By JAY LeBLANC
August 7, 2008
Stephen King‘s first stint with the Hagerstown Suns was a total disaster. Selected by the Washington Nationals out of a Florida high school in the third round of the 2006 draft, King signed too late to make his pro debut that summer. After an impressive showing in 2007 spring training, the Nats handed him the starting shortstop’s gig with the Class A Suns, taking a gamble by skipping him past Rookie ball and short-season Class A. King went deep twice in the first week of the season, and then started swinging for the fences and fanning with alarming regularity. He hit just .180 with 51 strikeouts in 128 at bats, and was demoted to the Nats’ Gulf Coast League affiliate to get his act together.
To King’s credit, that’s exactly what he did. With fellow prospect Esmailyn Gonzalez manning shortstop for the GCL Nationals - with whom, as a high-school draftee with no professional experience, King probably should have started the year anyway - he shifted to second base, relaxed, and started to hit. While his batting average (.248) and strikeout totals (47 in 161 at bats) still left something to be desired, he slugged nine home runs and knocked in 30 in 42 Rookie-level games and earned a promotion to Washington’s short-season Class A New York-Penn League affiliate, the Vermont Lake Monsters. He got off to a good start with Vermont, hitting .333 in 24 at bats, but a pulled hamstring ended his season after just six games there.
Ranked by Baseball America as the No. 16 prospect in the Nats’ organization entering this season, King is back in Hagerstown and experiencing much better results. Through 84 games, he’s hitting .280 with 20 doubles, six home runs and 33 RBI. Most encouragingly, King has drastically cut down on his strikeouts, with 71 in 325 at bats so far, and is playing solid defense at third base - his third position since turning pro. The 6’ 2”, 195 pounder is only 20 years old, and scouts believe he’ll eventually develop into a power-hitting second baseman in the Jeff Kent mold. He has already impressed the Nationals with his ability to play multiple positions and the progress he’s made at the plate after a slow start to his pro career. I recently had a chance to speak with King:
Q: What was your first reaction when you first learned you’d been drafted by the Nationals? Did you know they were looking to pick you?
A: Well, I had an idea that the Nationals were looking. There were really a couple teams that were pretty seriously interested, so, as far as the Nationals picking me up, I didn’t really think much of the team. I thought it would be a good opportunity to move up quickly, because they didn’t have a strong farm system at that time. I was excited to get to work with them, because they had a young, up-and-coming farm system.
Q: You’re having an excellent season at the plate, hitting for a solid average and cutting down significantly on your strikeouts. What kinds of adjustments did you make in the offseason?
A: Not much. Really, I just came into this year … last year, when we started out, I was thinking at the plate, and you can’t think and hit. I really just cleared my mind of everything - I just didn’t think is what it boils down to. I just cleared my mind entirely - just see the ball and hit the ball.
Q: Could you describe your approach at the plate? Do you come into an at bat looking for a specific pitch, or do you just react to what’s thrown?
A: Typically I’ll look for a pitch early on, and later on you just kind of look for a fastball and adjust from there. But usually when I come up I’ll look for a fastball, usually middle-away or something like that, maybe middle-in, depending on the situation. But when you fall behind, then you just kind of react.
Q: You’ve played second and third base in addition to shortstop as a pro. What position do you think you’ll end up at in the long run?
A: You know, I don’t really know, honestly. They’re just kind of throwing me out at all the positions now, so I’m just going to go out and wherever they stick me, hopefully I’ll do a good job. Wherever I end up, that’s where I end up. I don’t really have a preference.
Q: You’ve had some problems with leg injuries as a pro. What are you doing in your conditioning to try to stay on the field?
A: Just a lot of stretching; little exercises to help out my hamstrings and quads and whatnot. And you know, man, just staying warm. When I pulled it this year, it was 30 degrees in New Jersey in the eighth inning. I think I just got cold. I went into a sprint and it blew out on me, so I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people make it out to be.
Q: Is there any player, past or present, that you try to model yourself after?
A: Not really. Growing up, I wasn’t a real baseball fanatic. I actually never really played until I was 12, so I never really got into baseball too much, so I don’t really have any favorite players. I like watching certain guys hit and such, but I don’t really have one that sticks out above the others.
Q: What are some of the aspects of your game that you’re trying to improve upon this year?
A: A lot of the mental game, definitely. You know, it’s a long season, and you can’t get caught up in one game or even a week of games or whatever if you have a bad string of games. You’ve got to really try to stay consistent with your mental approach. That has been the biggest thing this year - just coming in and trying to stay even-keel the whole year.
Jay LeBlanc is an assistant news editor at The Washington Times and Mayor of the National Pastime web community. His Prospect Q&A column runs every Monday and Thursday throughout the season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Amanda Rice
Be sure to check out our previous National Pastime Prospect Q&A’s: Matt Wieters, Orioles; Ross Detwiler, Nationals; Adrian Alaniz, Nationals; Jake Arrieta, Orioles; Greg Golson, Phillies; John Shelby III, White Sox; Brandon Erbe, Orioles; Chris Marrero, Nationals; Jason Donald, Phillies; John Ely, White Sox; Nolan Reimold, Orioles; Michael Burgess, Nationals; Wes Hodges, Indians; Colton Willems, Nationals; Chris Tillman, Orioles; Dominic Brown, Phillies; Brandon Hicks, Braves; Jordan Zimmermann, Nationals; Nick Weglarz, Indians; Gorkys Hernandez, Braves; Beau Mills, Indians.