be a top of the rotation guy, and instead could end up a number three starter, even if his value is somewhere between a number one and number two starter.