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Could Pirates Prospect Nick Kingham be this Year's Version of Michael Wacha?
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014
Significant success after triple-A promotion
After a solid showing at double-A Altoona to end last season and more solid pitching there for the first two months this season, Nick Kingham earned a promotion to the triple-A. Nick Kingham has responded very well to the promotion to triple-A, and after four starts in the new league, teams have struggled to score against him. Kingham is implementing the Pirates pitching philosophy to near perfection, which has led to very few hits against him without a low walk total and a decent strikeout rate. Kingham buying into the Pirates ground ball pitching philosophy has led to his ground ball rate going from 1.04 ground ball outs for every fly ball out in his time at double-A, to 1.24 ground ball outs for every fly ball out at triple-A. Like Wacha last year, Kingham is a Pirates pitching prospect who has been pushed pretty quickly through the farm system. Also like Wacha, he is a tall right handed pitcher who is able to use a good downward plane to throw his fastball at the bottom of the strike zone. While not being quite as tall as Wacha, Kingham does possess the same three pitch repertoire that Wacha is now featuring at the Major League level.
A look at the triple-A numbers
Beyond just the 1.24 ground ball out to fly ball out rate, the numbers for Nick Kingham at triple-A have been very impressive. Kingham has never trailed in a game at triple-A this year and he has allowed one earned and a total of two runs in 26 and two thirds of an inning pitched. He has also pitched six or more innings in each of his four triple-A starts so far. Kingham received two no decisions in two of the four starts he has made at triple-A so far, but he has two wins in other two to run his record to 2-0 with a 0.34 earned runs average. Kingham currently has 20 strikeouts in those 26 and two thirds innings pitched, which gives him a 6.75 strike per nine innings pitched rate. Kingham also only has five walks in his sample of innings pitched so far, which gives him a rate of 1.69 walks per nine innings pitched at triple-A. This walk rate also give him only 20 base runners allowed via the walk and base hit so far at triple-A. This leaves his walks plus hits per inning pitched rate at 0.75 through his first four triple-A starts. While most of these numbers are spectacular, the sample size has to be considered, but there is a chance he could produce in similar fashion to Wacha from last season if he can carry over the strong pitching to the Major League level as the season winds down.
Similarities between Kingham and Wacha
Michael Wacha is a pitcher who is six feet and six inches tall, while Nick Kingham is a pitcher who is six feet and five inches tall. They are both right handed pitchers who rely heavily on their plus fastball to set up solid off speed pitches. Both make use of a four seam fastball and a two seam fastball that has more movement to generate ground ball contact. Both throw the ball on a downward plane to the plate in order to pound the bottom of the strike zone with quality strikes at high velocity. They both feature their best fastball command when they are throwing in the low to mid 90s, but they can both reach back and light up the radar gun at 98 MPH from time to time. Wacha and Kingham complement their fastballs with a changeup and curveball combination as their two secondary pitches. They do a variety of things with their fastballs to set up these pitches, but when they start both pitches on the downward plane that they typically throw their fastballs, the effectiveness of these pitches increase. Occasionally they attack hitters upstairs with the four seam fastball, which sets up their knee buckling curveball that they start on the higher plane but drop down into the strike zone perfectly for a called strike three.
When Kingham could be ready
By the beginning of August, Nick Kingham will have completed either nine or ten starts at triple-A. If at that point he is still continuing his early mastery of that level, then he could be ready for a promotion to the big leagues for the final quarter of the season. To line things for Kingham to pitch in the final 40 games of the season at the big league level, the Pirates may choose to give him extra time in between starts at triple-A and bring him up in the middle of August. They could choose to do this in an effort to manage his innings, in anticipation of the team potentially making a deep playoff run this season. If Nick Kingham's first four starts at the triple-A level are any indication, then he is quickly approaching the point where he will be deemed to be ready for the Major Leagues. The Pirates like to get their prospects significant time at each level of the minors, but Nick Kingham has already proved to them that he is advanced enough to move more quickly than some of their other pitching prospects in the past.
While there is no guarantee that the Pirates will get a Wacha-like performance from Nick Kingham this year at the big league level, there are enough similarities between the two pitchers that it would not be surprising. Kingham throughout the minor leagues has shown breakout ability like Wacha did when he was in the minor leagues for the Cardinals. The strong walk per nine innings pitched rate is the most significant similarity between the two pitchers, and a very strong indicator of future success for Wacha at the big league level. Wacha set the expectations very high for pitchers who possess similar abilities to him, but Kingham's early performance at triple-A is a strong positive indicator for him. The story that could potentially belong to Nick Kingham will be interesting to see unfold, if and when he makes his debut in the big leagues this season.