Whether it’s opening day, a few weeks later, or closer to mid-season, Scott Kingery will be playing for the Phillies. The second baseman who also spots at third base, shortstop and center field has already been compared to Chase Utley and Dustin Pedroia, two of the three best second basemen over the 15-year period between the peaks of Jeff Kent and Jose Altuve.
Those are serious comparisons, and it’s tempting to get overly excited about anyone who’s drawing that kind of talk. But before we go overboard, and before Kingery takes his first steps toward home plate at Citizens Bank Park, let’s see exactly what he is and what he might become at the majors. Is it Utley or Pedroia? Is it something else entirely? And how excited should we be?
First, Kingery has plus tools. According to Fangraphs he’s currently a 70 in speed, which means it’s plus-plus – we’re talking a guy who can rank in the top 20 in stolen bases for a little while. His fielding is currently a 55 with 60 potential, which means it’s nearing above-average with plus potential. He’ll be good at second base, possibly a Gold Glove candidate. We won’t miss Cesar Hernandez there. We don’t have much data on him at third base, shortstop or the outfield, so it’s impossible to know what he is. If you want to say he’ll handle those positions after seeing a few video clips, that’s on you. His hit tool is average but potentially above-average. The power might top out as average, but right now it’s below-average.
But tools are one side of the story, as are the glowing scout reviews that have compared him to Utley and Pedroia, and that have led with phrases like “plays the game the right way.” Considering these two methods in which we judge developing players, Kingery should be, at least, a decent major leaguer who contributes to the running game and plays good defense. At worst, he’s a good utility player.
But let’s look at how he’s actually fared on the field. His triple-slash lines since being drafted in 2015 tell a really good story:
- A (2015, age 21) – .250/.314/.337
- A+ (2016, age 22) – .293/.360/.411
- AA (2016-17, age 22-23) – .290/.342/.509
- AAA (2017, age 23) – .294/.337/.449
If we want to spin a narrative, it’s that Kingery was probably tired at the end of his age-21 season, since he added 282 plate appearances to his normal college total. He performed extremely well to start his first full pro season, then burned out a little in double-A by the end of the year. He was even better at the start of his second full pro season and still experienced just a little burnout, combined with facing tougher pitching, upon his triple-A callup. That’s all pretty normal, which is why I’m even writing this – it’s not far-fetched to think a player in his first full seasons is going to tire toward the end. Also, each level up is a little harder.
But these numbers don’t tell the whole story. In 2014, Chris Mitchell, who pioneered the KATOH projection system – which provides long-term forecasting for minor league players – wrote about what minor league numbers translate best to the majors. Analyzing data since 1990, Mitchell found that certain minor league statistics can be significant indicators of major league success. In the triple-A and double-A levels, especially, those stats are age, BB%, K%, ISO, BABIP and SB%.
Here are those statistics for Kingery over his entire minor league career:
The first thing you’ll notice is Kingery started at class-A, which is unusual for most prospects but not for a college junior at the top of the draft. We can pull in his age 18-20 seasons, which took place at the University of Arizona, just to show the full context:
According to this 2014 Grantland piece by Ben Lindbergh, players jumping from triple-A to the majors have historically seen, on average, 80 percent of their translatable skills translate in that first full season (with results improving in the future). Knowing that, and with the information we have, let’s talk about what translates best to the majors in the case of Kingery.
Stolen base percentage translates well, and Kingery is remarkably consistent on the basepaths. Throw out those college seasons and he hovers right at 83-84% success rate while typically attempting at least 30 steals per level. Fangraphs says he contributed about 3.8 additional runs last year between double-A and triple-A just by stealing bases, ranking him in the top 20 among all minor league players. While he’s not an elite base stealer, Kingery has been very good and can be expected to attempt 30 steals per season in the majors. If we’re to believe in the 20 percent dropoff he’ll have something more like a 68% steal rate, which funny enough, aligns with those odd college numbers. But Kingery hasn’t ever showed a dropoff with his steals, so we can believe that he’ll finish his first full season at the majors close to that 83-84% success rate.
Strikeout percentage translates better to the majors than walk percentage, and so far Kingery has been generally successful at keeping a clean mark. His 20.3% in triple-A may be due to late-season tiring and seeing better pitching for the first time; this is one major reason the Phillies could stand to keep Kingery in Lehigh Valley to start 2018. (They’d like to see that percentage come down to his normal levels of 13-16%.) Once he makes the majors, let’s say the strikeouts jump by 20 percent; thus, we’re looking at more like a 16-19% strikeout percentage over that first full MLB season.
ISO is another statistic that translates relatively well, since it’s effective at showing how much production a player can generate on his own. Kingery’s ISO has been all over the map, with the highest being that .219 he accrued while at Reading, but his splits weren’t outrageous (he hit 10 home runs at home and 8 on the road). But note that the ISO has increased through each level up until the end of last year. I’m not sure we can regularly expect a .219 mark, but something closer to .170-.180 seems like a more comfortable prediction. Again, consider that 20 percent dropoff and we’re now looking at a .130 ISO or so to start.
Finally, let’s go to BABIP, which lets us know a player’s average when he puts a ball in play. Kingery has always held a higher BABIP thanks to his speed, and if we’re to spot him around .325, a 20 percent dropoff in his numbers would give him a BABIP around .300.
With that, here’s a generous projection for a 80 percent Scott Kingery, once he makes the majors, and over a full season (in which we’re giving him 500 plate appearances):
Most projection models see him carrying a K% around 20-21% with a BB% around 5.5%, an ISO at .150-.160 and a BABIP around .300. I’m a little bearish on the power but feel that he can adjust at the plate quicker.
So what players are like that? Here are the closest 2017 comparisons to those collected numbers:
These feel like good comps for a first full season – not an elite or top tier middle infielder but somewhere around a 2-win player. Bogaerts is probably the best possible outcome of this group, as he was worth about 4 wins despite middling defense.
Let’s go beyond the first year and think about Year 2 and Year 3. If we’re to believe the K% will decrease, and the ISO and BABIP will increase, Kingery becomes comparable to 2017 Alex Bregman (15.5 K%, 8.8 BB%, .191 ISO, .311 BABIP) or Elvis Andrus (14.7 K%, 5.5 BB%, .174 ISO, .325 BABIP). In fact, somewhere between Andrus and Bregman seems like a good place to shoot for the first few years of his career. Andrus has been worth 7.9 fWAR over his last three seasons, while Bregman has been worth 4.8 fWAR in his first two years and is projected to start his first three seasons with around 8.8 fWAR.
An 8-win player over three seasons would be pretty good. It’s not Utley in his prime (nearly 8.8 fWAR in one season), and it’s not quite Pedroia, either (14.6 fWAR in the first three years), so maybe we should adjust our expectations just a smidgen. But all told, the beginning is certainly promising.