It is June 9, 2018.
Nick Kingham, still regarded as one of the Pirates??? top prospects, just gave the Bucs 6.1 innings of two run ball in Wrigley Field. It may have been in a losing effort, but the rookie looked really good. He???s been looking good throughout his short stint in the majors. He grabbed headlines by taking a perfect game into the seventh inning in his major league debut. While he hadn???t come close to matching such a performance again, he was holding his own. With a 3.82 ERA and a 3.42 FIP, Kingham looked like a legitimate starting pitcher option. With some maturation, he could claim a rotation spot for years to come.
But that never came to fruition. One day shy of one year later, Kingham was pink-slipped by the only organization he had ever known. The Pirates designated Kingham for assignment on Saturday, hours after a disastrous six run relief outing. It???s tough to let go of a longtime highly rated prospect so unceremoniously, especially with an injury ravaged pitching staff, but it had to be done. After all, he was having one of the worst seasons in Pirates pitcher history.
Worst single season ERAs among Pirate pitchers since 1908, min. 30 IP:
2007 John Van Benschoten (10.15)
1973 Steve Blass (9.85)
2019 Nick Kingham (9.61)
— Alex Stumpf (@AlexJStumpf) June 8, 2019
Since there is basically no chance of Kingham clearing waivers, it???s as good a time as any to close the book on his time in Pittsburgh. Before we do, there is one question to answer: what happened? How did this mainstay on the top 10 prospects list crash and burn so fast? After doing the autopsy, I have three theories.
It???s Pirates pitching. If something goes wrong, the fastball has something to do with it.
In 2018, Kingham allowed a .360 wOBA and .366 xwOBA on his four-seamer. That???s not exactly ideal, but it was only a hair worse than the average starter that year. Not terrible for a rookie. The two-seamer, on the other hand, was pretty terrible (.459 wOBA, .399 xwOBA).
He did cut his two-seamer percentage down a tad this season, but batters hit it just as well as before (.444 wOBA, .401 xwOBA). What???s surprising is it became the better out of his two non-cut fastballs. In 2019, his four-seamer has yielded a .535 wOBA and .407 xwOBA.
Kingham was praised for years for his fastball, but it never seemed as lively after his Tommy John surgery in 2015. In 2013, MLB Pipeline???s report on him listed a fastball that can touch 95. In 2014, it was ???hitting the mid-90s regularly.???
Kingham pitched in 32 games with the Pirates in a variety of roles, including starter, reliever and bulk man behind an opener. In those 32 outings, there was only one game where his fastball hit 95 MPH: July 2, 2018. That was a disastrous start where he was clearly overthrowing and the Dodgers won 17-1. He lost a tick from the time of the surgery to making the majors. As his major league career progressed, he was losing another MPH.
And Kingham desperately needs that zip. He has a career average fastball velocity of 92 MPH. Here???s how speed impacts his results:
When it was over 92 MPH, Kingham???s fastball held its own. When it couldn???t get over, then the average batter hit at a clip that is eerily similar to Babe Ruth in his 1923 MVP campaign. Yikes.
If Kingham???s first start could be summed up in one word, it would be ???slider.??? The Cardinals were caught completely off guard and Kingham dominated all game with it. It looked like the pitch that would carry him throughout his major league career.
Instead, he stopped throwing it in 2019. And I don???t mean ???he rarely uses it anymore.??? I mean he literally stopped throwing it.
Kingham morphed his slider into more of a cutter this year, adding some extra velocity. As a result, he lost not just the element of surprise by changing speeds, but also his arguably best pitch from last year.
This hurt Kingham???s other breaking pitch — the curve. The two pitches were released from nearly identical arm slots and tunnelled well. Kingham used his curve more, perhaps to make up for getting less movement on his slider/cutter. That strategy didn???t work. All of his pitches played worse this season. You have to wonder how large an impact the absent slider made in making that happen.
Did it feel like Kingham starts were taking longer than usual? It wasn???t just because more batters were getting hits. He was also taking more time between pitches.
Granted, Pace isn???t necessarily a perfect stat. A catcher???s visit in the middle of an at-bat will distort the game???s final results. Even so, it???s clear to see that in those first couple starts, he got the ball, got a sign and threw it. He didn???t give himself time to get in his own head.
From his debut in April to the end of June in 2018, Kingham was averaging a pace of 19.9 seconds between pitches- the fastest out of any pitcher on the Pirates. From July through the end of the season, it was 23.8 seconds, which was still eighth fastest out of 21 pitchers. That???s not ideal, but it???s forgivable since it was the end of the season. He was getting tired. This season, it???s 24.2 seconds, putting him 11th out of the 23 Pirates pitchers. Now it???s a trend.
I think it???s all three factors, and their weight is probably in the order I presented them. When he was a top prospect, his fastball had life. When he broke through to the majors, he used his slider and pitched quickly. That doesn???t sound like the guy the Pirates just DFA???d.
Perhaps another team can salvage his career, but it???s clear that wasn???t going to happen in Pittsburgh. Maybe it was just a bad fit, but that doesn???t mean Kingham is guiltless. If he doesn???t adjust his pitch selection and account for his dropping velocity, he isn???t going to stick anywhere.