WASHINGTON -- Carter Kieboom leaned back with his arms folded in Philadelphia in early May of 2019. His callup had taken a nasty turn since a late-inning homer in his first game. By this point, Kieboom was caught in a snarling storm which jerked him from bad at-bats to poor fielding and back. His average dropped to .111 after an 0-for-4 evening in the series opener against the Phillies. He began to talk.
Prompted only by a general hello, Kieboom started to explain he was going to figure things out. The conversation went on between him and a reporter, though it sounded more like Kieboom was talking only to himself, trying to convince his inner monologue the stormy start was a blip and not harbinger. Kieboom was sent to Triple-A Fresno three days later.
Wednesday, the Nationals again sent Kieboom from a starting spot on the major-league field to a different stadium to reboot. His efforts to take over as the starting third baseman finally reached a breaking point after Tuesday night, when Kieboom’s OPS dropped to .559, his frustration became visible and audible, and a careening team realized it needed to do something.
Kieboom’s major-league visit lasted 11 games last season. He stayed 17 games this season. For now, he is untradeable and in need of fixing. It happens. It’s also a problem the Nationals hoped would not be on their hands this season after an MVP finalist departed and a giant gap opened at third base. They tried to fill it with one of their young stars. He failed.
Which pivots his story into what’s next. Kieboom’s primary problem at the plate this year was anchored by a lagging bat. His hard-hit and pull percentages were dismal, indicating a hitter constantly late on pitches. The question for Kieboom is why was he late? Was he in between with his approach? Was a hole from last year still in existence this year, enabling the league to punish and exploit? And, how can he fix the issue?
A takeoff on a cliché works here: those who adjust survive. By the time everyone reaches the major leagues, surrounding themselves with the other one percenters, a fresh separation begins. For a hitter, they need to move pitch to pitch to adapt. Pulling themselves out of a slump is more difficult than it has been at any point in their lives. Their issue at the plate may be a four-inch by four-inch square, but it may as well be a wailing siren at this level.
“Here, when they see a weakness, they exploit it,” Davey Martinez said. “And until you make adjustments, they’re going to keep exploiting it. It is more difficult -- the difference is, and what I say to everybody, when you’re a pitcher and you’re up here, it’s all about consistency. If they find a weakness, they can consistently throw the ball where they want and you’re going to have a tough time until you make adjustments. For a young hitter to come up here, you have to make those adjustments.
“With all the data that we get up here, they know, hey this guy is struggling with sliders away or fastballs up. That being said, that’s what makes Juan [Soto] so good. When he feels like they got something on him, he can make an adjustment on the fly.”
Kieboom is yet to do this. It’s why he continues to be caught in swirls he cannot escape. It’s also odd. The concern was whether his defense would be viable enough to keep him on the left side of the infield, increasing his value. It was not his offense. His surprisingly solid play at third base was the only thing to keep his WAR in positive ground this season (though it was strongly aided by plays he made in the shift). Kieboom’s floundering at the plate became the reason he was sent to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg.
The sample size of Kieboom’s work remains small, but is also damning. There’s a problem for him at this level -- for now. It converts him from prospect to internal project. His trade value is at its bottom. His ability to help the major-league club is stalled. None of these facts mean he will not be a quality player in the future. Kieboom is smart, has been preparing to be a big-league player since childhood (not just dreaming about it), and has an inner expectation which will push him to find a solution.
Kieboom’s final day of frustration came Tuesday. The Nationals thought he was not being aggressive enough at the plate. One of the few offensive virtues for him this season was being able to regularly walk. Tuesday, Kieboom twice swung at the first pitch with runners on base. He twice grounded into double plays. Both led to clear demonstrations of dissatisfaction. Martinez noticed the pitches and the reactions, saying one was just about down the middle and ripe to be hit hard. Instead, it turned into another zero.
“I know as a young kid, you want to go out there, you want to impress, you want to help your team win,” Martinez said. “Sometimes you get result-driven and just want to get hit after hit. You’ve got to go pitch by pitch, try to get a good pitch to hit and hit the ball hard. You can’t control where they go. Hopefully, we’ll figure something out for him and we’ll go from there.”