PHILADELPHIA — Scott Kingery stood in front of his spring training locker, his light brown hair spilling into his eyes, and regarded his packed duffel bag. In it, he had stuffed his baseball gloves.
All five of them.
“Don’t know which one I’m gonna need,” Kingery explained.
This was late March, 2018. Kingery was 23. He was the hottest minor league talent in the organization, and he was at the end of his first full spring training with the major league team. He looked into his bag at all that leather and, quietly, he allowed that the little second baseman’s glove — 11 inches, curved, and hard — was his favorite. But, he said, he’d play anywhere the bosses put him, as long as he could stay in The Show.
This began his ruination.
The Phillies sent Kingery down to Triple-A on Sunday, three years and three days after they signed him to a contract that he neither asked for nor deserved. The can’t-miss kid is now a reclamation project. They couldn’t have sabotaged him any better if they’d tried.
Maybe they did.
— First mistake: The Phillies gave Kingery a six-year, $24 million contract, even though he hadn’t played a single major league inning. This made him so important that he would not speak with the press on the day he got paid.
— Second mistake: The Phillies moved Kingery from second base, where he’d played breathtakingly well in the minor leagues. Of his 265 big league starts, Kingery made 113 at shortstop, 74 in the outfield (mostly center), 45 at third base, but just 33 at second base — or, 13%. He’d started 299 of 306 minor league games at second base — or, 98%. It was madness.
— Biggest mistake: The Phillies’ coaches and management — Gabe Kapler, his staff, and general manager Matt Klentak — whispered words like “launch angle” and “exit velocity” in Kingery’s impressionable ears. Suddenly, the lean, wiry kid who line-drived himself to a .351 average at Arizona, .283 in the minors, and .400 that magical spring of 2018, turned into a mini-Hulk. His short, explosive swing turned into a muscle-bound uppercut. He hit .159 in 2020, .233 total in his three major league seasons. Some 15 pounds lighter this spring, he managed just seven hits in 44 at-bats, with 19 strikeouts.
The Phillies sent him to Triple-A on Sunday. It is a blessing.
That’s where he should have been in 2018. Living in Allentown. Riding buses with kids like him. Figuring out how to hit a breaking slider and how to get his hands around on inside heat.
Instead, he became the smart guys’ pet.
‘This kid doesn’t have a chance’
If he doesn’t rebound, Kingery, who will be 27 next month, will be the poster boy for the hubris of Kapler and Klentak. With them, it was all analytics and sports science: hitting to zones rather than to strengths.
Oh, the arrogance. They turned a natural gap hitter with speed — Kingery’s Twitter handle is @ScottyJetp4x — into a strikeout machine searching for an identity, desperate to justify his $4 million annual contract. Kingery admitted to The Philadelphia Inquirer that the pressure has been immense.
And what of the men responsible for this disaster?
Klentak was demoted to “strategy and development officer” last fall (the Phillies can’t just fire anyone), but the team declined to make him available to comment. Kapler was fired after the 2019 season. He now is the Giants’ manager. He did not respond to an interview request made Sunday.
You can’t blame them for avoiding the topic. Shame is powerful. On the day Kingery signed the deal, Kapler said he’d given this advice to Kingery before spring training:
“One of the things we told him was, ‘Bring all your gloves.’ "
This was their actual plan.
The Phillies were willing to risk sabotaging the development of the top second-base prospect in all of baseball rather than disturb the unremarkable career of Cesar Hernandez — who, at the time, far better fit the bill of “utility player.” Hernandez left via free agency after the 2019 season. He hit .266 with a .730 OPS in his two seasons as Kingery’s teammate and foil. That’s what blocked Scott Kingery: .266 and .730.
One longtime Phillies coach who was familiar with Kingery as a minor leaguer observed Kingery’s spring in 2018; learned about how the Phillies planned to use him in the field; then heard about the huge contract.
“This kid doesn’t have a chance.”
He was right.
Worries and concerns
The coach was less concerned with expectations and usage than with Kingery’s experience.
Kingery, a second-round pick in 2015, had spent three years in college, and he’d torn up Double-A ball in 2017, his third professional season. But he’d spent the second half of 2017 at Triple-A, where he got just 265 at-bats and played just 63 games. The coach was concerned that Kingery hadn’t seen enough quality offspeed pitching from live arms at Triple-A — pitching that just doesn’t exist in Double-A. The coach also worried that defensively, Kingery hadn’t seen enough wicked in-game shots from fully mature, triple-A hitters. Finally, the coach was outraged that the Phillies planned on moving Kingery to shortstop — the toughest position except for catcher — as a rookie.
“Why are they making things so hard for the kid?” he asked.
This was a marked departure from tradition for the Phillies, who had long been criticized for their caution with top prospects. For instance, Chase Utley, who also spent three years in college, got more than 1,000 at-bats in Triple-A before he became a big league regular at the age of 25. Utley was a six-time All-Star.
Kingery could have enjoyed similar success. Scouts routinely compared him with Red Sox legend Dustin Pedroia. Larry Bowa, the former Phillies shortstop, coach, and manager, said Kingery reminded him of a former teammate, Manny Trillo, a four-time All-Star second baseman who won three Gold Glove awards.
“I think, mentally, when he knows he’s going to play there 155-160 games, you’re going to see a big upswing in his batting average,” Bowa said in January of 2020. “If we put him at second base, he would be an All-Star there. He’s an unbelievable second baseman.”
Maybe he would have been an All-Star, but the coronavirus came, and baseball shut down, and Kingery got COVID-19, and it might have been too late, anyway. He might have already been ruined.
The old coach was justified in his concerns and his worries.
The kid wasn’t ready. The kid never had a chance.
Maybe next time, he will.