Where Did Kong Go Wrong?

Dave Kingman’s name today is something of a bitter joke: a synonym for sluggishness, unpopularity, and dysfunctionality. Every discussion of bad fundamentals, bad fielding, and bad behavior inevitably leads to a Kingman mention.

But it wasn’t always that way. There was a point in Kingman’s career – an early point, yes, but a point – at which he looked for all the world as though he was going to be a multi-faceted contributor, a major star, quite possibly a Hall of Famer.

Not convinced? How about we take a look at him in comparison with a few young power hitters who closely preceded him.

In the Beginning, They Were Prospects

Kingman was an extraordinarily impressive prospect. He was a first-round draft pick of the San Francisco Giants off the USC campus: he was 6-foot-6, a rangy 210 pounds, with a great arm (having pitched at the collegiate level), and remarkable speed for an athlete of his size. This was Kingman’s performance in his first professional season, at age 21:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
21  AA   OF-1B  60 210  41  62  9  1 15  41  37  64  3 .295   x

Here’s another player who had come along a decade or so earlier than Kingman. This guy was also a college player (Ohio State) who turned pro at the age of 21, right-handed like Kingman, and extremely tall like Kingman, though bigger (6’7”, 240) and not nearly as fast. Like Kingman, he had a cannon arm, and had been deployed as a pitcher in college. Here was this guy’s pro debut season at age 21 – let’s call him Player A:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
21  B    OF-P  129 487 104 162 34  2 37 119  81 129  2 .333   x
21  MLB    OF    8  29   3   7  1  0  1   2   1  11  0 .241  67

Player A’s hitting performance at Class B – factoring in the different level of competition — was roughly equal to Kingman’s Double-A performance, and Player A got a late-season Major League cup of coffee (which Kingman didn’t) in which he struck out a lot but otherwise didn’t embarrass himself. At this point it wasn’t clear that Kingman was meaningfully ahead of or behind Player A, in terms of development and potential.

Let’s look as well at another guy, just a few years ahead of Kingman, whom we’ll call Player B. Also a college star (at Arizona State), he wasn’t nearly as tall – just 6 feet even – but he was a very muscular 195 pounds. A left-handed batter and thrower, he hadn’t pitched, but possessed an awesome right field arm, and ran extremely well. Here is Player B’s professional record through age 21:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
20  A      OF   12  48  14  14  3  2  2  11   9  10  1 .292   x
20  A      OF   56 221  50  66  6  0 21  60  15  71  3 .299   x
21  AA     OF  114 413  84 121 26 17 17  58  44  87 17 .293   x
21  MLB    OF   35 118  13  21  4  4  1   6  10  46  1 .178  72

Player B was rushed to the majors, receiving more than a cup of coffee at age 21 (in which he really struggled), without having spent an inning at the Triple-A level. Overall it wasn’t clear at this point that he was significantly ahead of Kingman or Player A in his development.

And here’s another guy, Player C. This guy wasn’t a college player, having played full-time in the minors starting at age 19. Left-handed all the way, 6-2 1/2, 200, average speed and another very strong throwing arm (with experience as a high school pitcher).

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
19  D      1B  118 431  66 118 28  6  7  87  23 100  5 .274   x
20  C      OF  107 396  63 103 19  1 11  61  34  66  4 .260   x
21  A      OF  130 453  78 131 21  8 22  89  36  89  2 .289   x

By age 21, Player C’s power capacity was beginning to blossom. But he hadn’t yet reached Double-A, and despite his big edge in professional experience, it’s hard to conclude anything other than that Kingman (and Players A and B) appeared to be ahead of Player C through the age-21 season.

OK, one last guy. Player D was also a high school player, who signed at age 18. Under the rules in place at the time, his bonus required him to stay on the Major League roster for two full calendar years following his signing: he was a Bonus Baby. This guy was very different from Kingman physically: 5’11” and extremely muscular. He didn’t run or throw well, but was a sure-handed infielder.

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
18  MLB    2B    9  13   1   4  1  0  0   3   2   3  0 .308 121
19  MLB  3B-2B  38  80  12  16  1  0  4   7   9  31  0 .200  76
20  MLB  3B-2B  44  99  10  22  2  0  5  13  10  39  0 .222  80
20  A      3B   70 249  61  81 16  7 15  63  50  49  5 .325   x
21  AA     3B  142 519  90 145 30  7 29 101  70 123  2 .279   x

The odd sitting-on-the-major-league-bench apprenticeship made the assessment of Player D’s development a tricky proposition. He did show remarkable power in his very limited, very early Major League exposure. Once allowed to play in the minors, he had thrived. It would appear he was somewhat ahead of Kingman, and the rest of this crew, in terms of development through age 21.

So Kingman was certainly somewhere in the midst of all four of these other guys at this point. Let’s see what happened next.

Age 22

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
22  AAA  1B-OF 105 392  89 109 29  5 26  99  32 105 11 .278   x
22  MLB  1B-OF  41 115  17  32 10  2  6  24   9  35  5 .278 149

It was a scintillating season for Kingman. Promoted to Triple-A, he tore the league apart, earning a major league shot in late July. There he hit a grand slam in his second game, and hit consistently well in a semi-regular role for the rest of the season. He struck out a lot, but displayed extraordinary power to all fields, excellent speed, and decent defensive aptitude. He gave every indication of being on the verge of stardom, perhaps superstardom.

Here’s how the rest of the boys did at 22:

Player A
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
22  AA   OF-3B  63 261  59  93 13  0 27  79  22  57  3 .356   x
22  MLB    OF    9  21   2   3  0  1  1   6   2   9  0 .143  51
22  AAA  OF-1B  76 295  43  94 19  2 16  47  21  68  0 .319   x

Player B
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
22  MLB    OF  154 553  82 138 13  6 29  74  50 171 14 .250 137

Player C
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
22  AAA  OF-1B 138 497  97 137 21  8 27  82  45 111  6 .276   x
22  MLB    OF   10  31   1   9  3  1  0   4   3  10  0 .290 115

Player D
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
22  MLB    3B   13  31   2   6  0  0  0   2   0  12  0 .194  14
22  AAA    3B   38 121  14  26  5  1  2  10  18  37  1 .215   x
22  AA   3B-OF  86 299  58  92 17  1 17  54  60  68  4 .308   x

A rather diverse set of experiences here. Player B stepped forward as a full-year major league regular and did extremely well, despite his propensity to whiff. Player A was spectacular at both Double-A and Triple-A, but struggled in his very brief mid-season Major League trial; his team’s handling of him can certainly be questioned. Player C had a solid, steady improving year, including getting his feet wet in a late-season big league call-up, while Player D suffered through a very frustrating season of bombing in both Major League and Triple-A trials, before turning it around upon his return to Double-A.

It’s clear that Player B had emerged as the best of the bunch at this age, but there’s really no way to say anything other than, at this point, Kingman was at least as promising as any of the other three, and probably moreso.

Age 23

Here’s Kingman:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
23  MLB  3-1-O 135 472  65 106 17  4 29  83  51 140 16 .225 114

In his first full big league season, Kingman struggled with his batting average. He also dealt with the challenge of playing third base for the first time, although he handled it gamely, and his performance there truly wasn’t all that bad; the Giants weren’t helping him by running him on and off the new position on a daily basis. Overall Kingman had a good year; there was still every reason to expect he was developing into a major star.

How were the other fellows doing?

Player A
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
23  AAA    1B   26  97  17  36 11  0  4  24  18  17  0 .371   x
23  MLB  OF-1B 117 448  54 120 15  2 23  77  32 108  0 .268 107

Player B
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
23  MLB    OF  152 549 123 151 36  3 47 118 114 142 13 .275 187

Player C
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
23  MLB  OF-1B 108 304  34  74 11  6 11  47  19  85  0 .243 103

Player D
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
23  MLB  3B-OF 153 546  98 132 20  2 42 105  90 116  3 .242 137

At age 23, Player B vaulted into megastardom; the Hall of Fame appeared to be a mere eventual formality for him. Player D also had a huge breakthrough, emerging as a slugging star (though struggling with batting average) in his first full-time big league play. Player A was finally given a real Major League shot, and had a season similar to, but not as good as, Kingman’s – and was named Rookie of the Year. Player C, lagging the pack, was a platoon player as a rookie, showing flashes of brilliance but also a hideous BB/K.

Clearly at age 23 Kingman wasn’t the best of this bunch, but he certainly wasn’t the worst either.

But now the plot thickens.

Age 24

Kingman:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
24  MLB  3-1-P 112 305  54  62 10  1 24  55  41 122  8 .203 110

It was a bizarre, mixed-up season for Kingman. The Giants gave Ed Goodson (Ed Goodson?!?) the regular job at third base ahead of him, and with Willie McCovey generally healthy at first base, Kingman spent the first half mostly riding the pine. In the utility role (including service as an emergency pitcher), Kingman hit miserably: entering the final week of August, he had just 191 at-bats, in which he was batting .183, with 11 homers, 13 walks, and 75 strikeouts.

Then Goodson went down with a finger injury, and was out for the rest of the season. Kingman was given the third base job for the season’s final five weeks. In that stretch, Kingman’s batting average was just .237, but he hit 13 homers in 114 at-bats (slugging .632), while drawing 28 walks.

The rest of the gang:

Player A
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
24  MLB  OF-1B  92 267  36  79 10  2 15  45  21  50  0 .296 118

Player B
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
24  MLB    OF  149 426  57 101 21  2 23  66  75 135 26 .237 128

Player C
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
24  MLB  OF-1B 117 421  53 115 19  7 21  78  17  92  1 .273 123

Player D
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
24  MLB  1B-3B 124 442  84 122 19  1 31  80  71 106  1 .276 145

Player B suffered a huge letdown season, though he was still actually quite good. Player D was bothered by injuries, but hit better than ever when in the lineup. Player A often lost the battle for playing time, but hit well when he got the chance, while Player C continued his doggedly steady pace of getting a little better every year, and had worked himself into regular status by the end of the year.

Kingman’s age-24 season was probably the worst of these, though he did indicate that when given the chance to play every day, he could hit with any of these guys. But his career progress had suffered a worrisome setback.

Age 25

Here’s the season Kingman had:

Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
25  MLB  1-3-O 121 350  41  78 18  2 18  55  37 125  8 .223 102

The Giants had traded McCovey in the off-season, opening up first base. Nonetheless they played Kingman at third for the first couple of weeks, until his atrocious fielding performance there (.797 fielding percentage) prompted them to move him to first. He hit okay, but not great, in the early season: at the end of May he was batting .252 with 7 home runs in 131 at-bats. Then he encountered an appalling slump. In June and July combined, Kingman went 12-for-81 (.148), with 3 homers. He rallied briefly in late August, but then slumped again through a dreary September/October (.193 with 3 homers in 83 at-bats).

Meanwhile:

Player A
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
25  MLB    OF  141 493  80 146 25  6 31 119  39 108  1 .296 146

Player B
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
25  MLB    OF  150 567  87 157 29  3 32  80  63 161 16 .277 144

Player C
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
25  MLB  OF-1B 144 533  68 145 25  8 27 107  39 127  1 .272 129

Player D
Age Lev   Pos    G  AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI  BB  SO SB   BA OPS+
25  MLB  1-3-O 150 541  94 156 20  7 46 122 107 109  1 .288 161

All four were now finally established as regulars, and all four were producing as stars. Kingman was struggling to maintain regular status, nothing close to a star. He had regressed while the others were fully developing their potential.

Let’s Lift Those Veils

Okay, you’ve probably already figured it out, but:

Player A = Frank Howard
Player B = Reggie Jackson
Player C = Willie Stargell
Player D = Harmon Killebrew

Why didn’t Kingman turn out to have a comparable career to any of these guys, even though he appeared to be at least middle-of-the-pack comparable through his early twenties?

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the answer to this question may well be fundamentally unknowable: different athletes (as with different humans in any endeavor) develop differently. Some things just happen; everything isn’t neatly predictable or accountable. But in Kingman’s case we may have a better handle on it than in many others.

It’s clear that Kingman’s development path took a southward turn in his age 24 and age 25 seasons: he regressed (painfully so, to those of us watching closely) as a hitter, runner, and fielder, at an age when most players are stepping up to prime performance. Except for a brief renaissance at ages 29 and 30 (1978 and 1979) with the Cubs, he would really never get out of the rut he found for himself.

So what happened?

The Giants: A Study in Indecisiveness

Converting Kingman into a third baseman at age 23 was a bold move, but not a crazy one. The team clearly had room for him there, while being crowded at first base (McCovey) and corner outfield (Henderson, Bonds), and Kingman did possess an outstanding arm and decent hands and agility. He faced the challenge positively in 1972, yet the Giants, despite having no other good third basemen, flipped Kingman on and off third base all year long in ’72 – hardly the best manner in which to master a new position.

Then in 1973, they largely benched him for the first three-quarters of the season – again, hardly the best way to foster the development of a potential star, particularly one with a big, strikeout-prone swing.

Then, early in 1974, when Kingman encountered a bad fielding slump at third, the Giants abruptly abandoned the Kingman-to-third-base project, after having played him in a grand total of 140 games there in less than three seasons.

It was as though the Giants were going out of their way to undermine the confidence and enthusiasm of a young player: challenging him to learn a new position at the big league level, and then never giving him a sustained chance there, and erratically jerking him in and out of the lineup as well. Undoubtedly management inundated Kingman with coaching advice through this period, on hitting as well as fielding, and it’s easy to imagine an anxious and frustrated Kingman eventually refusing to listen to whatever anyone in the organization told him (whether the advice was sound or not), because the organization never seemed to decisively execute any plan, or to stick with him through his inevitable struggles.

The Major Leaguer as Adolescent Sulker

If you’ve ever raised a teenager, or been one, you know the drill: the more you tell the kid to do something sensible, the more he will stubbornly persist in doing the exact opposite.

The Giants gave up on Kingman following 1974, and sold him to the Mets. In New York, he finally got his opportunity to play every day, and plainly Kingman took it as a chance to demonstrate just how completely he could ignore all criticism, now matter how constructive. He openly disdained any objective other than maximizing his home runs — not even the frequency of them, so much as the distance. He gave up any concern for strike zone discipline (in 1976, for instance, Kingman drew 28 walks in 510 plate appearances; he had drawn 28 walks in fewer than 150 plate appearances down the stretch in 1973). He gave up any pretense of caring about fielding competence. His speed evaporated.

The result wasn’t necessarily a bad player. Kingman’s power was legitimately prodigious, and his home runs provided real value to his teams. But, perhaps more than any other player in history, Kingman pushed the envelope of unidimensionality, exposing a yawning chasm between a single major strength, and completely hopeless weakness in every other aspect of his game.

One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration

Kingman’s regression was an oddity. But his lack of development in comparison to that displayed by Howard, Jackson, Stargell, and Killebrew illustrates something else, namely just how difficult it is to become a Major League star, and remain one. We may tend to perceive the achievements of big, strong sluggers as being primarily feats of natural ability: these guys are “just” sluggers, not players who have to work on their skills, as, say, scrappy middle infielders do. But successful hitting of any kind is a skill requiring constant dedication. Neither Howard, Jackson, Stargell, nor Killebrew possessed much, if any, greater natural ability than Kingman. Their development into major stars must be recognized as owing a great deal to discipline and hard work, their capacity to accept and apply coaching, and their willingness to make adjustments as pitchers adjusted to them.

It’s a time-worn cliche that effort, not ability, separates the best from the rest. Obviously real life is more complicated than that; no amount of dedication could have turned Ed Goodson into Willie McCovey. But like all cliches, this one rests on a foundation of sound truth. The degree to which an athlete maximizes his achievements is, fundamentally, a function of sustained and intelligent effort. Frank Howard, Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, and Harmon Killebrew all succeeded at the extremely difficult accomplishment of becoming the very best baseball players they could possibly be. It’s quite evident that Dave Kingman didn’t.

Print Friendly
« Previous: THT Staff Predictions
Next: Game in Review: Reds vs. Mets »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Current day month ye@r *