On June 25, as the Phillies finished off a 7-5 win over the Mets to push their record to 41-38, Scott Kingery’s OPS was over 1.000. The Phils’ young super-utility player was about five weeks removed from his return from a hamstring injury that cost him a month, and though those five weeks weren’t as scalding-hot as his season’s first three, he’d hit put up a healthy .311/.354/.607 line in 130 PA. His 10 homers through June 25 were already two more than he’d hit in all of 2018, too.
He was looking good! He was looking like the player the Phillies decided to invest in long-term before he ever played a Major League game, and though he still didn’t have a steady defensive home, at least he wasn’t really playing shortstop anymore. It seemed as though he was poised for a big, breakout 2019, and to become a conversation piece in the discussion for the league’s most-improved player.
But then, something happened. I’m not really sure what, exactly. But on the night of June 26, Kingery went 0-for-5 with a golden sombrero to drop his OPS under 1.000, where it would stay for the rest of the season, and kick off a months-long slump that has eradicated the positive signs shown in his first 47 games of the season. And after an improved August, where he had an OPS back above .800 despite still striking out 27 times in 104 PA, his September (.157/.189/.371 through Saturday) has been one to forget.
Since that fateful game on June 25, an epoch that has stretched across two-plus months and covered 73 games, Kingery has hit .214/.278/.389 with 100 strikeouts in 314 PA. To his credit, he’s been able to stay on the field and play mostly-reliable defense, so his struggles at the plate haven’t extended to his time in the field; but he (and his coaches) have been unable to stabilize his season in the second half.
What changed? What was Kingery doing so well at the outset of 2019, and what isn’t he doing now? How much should we be concerned about him in 2020, and does this latest slide change the team’s thinking around Cesar Hernandez or Maikel Franco?
We’ll start with the good. Kingery has been handling fastballs decently all season: His .371 wOBA against four-seam and two-seam fastballs places him 144th out of 309 hitters league-wide who’ve seen at least 250 fastballs. Shorten that focus to games through June 25 and drop the minimum qualifier to 50 fastballs, and Kingery leaps up to 21st out of 420 with a .468 wOBA. Cool! Major League pitchers throw very hard, but it seemed as though Kingery had refined his timing to a good point.
Overall, though, Kingery was still whiffing on 15 percent of the pitches he saw, lumped in with three other players in a tie for 50th among a 317-hitter group that had seen at least 500 pitches. And there was one area, in particular, where Kingery simply couldn’t put bat to ball.
So as the season wore on, pitchers began challenging Kingery in that emerging weak spot down-and-away, as well as with elevated pitches out of the upper reaches of the strike zone. You can see how pitchers’ approaches changed with the fastball.
The graphic above is of the delta between fastball locations from June 26 on compared to the slice of the season that came before it. Even when the fastballs hit the zone, they’ve been higher (by and large), and pitchers have also busted Kingery in on his hands and knees more frequently, too.
The latter part of that change hasn’t really hurt, as Kingery is still handling fastballs down-and-in just as well — if not better, if we only look at average exit velocity, for one — across both “halves” of his season. The elevation, though? That’s a problem.
|.||Through June 25||From June 26|
|.||Through June 25||From June 26|
|AVG||.111 (1-for-9)||.063 (2-for-32)|
|BABIP||.250 (1-for-4)||.133 (2-for-15)|
More swings at lower-quality pitches, producing lower-quality contact, is one surefire ingredient for a slump.
Those chases are an extension of the pitch recognition problem that buried Kingery so often in 2018, when he fell behind 0-2 153 times, 3rd-most in the Majors. This year, he’s seen 105 0-2 counts in 479 PA, a big reduction in percentage year-over-year (from 31.6 percent down below 22 percent) and, thankfully, that number hasn’t started creeping back up again. Using our June 25 benchmark again, we see that Kingery went 0-2 36 times in 165 PA (21.8 percent) through 6/25, and 68 times in 314 PA (21.7 percent) since 6/26.
Kingery is far from the worst offender on this team, whether it comes to swinging at pitches out of the zone. Corey Dickerson, Jay Bruce, Jean Segura, Maikel Franco, Bryce Harper, and J.T. Realmuto all have higher percentages of whiffs on less-hittable pitches. What all of those hitters do better than Kingery, however, is get outcomes. Kingery’s .158 SLG in this category rates below every one of his teammates listed above. What’s becoming clearer after two seasons is that Kingery isn’t currently equipped to make lemonade out of lemons; he’s a strike hitter, and needs to narrow his focus and shrink his swing zone.
You can see below that, as his whiffs decreased in August, his rolling hard-hit percentage also crept up. Those things tend to go hand-in-hand, but the onus is on the hitter to help himself and not chase low-chance offerings.
This isn’t to say Kingery should work on evolving into Rhys Hoskins. He’s almost certainly never going to be a count-worker who drives up pitch counts and grinds out seven-pitch PAs like Arabica beans. But his approach is (still) a problem that’s keeping him from having sustained success.
And so that brings us to 2020 (and beyond). If Kingery can be the player he was for his season’s first 47 games, he’s a no-doubt building block. But as his season’s hit the skids and brought him closer to the pack, it’s made things a little less cut-and-dry.
In the end, there’s really little doubt that getting Kingery a dedicated position is more important than keeping both Franco and Hernandez. With the corner outfield spots set and Adam Haseley emerging as a strong candidate to start the year with the big club in CF, the focus for Kingery is on the infield. He’s a better second baseman than he is just about anything else, but he’s also only made eight starts there in two years. He’s strengthened his arm and had a better year at 3B in 2019 than 2018, but it’s still probably not his strong spot, even with the 2B rust. Still, he can play it. And so, if Kingery’s getting an infield spot, one of Franco or Hernandez has to go.
Maikel will be an Arb3 this winter, with an Arb4 available in the 2020-21 offseason. Cesar is an Arb4 this winter, likely due a payday approaching eight figures with free agency pending after next season. Maikel’s down year offensively has dampened his defensive improvements, which are considerable, while Cesar’s resurgence (.294/.351/.382 in August and .274/.346/.452 in September after a weak June and July) has, at least, made the decision to move on from him a little trickier. Or it’s possibly injected something back into his trade value, depending on how you want to look at it.
Either way, the roster crunch is becoming more forceful than it’s been in years past. There may not be enough time left in this season for anyone to drastically change their case for 2020. Kingery may still have a longer leash than his infield contemporaries, but it won’t give him slack forever.