Top Pirates pitching prospect Nick Kingham wasn't dominant Saturday night against Columbus, allowing four runs, three earned, in six innings and giving up a two-run homer. He did, however, exhibit big-league stuff, with a fastball that comes in anywhere from 90-95 MPH and can be overpowering (at least against Triple-A hitters), along with a good curveball (81-84 MPH) and a changeup in the 86-87 MPH range.
Before the start, Kingham said he was mostly working on applying polish to his game, working on his command and confidence. He's happy with his secondary pitches (with some justification -- his curveball, in particular, has won plenty of praise) and doesn't see either of them as works in progress.
"The shape has gotten a little tighter," Kingham says of his curveball, saying that it's developed into an asset, rather than "just a show-me pitch."
He also takes pride in his changeup.
"The changeup has come a long way for me, and that's my favorite pitch to throw," he says, explaining that the pitch has improved mostly because he's more consistent with it.
"He's got a changeup that he can throw in any count to keep hitters off balance, to keep hitters off his fastball," says catcher Tony Sanchez, noting that his own experience with Kingham is limited, since Kingham was only recently promoted to Indianapolis.
The Pirates are also working with Kingham on the finer points of his delivery, assistant GM Kyle Stark explains.
"There's a couple checkpoints in his delivery that he needs to do, and slowly but surely, he's starting to own those," says Stark. "Any guy is going to have specific keys, and this level is one where it's not about holding your hand through those things anymore."
Although Kingham's start Saturday night wasn't the best he's had so far at Triple-A, he surely would have been pleased that he didn't walk anyone. Kingham walked 25 batters in 71 innings at Altoona this year, but has just six walks in his first 45 innings at Triple-A.
"As the season's gone on, I feel like [my timing is] clicking a little more frequently, and I'm kind of finding a rhythm and really knowing my body throughout the whole delivery," says Kingham. "I try not to walk anybody. That's one of my pet peeves -- walking people."
The finer points of pitching aren't necessarily my strong suit, but the overall impression I got, from watching Kingham and from talking to Kingham, Sanchez and Stark, was that Kingham's development isn't rocket science at this point. He's a strong starting pitching prospect with a prototypical pitcher's body and three good pitches he can throw for strikes, and if nothing bad happens to him, he's probably going to be a good big-leaguer fairly soon. He doesn't need to dramatically change his approach. He needs to command his pitches, be consistent, and avoid missteps, and Triple-A is a good level for him to practice those things.
Triple-A hitters are "more professional," Kingham says. "They don't let you get away with many mistakes. ... They make it more of a chess game." Stark, too, cites "hitters who know what they're doing [and] can set you up" as Kingham's greatest challenge at this point.
Kingham has only made seven starts at the Triple-A level, and the Pirates generally have top prospects play at least a couple months at Triple-A before promoting them. Triple-A is more like the majors than Double-A for any number of obvious reasons, but one of those is that it's simply very culturally different from Double-A -- teams tend to stock Triple-A rosters with players who might be able to help the big-league team in a pinch, so the players are much older than they are in Double-A.
"These guys are men," Stark says. "They have families. They've been playing this game a long time. Just being around grown men, it changes things for guys."
Some at Bucs Dugout have suggested the possibility of using Kingham in the big-league bullpen down the stretch -- the Pirates need right-handed relief help, and using Kingham as a reliever would limit his innings for the season. Kingham said he was open to the possibility of pitching in relief, but it sounded like neither he nor the Pirates had given the idea serious thought.
"I think we'd probably prefer to exhaust some other [relief options] before that," Stark said, though he left open the possibility that the Pirates could reconsider if circumstances changed.
It seems unlikely, then, that we'll be seeing Kingham in Pittsburgh this season. With the progress he's made this season, though, it would be surprising if he didn't make the big leagues at some point in 2015. With the solid foundation he's built in the minors, he's a good bet to be productive once he does.