The Philadelphia Phillies’ YouTube series, “Loud and Clear,” uses mic ‘d-up players to paint a portrait of Spring Training. But it’s not true. At least not for everyone.

Spring Training isn’t just stars like Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins having fun in the sun. For many, the unseen and unheard, the wash-outs and career minor leaguers, their time in Clearwater is something entirely different. It’s a battle for their livelihood. Baseball is no longer a dream for these men but instead a cruel and unforgiving career path.It’s the pit in their stomach when that name tag atop their locker is no longer there, wondering how they will provide for their families as their worn-out cars crawl back to the real world on the highway. 

For Brandon Kintzler, the non-roster reliever who managed to win his bet on himself, it was the mounting anxiety of counting down the days until he pitched, isolated in his hotel room away from his family. For Jojo Romero, it was a disappointing demotion after a promising rookie season.

And for Scott Kingery, it must have been maddening

Fall From Grace

Scott Kingery flew too close to the sun. The once golden boy of the organization had his wings clipped on Sunday when he was optioned to AAA after an abysmal Spring Training. Kingery’s struggles as a Phillie are well documented, but to understand where he’s going, we need to delve into how he got here.

Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Awarded a six-year, $24 million in 2018 before even playing a game in the Major Leagues, Kingery was hailed as the next great Phillies infielder. And not without reason. In 2017 Kingery made the jump from Reading to Lehigh Valley, posting a combined .304 batting average, 26 home runs, and 29 stolen bases. While Kingery struggled as a rookie, he displayed real promise in 2019, slashing .258/.315/.474 with 19 home runs, 55 RBI’s, and 15 stolen bases across 126 games in a utility role. But there was a catch. It wasn’t just the 2nd-half slump or the struggle to hit right-handed pitching. Underlying that strong season, an ominous thought had entered his mind: Kingery believed he was a power hitter. It was at that moment that his wings began to melt.

There were a few things that plagued Kingery’s disastrous 2020 season. There was his bout with COVID-19, the pressure to succeed in the pandemic-shortened, and the recurring back issues that hurt him early on. The main problem, however, was his approach. Kingery entered camp noticeably stockier —  “Scotty Jetpacks” had transformed into the muscle-bound “Scotty Apache” — adding about 15 pounds to his 5’10” frame. 

The physical transformation was echoed in his mentality at the plate: he was trying to do too much. The changes that he’d made in his swing before the 2017 season  — adding loft to create backspin in his line drives and generate more home runs — according to Kingery had gotten “… too far to where it wasn’t what I wanted it to be”.

His search for the perfect swing veered his focus away from his at-bats, “…I started fixating on tiny, little movements…’ Set up this way. Put your hands here. Do this with your feet’ “. All of this thinking dropped his hard-hit percentage from 42.2% in 2019 to 33.3% last year, along with precipitous drops to his line-drive percentage and his batting average on balls in play. He hit an abysmal .159/.228/.283 with 35 strikeouts in just 126 plate appearances this past season.

Reason for Hope

7 hits in 44 at-bats with 19 strikeouts, Scott Kingery’s stat line this spring doesn’t sound like hope. It sounds a lot like a demotion to AAA, further uncertainty in the Phillies’ center field, and more questions than answers for Scotty Jetpacks. It does, however, come with one particular benefit: silence. Silence not only from the lack of fans at Lehigh Valley, where the Phils’ reserves will scrimmage with their New York Yankee counterparts, but also silence from the organizational pressure to succeed. Silence, hopefully, from his own mind.

No longer will Kingery have to worry about “ ‘Oh, if I don’t get a hit here, then I might not be playing tomorrow.’”

No longer will he have to bear the scarlet letter of his contract, at least not for the time being. In this quietude, Kingery will have every opportunity to find not only his swing but himself. Perhaps hitting rock bottom is what it takes to rebuild one’s wings.The demotion, after all, is not set in stone. Numerous Major Leaguers have used a Minor League demotion to jumpstart their careers, including Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Mike Moustakas. So how is it possible for Kingery to do the same?

It boils down to two things: organizational perception and team need. While it’s no secret how highly the coaching staff thinks of Kingery — Girardi said Sunday that he “can be an All-Star” — there’s an underlying component to that statement: the Phillies need Scott Kingery to be successful.

They need consistent offensive production from the most important defensive outfielder — without it, the value of the position declines severely. 

Disregard the albatross of Kingery’s contract and look at the competition for the starting center field spot. It’s been underwhelming, with the battle between Odubel Herrera, Adam Haseley, and Roman Quinn expected to continue throughout April. Injury has kept the promising Haseley out of most of Spring Training, which could prevent Girardi from trusting him with playing time early on. Herrera is talented but inconsistent at the plate and hasn’t played in regular-season baseball in over a year. Quinn has his trademark speed, but his lack of power and struggle with strikeouts have plagued him over his career. Kingery will not just be playing center field in Lehigh Valley, but he might as well. He won’t be called up as a utility man until either an injury forces Girardi’s hand or his bat makes it impossible not to promote him. No, Kingery was demoted because of the Phillies’ belief and need for his long-term success — something that could prove critical to the team’s success as well.Although the big-league lineup has the potential to be explosive, an offensive liability in center field would derail the bottom of the batting order. Last year, Alec Bohm’s position in the 8th spot catalyzed the offense — kick-starting late-game runs and turning the lineup over more frequently. 

This season, the Phillies will no longer have that luxury. The likely candidate for the 8th spot? The starting center fielder. The Phils will need a line-drive hitter, one that can hit for average and drive in runs.There’s no guarantee that Haseley, Herrera, or Quinn can do that — at least not consistently. Scott Kingery once could.

Maybe, after the most frustrating March of his life, he’ll prove that he still can.

Featured Image: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
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