Carter Keiboom’s last day in the major leagues came 10 days ago, on Aug. 25, when his batting average stooped to the Mendoza Line and his irritation boiled over.
Kieboom went 0-for-4 against Philadelphia. He delivered a shot to his helmet after crossing first base following one out. He yelled in the dugout after making another out. On Aug. 4, his batting average was .417 after a crisp start. It had fallen more than 200 points three weeks later.
Outbursts rooted in frustration are not uncommon for major-league players. Stories of bats being slammed back into the rack, bathroom sinks receiving shots or tunnel walls being used as a place to release anger are standard lore. Earlier this week, Max Scherzer used two hands to raise his glove over his head and slam it onto the dugout bench after the sixth inning of his outing. He said tensions are high. The need for release is understandable.
However, there is a framework around the outbursts. Are they an inhibitor or driver? In Kieboom’s case, the Nationals deemed his reactions more problematic. He wasn’t shedding failure at the plate by the time he reached the field, which was a repeat of his brief 2019 appearance in the major leagues. So, they sent him to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg.
The move made sense at the time. Kieboom’s spiral was an issue on a team still thinking about the postseason, but filled with problems. A week later, it made less sense. By Friday, when Kieboom was added to the taxi squad for the team’s four-game weekend trip to Atlanta, Kieboom not playing made even less sense. Not just in general. But based on the manager’s own words and the current roster situation.
Luis García has been provided a space to play every day. Mistakes or no mistakes. Why? Davey Martinez said this year is the perfect situation for a young player to start his work in the major leagues. No fans, less pressure, not a standard season. And, García has fluctuated as a 20-year-old would be expected to. His average dropped by 100 points after a good start. He misplayed a standard ground ball this week in a big moment and swung at the first pitch in the ninth inning with runners on base after the hitter ahead of him walked. However, two nights later, he went 3-for-4 and made two high-end defensive plays.
So, the logic to play García seemingly would also apply to Kieboom. It does not, for now.
“When we assessed Carter at the time, he was trending downward,” Martinez said this week. “And we didn’t want him to lose -- we wanted to make sure he didn’t just completely go downhill. So, we wanted to get him just to kind of relax, get him as many at-bats as he needs without putting any pressure on himself. I’m hoping that -- we’re watching him, he’s actually swinging the bat better. So, we’ll see in the next week or so. I’d love to get him back up here and let him play. But, I want him to just gain some confidence again, then when he comes up here, see what he can do.
“With García, he comes up here, he puts the ball in play. You can tell he has no fear. He strikes out, he doesn’t carry it on the field. Just goes out there and plays and has fun. Two different characters and he’s holding his own. If I saw something different, then it would be a different conversation with [Mike Rizzo] and I. But we think he’s doing OK. He’s learning. We’re going to keep running him out there.”
Assessing young talent is difficult this year. There’s no month-long trend in the Pacific Coast League to lean on when making a decision. The only work sample is from facing the same pitchers on a daily basis at the alternate training site.
Yet, the reasons to play Kieboom now -- and for the rest of the tortuous season -- are simple. The organization put him in a bad spot by suddenly deciding he was the insurance plan at third base. Kieboom had not played there. He made nine starts at the position with Triple-A Fresno last year to begin the raw process. By spring, the Nationals decided he was the starting third baseman regardless.
So, playing third base the rest of this season is paramount for his development. Seeing if he can make the offensive adjustments necessary against major-league pitchers is paramount for his development. Playing Brock Holt, an in-season grab who has no future with the team, does nothing for Kieboom’s growth or the organization’s further understanding of what kind of major leaguer he eventually will, or won’t, be.
Kieboom is closer to the field. He will spend the weekend with the team in his home state of Atlanta as a member of the taxi squad.
“Just to kind of get him back here, watch his swing,” Martinez said. “See where he’s at.”
For now, that’s on the taxi squad or at a minor-league complex.