INDIANAPOLIS — A small crowd of just more than 2,000 people trickled into Coolray Field on a warm 92-degree day in late-July. The atmosphere was dull in Gwinnett’s stadium, as the team consistently has some of the worst attendance numbers in Triple-A.
Nick Kingham’s season turned around on that day.
He’s allowed six earned runs over his last six starts, throwing one 9-inning complete game and coming within one out of another one. Those performances were born because of what happened during a meeting inside a small coach’s office within that stadium.
Kingham, catcher Jacob Stallings, and pitching coach Stan Kyles always meet after a start but this one also included manager Andy Barkett. The meeting was cordial, professional, and needed, but also uncomfortable.
“He had some frustration and we had some frustration,” Barkett said.
Kingham was coming off a start where he allowed eight earned runs in four innings at Durham on July 19. He had never given up that many runs in a start in his eight-year professional career.
In his previous starts prior to that debacle, Kingham wasn’t awful but not overly impressive either. And while he was returning from Tommy John surgery, Kingham wasn’t living up to his potential as one of the top pitching prospects in the organization.
Something had to change. Kingham knew that, as did everyone else in that meeting as an open discussion ensued.
“He had a few rough outings in a row and he wanted to get it right,” Stallings said. “So, he opened up a little more. We offered what we thought could help him. A pretty typical meeting, but this one was probably a little more about mentality than pitch execution.”
Kingham felt like his individual pitches were good, but he was still getting hit around too much.
“I felt like nothing I was doing was going right,” Kingham said. “I was throwing really good pitches, nasty breaking balls and they were taking them. I just thought something else was going on and I didn’t know what it was.”
Kingham was mad with his recent performances and he wanted someone else to get mad at him. He wanted someone else to “tell him he was sucking,” Kyles said.
“I’m going, ‘Nick, you know what you’re capable of doing. I’m not going to beat on you, you’re beating on yourself enough,’” Kyles said. “I think he wanted a kick in the butt more than anybody.”
The quality of pitches wasn’t a big concern for Kingham, it was the mentality he was pitching with and the sequence he was using. He wasn’t aggressive, instead choosing to dance around the zone with his fastball.
Part of that might have been due to returning from Tommy John surgery that kept him out a majority of the previous two seasons. There’s also a mental side to returning from that surgery.
“I just remembered how I was before I had surgery and all that time off,” Kingham said. “I’ve been just trying to get back to that because that’s the last memory of me that I have when I was at the top. I feel like I was trying to get back there, instead of just letting it happen and trusting myself.”
The coaching staff simply wanted the best version of Kingham possible, but Barkett didn’t feel like they were seeing that early in the season. They saw a pitcher “feeling his way back into pitching,” Barkett said.
The advice during the meeting was somewhat simple: stay over the middle of the plate and keep the ball down. By trying to stay perfect on the edge, the ball can get elevated and lead to problems.
“But if you get real good about throwing your pitches down and over the plate, it’s harder to hit,” Barkett said. “I think Kingham has taken to that. His mindset is different. … Now, we’re seeing a guy that is gaining confidence and is attacking the strike zone at the highest level.”
The discussion made its mark on Kingham. Almost immediately, at that. He allowed one earned run in seven innings in each of his next two starts and has completed at least seven innings in five of his six starts since that meeting in Gwinnett.
His ERA was 5.16 after allowing those eight runs against Durham. Now, after some mental adjustments in his approach, Kingham has a 1.20 ERA over his last six starts.
“I’m definitely on the upside now,” Kingham said. “That (meeting) was a huge turning point for me. I think it was a much-needed meeting. They laid into me in a nice way, constructively. They told me how it was: Your stuff is good, it’s just not working. We needed to fix it and I think it was my mentality and how I go about the game.”
Kingham is on the 40-man roster, so it would not take much work to promote him when rosters expand in a few weeks. He’s also out of options next year, so the Pirates will most likely want to get a look at him. Kingham’s performance in the past few weeks make the idea of a late-season promotion a no-brainer. He’s shown he has regained the form prior to having Tommy John surgery, so now it’s time to see how that translates to the major leagues.