Fewer than five seasons ago, Nick Kingham and 59 other prospects vied for a big league audience during a showcase at “Bat-r-Up Batting Cages.”
These days, Kingham holds court with MLB.com reporters as part of Major League Baseball’s “MLB Rookie Career Development Program.”
That’s a span of five short years in which an 18-year-old senior earned First Team All-State honors at Sierra Vista High School, went on to field offers from big-time Division 1 baseball programs and eventually sign as a fourth-round selection from a loaded 2010 First-Year Player Draft.
Kingham, still just age 23, is now coming off a 2014 season in which he ranked first among International League pitchers in average against (.213), second in WHIP (1.10) and fifth in strikeouts (65) since making his Triple-A debut in early June.
Big steps from his high school stomping grounds out in suburban Las Vegas.
“(Pitching at the professional level) forces you to grow up really quick,” said Kingham in an interview with MLB.com at last week’s Rookie Career Development Program. “You come up living with mom and dad and you’re thrown into a world where, yeah it’s still a game, but (now) it’s your job. You really just go about your business in a new way…it’s taken seriously because someone is paying you to play well.”
The Pittsburgh Pirates are certainly getting their money’s worth, then.
Kingham’s early and impressive career thus far has seen a previously unranked prospect skyrocket to the No. 6 farmhand of the Bucs’ system for 2015. The righty led the Pirates organization in ERA during his first full season of action in 2011, earned a Midseason All-Star selection with Hi-A Bradenton in 2013 and set a career high with 119 strikeouts last year.
Sure, there’s a road bump here and there. But, with the Tribe alone, each time he allowed more than three earned runs, Kingham bounced back to author a quality start in his very next Triple-A outing.
“The most important thing is just consistency, in any aspect of my game; just be as consistent as possible and eliminate the ups and downs and try to duplicate everything with as minimal change as possible,” said Kingham of his main focus entering the 2015 season. “I’m starting to really realize that and starting to figure out my body, and know how to [make adjustments] along the way. That’s my biggest thing: consistency with pitch location and pitch delivery and everything as a whole, just being more consistent with it”
At first, adjustments didn’t even appear to be necessary as Kingham progressed through a strong Double-A showing to a stellar Triple-A debut. He struck out eight while tossing seven scoreless innings during his first trip to a Triple-A mound.
Kingham blinked once in his second start with the Indians, allowing a lone score in seven more solid frames against Gwinnett on June 18.
However, the “setback” – if that’s what you can even call it, was followed by back-to-back blankings of Durham (6 2/3 innings) and Louisville (6 innings) for a lights-out 0.34 ERA, 20 strikeouts and just five walks through his fist four Triple-A starts.
The said “adjustment period” didn’t hit until his second month in Indianapolis.
Credit the subsiding rush from a promotion, or the more likely case of hitters adjusting to the right-hander, Kingham appeared to be human after all when he was tagged for six runs on 10 hits against the Bats during his first start of July.
But again, in his self-defined game of consistency, Kingham recovered to toss back-to-back quality starts and even flirt with a perfect game in the Indians’ seven-inning doubleheader on July 10.
Thus, the theme was set.
Kingham rounded out the 2014 campaign with three quality starts and three not-so-quality outings as both he and his counterparts at the plate played out a constant game of ongoing adjustments.
When all was said and done, Kingham closed the book on an impressive 2014 season having gone 6-11 with a 3.34 ERA in 26 starts between Altoona and Indianapolis. He struck out 119 while issuing just 52 walks, and allowed a mere nine home runs through his 159 innings of work.
According to Baseball America’s rankings, behind fellow righty Tyler Glasnow and an on-the-mend Jameson Taillon, Kingham will enter his age-23 season as the third-highest rated hurler in Pittsburgh’s system.
He will do so in just his fifth full year removed from his last showcase out in Las Vegas.
“The transition has been huge – everyone is just as good as you are now and some are better than you,” said Kingham. “But you just have to go out there and compete with those guys and just shine and use everything you’ve developed along the way.”