When Neal Huntington was named Pittsburgh Pirates general manager on September 25, 2007, he set out a plan to “flood the system with talent at all levels.” That plan included drafting high school pitchers that had strong commitments to some of the best college baseball programs in the country, costing more money. Big pitchers, big arms. High school pitchers are seen as boom or bust. They are projectable with unlimited potential, nowhere close to where they would be five years down the road. Sure you are going to hit on some, others will fizzle out as they climb the minor league ladder.
Count Nick Kingham as a boom.
Then-scout and now Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway signed the Oregon commit in the fourth round of the 2010 draft out of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. The tall right-hander signed for an over-slot amount of $480,000. Kingham did not pitch during his junior year of high school due to a transfer issue. Plus, most scouts were preoccupied watching Bryce Harper, also in Las Vegas. The Pirates were happy to draft another tall, projectable high school pitcher.
Transition to AA
Kingham was promoted from High-A Bradenton to Double-A Altoona on June 15. He made the seamless transition relatively at ease. In his debut, Kingham threw five and two-thirds scoreless innings while striking out seven. In three of his next four games (three starts), he gave up 11 earned runs in 19.1 innings. Since that time, Kingham got on a roll and ended the year very well. Kingham went 2-2 with a 2.47 ERA in his last ten games (nine starts), striking out 50 in 54.2 innings and not allowing a home run. In his last start on August 31, he went seven scoreless innings with no walks and striking out eight Akron Aeros hitters, while recording a Bill James’ Game Score of 75. After giving up 15 home runs in 2012, Kingham gave up just one home run at the AA level (7 total for 2013).
“Just being consistent,” Kingham said about his late season success with Altoona. “Just going out and knowing what I can and can’t do, sticking to my strengths and trying to be the same guy every time.”
“When he first got here, he was solid,” Curve pitching coach Stan Kyles said, while also noting Kingham went through a brief ‘dead arm’ period. “He threw the ball very well, but then he had kind of a lull when I thought he got a little complacent. The little ‘happy to be here and not understand the price’ stage. The job is not for him to get here and get settled in. The objective is to keep him moving, like I said, he’s been much more focused over the last five starts and it’s starting to show. His focus was razor sharp (on Friday against Akron). When he’s focused, he’s pretty good.”
However, Kingham did have to make adjustments to be successful in the Eastern League with more advanced hitters.
“Definitely hitters are more selective, more disciplined,” Kingham said about the biggest difference between hitters in High-A and AA. “They don’t swing at as much junk and you don’t get away with certain things down at Bradenton. They got a little more pop, more consistent with their pop. They hit mistakes more. Just all around it’s more of a chess game, kind of my move to set up hitters. You can’t just really go out and throw whatever. You got to really pitch and play the game.”
In order to be successful in the Pirates minor league system, pitchers are enforced to command their fastball. Without command of the fastball, hitters get more comfortable by looking for breaking balls because they do not expect the fastball to be in the strike zone. Kingham has learned the importance of fastball command early in his tenure as a Pirate minor league pitcher.
“Fastball command is huge,” Kingham said. “Everything works off your fastball, your breaking ball comes off your fastball release point. The changeup plays off your fastball, so it makes it an even better pitch. It’s just the most important thing. If you can’t locate it, can’t get that over for a strike, you’re kind of putting yourself in a bind and it’s going to make pitching a lot harder and give the advantage to the hitter if you’re lacking on fastball command.”
“His fastball is definitely his best pitch, 90+ and he commands it very well,” Curve manager Carlos Garcia said.
Kingham learned to use his best weapon frequently. A scout had him at 92-94 in a recent start, which is an above average major league fastball, from 60-70 on the scouting scale. The minor league scout liked Kingham’s length (6-foot-5), strong lower body, steep downhill plane to the plate, and easy arm action.
Kingham came into 2013 very strong against left-handed batters. His walks were up but he struck out lefties more than righties in 2011 and 2012, an encouraging sign. In regards to power, lefties hit .110 less in slugging in 2012. All signs point to the makings of a pretty good changeup. In 2013, the number were flipped in that lefties had more success against Kingham, while righties struck out 5.1% more. In Altoona, Kingham induced more groundballs against lefties (1.29 GO/AO to 0.73 GO/AO) than he did righties.
“Possibly my changeup,” Kingham said about his groundball rate against lefties. “I know I do throw it, it works really well against lefties. Maybe my two-seam (fastball) coming in to lefties. Also running it away and letting them hit it on the ground, slapping it to the left side. I’m not sure, maybe it has something to do with there’s not many of them.”
2011 vs LH: 121 PA, .234/.298/.324, .622 OPS, 8.3 BB%, 20.7 K%
2011 vs RH: 161 PA, .240/.273/.364, .637 OPS, 3.1 BB%, 13.7 K%
2012 vs LH: 219 PA, .243/.338/.323, .661 OPS, 11.4 BB%, 24.7 K%
2012 vs RH: 308 PA, .243/.283/.433, .716 OPS, 3.6 BB%, 20.5 K%
2013 vs LH: 236 PA, .248/.336/.345, .681 OPS, 10.6 BB%, 20.3 K%
2013 vs RH: 361 PA, .224/.283/.330, .613 OPS, 5.3 BB%, 26.6 K%
Kingham has the makings of a good changeup, proven by the numbers in 2011 and 2012. The same scout told me he thought his changeup was too hard. It was just 5-6 MPH slower than his fastball and not enough velocity difference between the two pitches. The scout went on to say that if he could not harness his changeup, he could be a good reliever using his plus fastball and curveball. The third pitch is very important for a pitcher to master to remain in the starting rotation (as Jameson Taillon has learned this year with his changeup).
“The changeup has always been his third best pitch and now he’s starting to understand the importance of it,” Kyles said. “He’s starting to throw it a lot more effectively now because he’s starting to use it a lot more. He’s starting to get a feel of the speeds of it so it’s not as hard as it was when he first got here. He’s got some pretty good movement to it so it’s becoming a pretty good pitch for him as well.”
“That’s the one thing that we really stress is trying to establish your fastball and then throwing some percentage of breaking pitches and also changeups,” Garcia said. “He knows he definitely needs that weapon in his arsenal in order to become a big league pitcher. He got three pitches to develop and with more consistency, he’s going to be fine.”
No matter what, 2013 was a little fluky in that all of the numbers were reversed from the previous two seasons. Kingham still does not walk too many right-handed hitters (5.3 BB% in 2013, up from 3.1% and 3.6% in 2011 and 2012).
Command is Calling Card
Ever since he was drafted by the Pirates, Kingham has been a control-artist. Keeping walks down comes down to fastball command, which is mentioned earlier in the article. In 2011 with short-season Low-A State College, Kingham only walked batters at a 5.3% clip. That number has slowly risen to 7.4% in 2013, but that is still really good. His career walk percentage is at 6.7%, very low. His walks went up but his hits per 9 innings given up has dropped, keeping the WHIP stable. Kingham’s strikeouts have also increased. If you have more base runners on, you want as little contact as possible. In certain situations, strikeouts are needed and Kingham proved in 2013 that he can get the strikeouts with his strong arsenal. Kingham’s groundball rate went down in 2013 in part to really using his plus fastball and elevating it to get weak popups and flyouts.
2011: 5.3 BB%, 16.7 K%, 1.09 WHIP, 1.9 BB/9, 5.9 K/9, 3.13 K/BB, 5 HR, 0.63 HR/9, 8 Hits/9, 0.96 GO/AO
2012: 6.8 BB%, 22.2 K%, 1.17 WHIP, 2.6 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, 3.25 K/BB, 15 HR, 1.06 HR/9, 8.1 Hits/9, 1.25 GO/AO
2013: 7.4 BB%, 24.1 K%, 1.16 WHIP, 2.8 BB/9, 8.9 K/9, 3.27 K/BB, 7 HR, 0.44 HR/9, 7.8 Hits/9, 0.93 GO/AO
Career: 6.7 BB%, 21.9 K%, 1.17 WHIP, 2.5 BB/9, 8.1 K/9, 3.26 K/BB, 27 HR, 0.7 HR/9, 8.0 Hits/9, 1.05 GO/AO
In 2013, Kingham’s walks went up when he was promoted to Altoona. That can happen to any pitcher when he is at a more advanced level. The pitcher tries to nibble on the corners and the hitters are disciplined enough to lay off those pitches, escalating the pitch count. That was one of the lessons Kingham learned in Altoona.
“It could definitely be a part of it,” Kingham said about nibbling on the corners for the increased walk rate in AA. “I feel like there are better hitters at a new level. I don’t want to leave anything flat and get it smashed but at the same time I just got to attack them. I’m a little better than I was two months ago last year, so just trusting myself and going right at them (the hitters).”
“Understanding he has to attack the strike zone and throw to the inner half of the plate in order to make his secondary pitches a lot better,” Garcia said about Kingham’s adjustment to AA. “He got the stuff, now he’s got to grow and motivate himself to be able to become a more consistent pitcher and throwing the ball over the plate.”
2013: A+ 70 IP, 14 BB, 1.8 BB/9, 4.9 BB%, 75 K, 9.64 K/9, 26.5 K%, 5.36 K/BB, 0.99 WHIP
2013: AA 73.1 IP, 30 BB, 3.7 BB/9, 9.6 BB%, 69 K, 8.47 K/9, 22.0 K%, 2.30 K/BB, 1.36 WHIP
Totals: A+/AA 143.1 IP, 44 BB, 2.8 BB/9, 7.4 BB%, 144 K, 9.04 K/9, 24.1 K%, 3.27 K/BB, 1.18 WHIP
Kingham walked 11 batters in two starts in AA, which are blowup starts considering Kingham’s command in the past. If you cut those two starts down to two walks in each game (slightly below career norm), Kingham’s walk rate would have been 7.3% and the walks per nine would have been 2.82. We all know it is hindsight, but Kingham will be better prepared heading into the 2014 season after facing more disciplined and advanced hitters in AA to end the 2013 season. It’s possible Kingham will start 2014 in Altoona to gain more experience there and try to get a full year in there since he spent the second half of 2013 in Altoona.
Given his body type and the way he has matured physically throughout the minor leagues, scouts say Kingham will be an innings eater/workhorse in the future. Think James Shields or Kyle Lohse. A pitcher in the middle of the rotation that can take the ball every fifth-day and go six strong innings for 30 plus starts is a commodity. Kingham has now filled out to be a solid 220 pounds on his 6’5” frame with firm, strong legs to be able to withstand the long seasons in the future.
Level IP % increase
2010 HS/Rookie 62 -
2011 SS-A (SC) 71.1 +15% (Kingham did throw in extended spring training)
2012 A (WV) 127 +78% (don’t be alarmed, Kingham threw extended spring training)
2013 A+/AA 143.1 +12.9%
The rule usually is not to increase the pitcher’s workload by more than 20% of previous year’s workload. Kingham made an aggressive jump from 2011 to 2012 pitching 55.2 more innings. 2012 was his first full year after not pitching until late June with the short-season State College Spikes in 2011. Don’t expect Kingham to surpass 172 innings in 2014. That is the 20% more innings mark from his 2013 workload.
The Future is Bright
The projection for Kingham is to be a number three or four starting pitcher. Baseball America defines a #3 starter as having one plus pitch, two average pitches, with average command and makeup. A #4 starter command of two major league pitches, average velocity, consistent breaking ball, and a decent changeup. Going off those definitions, Kingham fits at a #3 starter in the future due to above average velocity and command, and the makings of two average to above average pitches (curveball and changeup). Like most young pitchers, the offspeed pitches need improvement.
A minor league scout said Kingham’s curveball got better as the game went on in one of his last starts of the season. His pitching coach believes it is a major league pitch.
“His curveball is a solid big league pitch along with his fastball and I think his changeup has the makings of being just as good,” Kyles said. “He’s going to have three weapons. He’s got the mindset, the feel, the instincts to become a pretty good pitcher at the big league level and I’m looking forward to seeing him develop.”
In 2013, Kingham learned to trust his stuff more, especially after walking more batters than he is accustomed to in AA during the second half.
“Trust myself,” Kingham said about what he learned about himself in 2013. “It’s the same game no matter what level you’re at, hitters might be a little better but at the same time I’m a little better as well. I don’t want to say this in a bad way but don’t give too much credit to the hitters. Hitting is hard, three out of ten times you’re going to succeed. Kind of just go about that and really be positive and trust myself and the stuff I have to offer.”
Kingham wanted to go deeper into games prior to his last two starts, when this interview was done.
“For me, it would be efficiency, try to go as deep as I can into ball games,” Kingham said about improvements. “I know I throw a lot of pitches. I get a lot of foul balls and go deep into counts. So the next two outings I have the rest of the year, I’m going to be as efficient as I can. Not necessarily pitching backwards or switching up my style or style of pitching, I’ll just try to be as efficient as I can and go as deep as I can into the ballgame.”
In his last two starts, Kingham went 11.2 innings, giving up one earned run and striking out 16. In the August 24th start, he walked five. In his last start on August 30 he did not walk a batter, showing a quick learning curve and knowing his mechanics.
Kingham showed in 2013 that he can make adjustments. It was the first season he was promoted up a level during the season. He spent the second half of 2011 with short-season Low-A State College after throwing in extended spring training. Kingham spent the entire 2012 season in Low-A West Virginia before splitting 2013 in High-A Bradenton and AA Altoona.
Drafting tall high school pitchers with good velocity has proven to be a dicey way of developing talent. But with the Pirates’ success with Tyler Glasnow and Kingham, it proves taking the high-risk, high-reward route can be a worthwhile investment. All high school pitchers don’t pan out, but when you draft and develop them, you have total control of them through their maturation years. The Pirates are a small-to-mid market team, they can’t go out on the free agent market and sign the C.C. Sabathia’s, Zack Greinke’s, and the Cliff Lee’s for $20 plus million a year. They have to draft and develop their own aces. Kingham has proven to be worth the investment and the patience that comes with drafting high school pitchers. It was all part of Huntington’s master plan some six years ago.