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.