The Pittsburgh Pirates signed an unusually high amount of non-drafted free agents after the 2018 draft. Those players tend to get lost in the system because most fans believe that they weren’t good enough to get drafted. The reality of the draft is that once you start getting into the second half, there isn’t much difference between all of those players, except those players who fell due to bonus demands.
Every year, some of those non-drafted free agents look better right away than late round draft picks. One of those players for the Pirates in 2018 was Steven Kraft. He has overcome a lot to get his shot in pro ball, so not being drafted was just a temporary bump in the road.
Kraft was born in Fair Oaks, Va., later moving two hours away to Haymarket, Va., where he attended Battlefield High School. He was an All-Conference shortstop during his junior and senior seasons. That led him to Western Kentucky University and four seasons of college baseball.
As a freshman, Kraft didn’t play much until late in the season. When he got his first opportunity to start, he put up a three-hit game, which led to a chance to play regularly as the season wrapped up. In 18 games, he posted a .316 average, which helped lead to a full-time starting spot at second base in 2016.
Kraft put himself on the draft prospect map with a .319/.409/.476 slash line as a sophomore. He showed power for the first time, drew some walks and limited his strikeouts. According to Kraft, he was getting attention from the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds before his junior season started, but things didn’t go as planned in 2017.
As a junior, Kraft had a chance to build on a strong sophomore campaign. Instead, he finished with a .250/.331/.350 slash line, while also moving from second base to the outfield. Not only was he slumping off previous numbers at the plate, he was struggling with the adjustment to left field. Kraft started pressing at the plate as pitchers adjusted to him and he really slumped at the end of the season.
Unfortunately for Kraft, that junior season was far from the low point during his college career. His senior season began with a couple of rough games and quickly got much worse.
“The season opened up on February 17th at Memphis,” Kraft said. “I went 0-for-8 with six strikeouts and got the third game off to regain my focus. However, when we got back to campus that Monday, my mom called me telling me my dad was very sick and I needed to find a way home as soon as possible. My coaches paid for an emergency flight home on the 19th and my Dad passed away on the 20th from septic shock resulting from a lacerated pancreas from a prior surgery.”
Kraft’s father John had been diagnosed with colon cancer, which was caught in the early stages due to a routine checkup in late December last year. After a late January procedure and three weeks in the hospital, John was allowed to return home to recover. He still had a tough road to recovery, but his condition deteriorated quickly, leading to that phone call to Steven Kraft from his mom.
The entire ordeal from his junior season struggles to the passing of his father was covered in great detail in this wonderfully written piece by Western Kentucky Athletics, which I encourage everyone to read. It describes the closeness of the Kraft family and how John was a mentor both on and off the field.
After returning to action two weeks after leaving, Kraft went on a hitting streak at the plate, which continued for the rest of the season.
“When I finally returned back to the team two weeks later, I went on a tear,” Kraft said. “I would start hearing my dad’s voice in my head filled with advice in the field, on the bases, and in the batters box. I ended the seasoning hitting .385 overall and .410 in conference. After my dad died I hit over .400 on the season and received second team all-conference USA recognition.”
Kraft’s senior season wrapped up in mid-May and he had approximately three weeks until the MLB draft began. Going into the season, the only team that he heard from was the Baltimore Orioles. Even the Reds and Indians, who had each shown prior interest before his junior slump, weren’t in contact. Kraft batted .385/.483/.494 in 44 games as a senior and played solid defense while ending up back at second base. Despite those results, the three-day draft selection process would turn out to be a disappointment.
“I got back home after I graduated in mid-May and continued working hard with my older brother Johnny, since we were fairly certain my name would be called on draft day,” Kraft said. “However, we didn’t know how interaction between scouts, teams, and players really worked. We thought teams would be very interested in me after the season I had, but not a single team contacted me at all.”
Kraft said that he sat on the couch for three days with his mother and brother and listened to every single draft pick get called without hearing his name. Unsure about what to do at that time, he called up his college coaches for advice.
“I called my assistant coaches back at WKU and they said the best option for me if I want to continue playing baseball is tryout for an independent league. I scheduled a tryout on June 18th for the Evansville Otters.”
Kraft never made it to that tryout. He came very close, but that’s how fate stepped in and led him to the Pirates.
“I got a call from the Pirates the day before I left to go tryout on June 17th,” Kraft said. “Matt Skirving (Coordinator of Amateur Scouting) called me asking if I’d be interested in playing for the Pirates on Father’s Day of all days. So my dad’s and my dream since I was four years old came true on Father’s Day, the same year he passed away.”
Starting His Pro Career
Kraft quickly joined the Pirates down at Pirate City in Bradenton. Just six days after that phone call from the Pirates, he saw his name written into the lineup for a Gulf Coast League game against the Yankees East.
Most players growing up dream about playing their first game in pro ball. Of course young kids go big and think about their big league debut, but as you get to college, the immediate goal is to get signed and get into that first pro game, regardless of what level it is in the minor league system. Kraft will never forget that first time he wore a jersey with “PIRATES” across the front…but he probably wouldn’t mind if the memories of that game got a little foggy in the future.
Kraft picked up his first pro hit on a line drive single to left field in his third pro at-bat. That was clearly the highlight of the day, as he committed two errors prior to that hit and another two afterwards. The Pirates won 5-3 that day, making a four-error debut a little more bearable. Kraft was playing third base for the first time in a while that day and took it as a tough learning experience.
“That morning at practice, they asked me if I had ever played third base before and I told them I had, but not in years,” Kraft said. “They said they would try me out there and see how it goes. Obviously it didn’t go so well but I later learned that afternoon my positioning at third base caused my errors.”
Kraft learned about “stakes” positioning that day, which has helped him become a better fielder since that debut. He practiced at multiple positions often, but didn’t see a lot of time in the field during games, serving often as the DH. That being said, he also didn’t make another error during his rookie season after the shaky day at third base.
“I learned about what they call the stakes positioning,” Kraft said, before explaining it in detail. “That’s basically positioning playing the probability of righties hitting it to a spot and lefties hitting it to a certain spot based on past statistics. It also teaches you the depth you need to be and that’s where I went wrong. I was playing too close to the hitters, allowing no reaction time or range. The balls hit my way were smoked at me that day and all I had time to do is knock them down. By that time they would beat it out safe resulting as an error for me. Once I learned the stakes positioning for every position on the field, infield and outfield, I was much better off. Then on out I didn’t make another error all season.”
In baseball, it’s easy to shake off a bad game as a position player, because there’s always another game a day or two later. For Kraft though, he had some time to dwell on that debut because his name wasn’t in the lineup again until five days later. It’s possible that the immediate reminder that baseball is filled with failure, regardless of how well you play, ended up paying off for him over the rest of the season. It was a quick lesson on how tough it is to make it in pro ball.
“Those five days did worry me a little bit but since there was over a month of not playing from the end of the college season to the start of the GCL season, they were giving me time to get back into things and get back to game speed again. I learned more in one week of the GCL then I did in my entire life which helped me tremendously.”
Sitting on the bench for five days after a bad game can’t be easy for anyone, even if it is a great learning experience, but things aren’t easy for Kraft anyway. That true for him even during something as common in baseball as preparation for games. That’s because he is a diabetic, which leads to a pre-game checklist of things to do and what to watch for going into games. He described the process of being a professional athlete with diabetes.
“It requires a lot of attention,” Kraft said. “Our nutritionist does an excellent job helping me out. I test my blood sugar five times a day along with insulin shots when I eat. I try to always maintain a good blood sugar for the games so my body functions properly for when I play. If it gets too high, my body has slightly delayed processing making it harder to play and if it’s too low then I’ll be too weak to play. It’s all about balance and making sure you get something good to eat and maintaining good levels to perform at your best.”
Things Eventually Got Better for Kraft
A slump as a junior when most players are thinking about being drafted into pro ball. The devastating loss of his father. Dealing with diabetes while playing a physical sport which requires you to be on the top of your game at all times. Not hearing his name called on draft day. Debuting in pro ball with four errors. I didn’t even mention yet that his first season ended ten days early due to a hamstring injury. Through it all, Kraft remains positive.
He was a top hitter in high school. As a college sophomore, he showed that he could hit at the next level. He backed that up during a tough senior season. He came to pro ball and batted .321/.405/.477 in 31 games, while striking out just 11 times in 126 plate appearances. In the four games following his tough pro debut, he drove in a total of ten runs. On July 31st he homered and drove in four runs, then three days later, he went 5-for-5 against the Tigers West.
Despite showing a hitting eye at all levels, Kraft’s best asset at the plate now might be his new-found ability to adjust to pitching. A rough junior season helped in that area, as he learned the hard way that his same approach won’t always work once better pitchers begin to adjust to him quicker. That’s something that continued this year, as he saw the subtle differences between college pitchers and those in the pros.
“I always look to stay middle back side and pull only if they are showing me in consistently. It worked for me really really well in college, so I stuck to what I know and what worked for me.” Kraft said about his hitting approach, before describing the differences between college and pro ball.
“Most times in both college and the GCL, they would stay away, away, away. The velocity was across the board better in the GCL and some of the off-speed I saw would be a little better, but the command was better in college. I was seeing 90-93 MPH in college, but spotted perfectly. In the GCL I was seeing 92-96 MPH, but little bit better pitches to hit or it would miss decently. There were several pitchers who had good command, just more in college in my opinion.”
It’s not just adjusting to pitching that takes place, it’s going that extra mile to learn what adjustments to make at the plate. That’s where a good coach can come in handy and Kraft took full advantage of the knowledgeable people around him, both at Western Kentucky and with the Pirates.
“One thing that really helped me in college was asking my pitching coach what he called to get me out in scrimmages,” Kraft said. “That helped something click in my mind in the batters box. When I got to the GCL, I asked all the coaches the same exact question, which helped me formulate an even better plan in the box.”
Kraft was looking to finish his first pro season strong in the GCL and possibly get a late promotion to Bristol or Morgantown for some extra games. That possibility was closed off when he suffered the aforementioned hamstring injury on August 15th in a game against the Braves. With the GCL season wrapping up ten days later, it proved to be the end of his rookie season.
“I was playing left field that day,” Kraft remembered. “In the fifth inning I hit an opposite field double. When rounding first base to head to second, I felt a pop in my lower right hamstring. The athletic trainer and strength trainer said it likely happened since it was extremely hot and humid that day, along with that fact that was usually played infield. My body wasn’t used to the differences in movements.”
The injury not only finished his season early, it limited him somewhat during instructs. He was going to get more time in the outfield, but wasn’t allowed by the training staff to go through defensive drills. That didn’t stop Kraft from continuing to learn about the intricacies of each defensive position. That’s where Assistant Field Coordinator Bobby Scales came in for Kraft. Coincidentally, Scales played the same four positions in the Major Leagues as Kraft played in the GCL this year (3B, 2B, RF, LF), so he was an excellent mentor during the Fall Instructional League.
“In instructs I was allowed to do everything besides defense,” Kraft said. “I practiced, but I only was doing the offense. During defense I would stand next to Bobby Scales in the outfield drills as he would teach and show me what is right and wrong. Then he would have me explain what the outfielders were doing and needed to do. It really helped.”
What the Future Holds
The Pirates gave Kraft an off-season workout plan after he attended the ten-day rookie camp at Pirate City, which took place in September at the same time as instructs. Kraft has been working out this off-season at home and at Western Kentucky University. He has goals for his first winter as a pro, as he gets ready to compete for a full-season job during his first Spring Training.
“The Pirates had us pick our own goals in the rookie camp,” Kraft said. “I want to get stronger and faster. Get to a lower body fat percentage and be a better diabetic.”
Kraft is already a strong hitter due to his ability to drive the ball, his advanced approach at the plate and the fact that he makes consistent contact. There’s some power to his game, but there is always room for more. While the pitching in the GCL offered some challenges and required some adjustments, it’s not the best level for a college player. That being said, you can only hit versus the pitching you’re seeing and he did a terrific job in his first taste of pro ball.
Kraft is going to make it as far as his bat will take him. As for other areas of his game, he’s not slow, but getting faster in the off-season would help him both on the bases and on defense. The added conditioning will help with the long season, especially if he doesn’t get a full-season job right away and ends up playing afternoon Extended Spring Training games in the Bradenton sun. He’s a solid defensive second baseman, who needs to continue to add defensive versatility to his game.
Being a non-drafted free agent is always a tough spot to be in for anyone. You’re always trying to prove yourself at each level, and unlike high draft picks, you don’t have much room for error or much time for development. It requires constant effort to surpass drafted players and high bonus international signings.
For Kraft, he is just 22 years old and has already seen his share of ups and downs in baseball and life in general. If someone could turn a non-drafted free agent opportunity into something bigger, it would be hard to bet against him being the person to do it.