What Happened to Nick Kingham’s Command in 2014?

Command was always one of the strong points for Nick Kingham, and it has been a big reason he has been a top pitching prospect in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ system. Sure, a fastball that usually sits 92-94 and can touch as high as 98 MPH helps. It also helps that he has a curveball and a changeup that both receive above average grades at times. But the fact that he has some of the best command in the system is what takes his solid three-pitch mix and turns him into a guy who could eventually be a solid number three starter in the majors, if not better.

The problem is that his command fell off last year. He went from walking just 5% of hitters in High-A during the 2013 season, to seeing that walk rate spike in 2014. The spike started when he jumped to Altoona in 2013, with a 9.6% walk rate. That continued in 2014, with an 8.1% rate in Altoona. and a 7.5% rate with Indianapolis. Prior to his jump to the upper levels, Kingham had never been higher than a 6.8%, which came during his time with West Virginia. That season featured a rough first half, and a huge increase in command in the second half that carried over to Bradenton in 2013. So what happened that led to his drop off when he was promoted?

“It’s just one of those things where things weren’t clicking,” Kingham said. “I wasn’t in sync with my body, and nothing was really clicking. Finally I just made some adjustments, I think just mentally on my approach, and things started coming together a little better and I started getting some better results.”

Kingham said that he cleaned up his delivery and simplified it, which allows him to work on repeating that delivery on a consistent basis. He worked with a lot of different pitching coaches over the years on making those adjustments. So I talked with Minor League Pitching Coordinator Scott Mitchell to see what the overall adjustment has been for him.

“The big thing, we call it working in the box,” Mitchell said. “There’s an area in front of the rubber, where you want to take care of your lift, and separating the ball from the glove to start your delivery. He needed to have patience in that area. He wanted to lift and go to the plate. So being able to just have patience, because it feels really slow at first. So being able to lift and separate while he’s still over the rubber, and then start his delivery, that was it. It was a timing thing.”

Kingham started showing issues when he reached the upper levels. He wouldn’t have the patience to load up his delivery and tap into his power. This led to him speeding up his approach to the plate, which threw off his command.

“If you’re lifting and drifting, it throws off the timing with the release point, and that’s where the command gets erratic,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell thinks the problem came in Altoona because it was Kingham trying to adjust to a higher level, and thinking he needed to do more against better hitters, rather than trusting what worked in Bradenton. The goal was to get him back to the delivery he had while he was in Bradenton.

The Pirates noticed last Spring Training that he was drifting, and Kingham worked immediately with Altoona pitching coach Stan Kyles to fix this. His numbers improved with Altoona, and he was eventually promoted to Indianapolis. But the command issues crept up again when Kingham reached the new level, and he had to work on the issue again, this time with Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer.

“It didn’t happen overnight,” Mitchell said of the adjustment. “Started to make progress, and then promoted to [Indianapolis]. And again, it’s that anxiety or pressure you put on yourself, the ‘I’ve got to do more.’ So he kind of reverted, and then we started working with Filer on getting him back and working in the box.”

Kingham made his first Spring Training appearance yesterday at McKechnie Field, going up against the Tampa Bay Rays. The initial results looked good, with two shutout innings, two hits allowed, no walks, and two strikeouts.

“I felt like I got ahead, which makes my job a whole lot easier,” Kingham said. “That’s what we’re big on here. Just pounding the zone, getting ahead of hitters, first pitch strikes. I feel like I did that pretty good. I’m happy with that.”

“A young man that’s embracing everything here, and he went out and made pitches,” Clint Hurdle said. The manager praised Kingham’s ability to get first pitch strikes against all nine batters he faced, while also getting all six hitters out with three pitches or less. First pitch strikes and three pitches or less are two things the Pirates really push in the minors. They were also two things that Kingham excelled at, prior to his command issues last year. Hurdle said that this was “impressive his first time out.” Hopefully it is also a sign that Kingham has learned from last year, and won’t change his approach in the upper levels.

The 2015 season could see Kingham make another jump, this time to the majors. If his command is back to normal, then that jump could come sooner, rather than later, and he could be one of the top early season options for the Pirates if an injury or poor performance creates an opportunity. He is ready for the workload of a full season, and is planning on throwing 200 innings this year.

“I plan on going more this year. I’m going to go right around 200 [innings],” Kingham said. “So I’m trying to prepare my body to handle that load this year.”

Kingham has been studying the rest of the MLB pitchers while he has been in camp, mentioning that he’s been getting info from A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole, amongst others.

“If I have any questions, I’ll ask them, and they’ll just give me some pointers,” Kingham said. “And they’re not afraid to come out and just tell me something.”

He also observes how they handle themselves in the clubhouse, on the field, and everywhere else.

“I try to just see exactly how they go about their day, the preparation. What they do on the field. How they go about PFPs and everything. I’m just trying to get as much information as I can from them.”

The time spent in big league camp will be good for Kingham, but eventually he will go down to the minors, since the MLB rotation looks pretty locked up. An opportunity should come this year for him to make the jump to the majors.

“I’m going to do my best to prepare myself to be ready for when that time does come, and just do whatever I can to help the team,” Kingham said.

The best thing he can do is learn from last year, and trust that his stuff is good enough to play in the higher levels and the majors without throwing off his delivery.

  • I don’t think there’s room for Pimental with all the other young arms.

  • pilbobuggins
    March 9, 2015 1:28 am

    Sounds like he got a bit ahead of himself and needed to be brought back too earth. Youth is truly wasted on the young.

  • Sounds like he could get the lower levels to swing at stuff out of the zone, but at the higher levels with more experienced hitters, they lay off. Which results in the higher walk rate.

    • That’s not at all what it is. He pounded the strike zone in the lower levels. People either couldn’t hit him, or didn’t make good contact. He went to the upper levels and rushed his delivery, which threw off his release point, which removed his command of his pitches.

  • Steve Dillon
    March 8, 2015 5:45 pm

    A rotation of Cole, Glasnow, Taillon and Kingham in 2016 or 17 can’t help but excite at the thought. Hopefully the injury gods let it happen.

  • Just wanted to say how much I appreciate PP’s ability to pull technical content out of the interviews they do. Very little trite, cliched coach-speak relative to traditional outlets. IMO, shows a level of trust and respect between interviewer and interviewee.

    • Thanks! You’ll love the Taillon article I’ve got coming this week.

      • Excited to hear more on Taillon. Adding another top half of the rotation starter would put this team over the top imo. Especially if Kingham is our #4

  • Move Morton for a prospect or two, to clear room…..I think Kingham will be knocking on the door by July….sometime after that, Taillon may be ready. Plus, we have guys like Sadler and Sampson.

    • Luke sutton
      March 8, 2015 8:23 pm

      Clear room and also remove the depth that most teams need out of SP. With cumpton down, you got Locke/Worley as depth, with Sadler and Sampson and Kingham as AAA depth. So thats 8-9 great to decent options for SP. It’ll take 6-7 at least to get through the season unless its a very lucky year, and a guy like Sadler hasnt really seemed to impress the organization enough to give him the jump on others….since they chose to use him out of the pen.

      With Morton gone, PIT really doesnt have great depth in pitching and places a lot of hope that those rookie SP dont have any issues in adjusting to the majors. Nothing wrong with keeping depth, particularly since AJ leaves after this year and Locke/Worley isnt blocking a Kingham type.

      • I know some people on this site an some fans like Morton and think he is a quality starter, I just don’t see it. He seems to pitch very competently for 3-4 innings, just to blow up in one inning.

        I think we can do much better….to fill his one spot, we have many options – Kingham, Sampson, Worley/Locke, Sadler, Richard, Taillon (later in 2015), etc.

        IMHO, Morton’s value will either stay the same or go down, I don’t see him doing much more than what he has done his entire career. We could deal from strength, and possibly get a prospect or two who could pay dividends down the road.

        • I dont see any reason to think those guys, who are mostly rookies or players just as flawed as Morton, will be clear upgrades. Not to say i dont like those players, but losing depth at a spot where its most key isnt wise for me. Morton isnt a terrific option, but if a guy can give 130-140+ innings with a low or mid 3 type ERA i’ll take him. Slightly above 1 WAR option for 8 million. He’ll have his dud days and have those innings where he gives up 3 straight goundball singles, but he also has his 6 innings 1 run days. Rather typical middle rotation type, and one that fits the system PIT runs (GB GB GB and throw inside) well.

          I dont think he is likely to become a sudden 3 WAR top rotation type, but i think people undervalue the not so sexy types like Morton because he doesnt have a huge FB and gets outs in a boring way. 2 more years of last years production and he was a good deal for his money. Allowing guys like Kingham and Sampson to get called up when fully ready as opposed to out of need due to losing Morton. Next year without AJ one spot opens, and if the team thinks Sampson is ready he likely goes ahead of Locke.

          Dont really see a reason to move Morton (a fully capable 3-4 option) just because. Its not really strength to deal from pitching when you dont have a great deal of depth beyond the 6-7 guys. Liriano-Cole-Morton-AJ-Locke with Worley-Kingham-Sampson and maybe Sadler. Thats 9, with a decent reason to think AJ (old) or Morton (history) will go down at some point. Sadler isnt really a sure thing to be used as SP depth, so its not as if PIT has a ton of options if they see a rash of injuries.

          Most importantly, if you dont like Morton and see his value as “meh” so will other teams. I dont see Morton bringing a great haul, likely either 1 B prospect or a few lower B-C types. That has value, but so does Morton in the rotation this year. The Snider deal seems like the “lets deal from strength” move. PIT likes to slow move their pitching.

        • And you want the organization to count on 3 rookie pitchers ? Good luck with that.

          • No, only one would be needed to replace Morton….as of right now, I would say that Sadler is most ready, followed by Sampson and Kingham…

            • None of those guys is anywhere close to immediately replacing Charlie Morton.

              • I think Kingham and Sadler are both pretty darn close – both pitched a lot in AAA already….plus you have the loser of the Locke/Worley battle and possibly as another short-term option…lots of options…all viable

                • You’re gonna have to define “viable” if you just keep throwing names against the wall…

                  • If Locke and Worley are good enough to considered for a #5 spot, then I think they are both viable to fill the #4 and #5 spots. I don’t see a huge drop-off from Morton to either of them. In fact, I see little drop off if any. if Kingham is as good as a prospect as the Pirates say he is, he is viable or darn close to it. Richard? The jury is still out on him…..

                    • Jeff Locke is a viable replacement for a guy you deem to be too inconsistent?

                      Sure, makes sense.

                    • I’d rather have Locke than Morton – left handed, younger, and cheaper….and performs at similar level….

              • You must be thinking of a “healthy” Charlie Morton. Charlie has averaged 112 innings per season in six seasons as a Pirate. While he has pitched better the last two years (his WHIP for 2013/2014 is 1.27), we could see Locke/Worley replace Morton and put up better stats. With Morton gone the 2015 rotation would be:
                Cole, Liriano, Worley, Burnett, Locke
                with the best of Kingham/Sampson/Sadler (or a stretched out Liz) replacing Locke when he tires in the second half. Now is the time to trade high on Morton when he has two years left on his contract.
                The 2016 rotation is then:
                Cole, Liriano, Worley, Kingham, Locke with Taillon replacing Locke in the second half and Sampson/Sadler as depth.

            • NMR says it. Neither have enough experience right now to step into a contender’s rotation.

              • I disagree, unless they are given a chance and fail. There have been many examples of rookie pitchers or very inexperienced pitchers playing large roles on successful teams – Michael Wacha and Tanner Roark both come to mind right away. The Pirates seem to be very conservative and slow to trust their young players in general. Just my opinion and observation.

                • Well, having seen three of the four of the pitchers you mention pitch at the AA level, with all due respect for both Sadler and Kingham, neither were as highly regarded prospects as Wacha ( particularly ), and Tanner Roark. And neither have been as successful in the high minors yet as Wacha or Roark were. That doesn’t diminish their ability, and I am hoping that in a few months they are ready to step up to the MLB level.
                  .

      • not sure how locke/worley can be counted on as depth, if either one spends more than a month in the bullpen their arm will not be stretched out to start

        • Luke sutton
          March 9, 2015 6:05 pm

          A fair point that i didnt want to make as it’d be a long post. I also wanted to mention in more detail that Sadler really doesnt seem to be depth for the team apart from if they had no one else. SP isnt really a great depth area at the AAA level with Cumpton going down and a lack of options for some others.

          • you will have richard, id like them to maybe grab another minor league vet type guy who could come up for a few starts if possible maybe bring back miles mickolas or take a flyer on lucas harrell, heck phil irwin is available but i dont know if his arm is attached.

            • Miles Micklas is, or will be, pitching in Japan. They also have Colin Balester in the system.

            • That’d make me feel better, since you cant really assume Richard will take well to the changes (tho the track record for PIT is good) and i really dont think the team sees Sadler as a SP. But in a pinch after 3-4 injuries, ya dont get picky.

  • Kingham should be a part of what could be a very special rotation in the near future

  • Lee Foo Young
    March 8, 2015 3:19 pm

    I hope he does well, but I also hope a) we have no injuries and b) nobody gets demoted because of poor performance.

    Hey….an old man can dream can’t he? 🙂

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