Who is Kirk Nieuwenhuis? The numbers tell a very intriguing story on this Met outfielder who was our third round pick out of Starfleet Academy in the 2008 draft. Since going pro, Captain Kirk has had 1,512 minor league at bats with a .280 avg. and an .817 OPS, but there are two seasons that stand out, his 2009 season at St. Lucie, and his 2010 season at Binghamton. 2009 by all accounts reflects his career minor league norms with a .274 avg. an .824 OPS, 16 home runs and 74 RBI not bad by any means, but as a 22 year old in A-ball not jaw-dropping either.
2010 marked a jump to warp drive for Kirk as he was promoted to AA Binghamton where he had 393 at bats with a .289 avg and an .847 OPS, with 60 RBI and again 16 home runs. Significantly, there was no drop-off in his performance, in fact he appeared to show improvement in what many consider the toughest jump in the minors – a tell-tale marker of major league potential.
In 2011 Kirk made another warp jump to AAA Buffalo where he fired all phasers and stunned his critics with a .298 avg. a .908 OPS and a .403 OBP (!). Kirk again showed marked improvement moving to a more advanced level and earned himself a call-up when Andres Torres got sent to sickbay with a bad case of Andorean Shingles (and a calf injury).
In 282 major league at bats Kirk posted a .252 .average with a .691 OPS and a whopping 98 strikeouts. Kirk’s 2012 performance was a tale of two seasons, through the first half he hit .264 with a .723 OPS, his second half? Having already begun a precipitous decline in the month of June with a .238 average, he went from struggling to “adrift in space,” with a .080 average in only 25 second half at bats.
So, how does a promising athletic young player go from a .352 mark in April, to a .105 line in July? Major league pitchers certainly made adjustments and unfortunately Nieuwenhuis did not seem capable of countering with adjustments of his own. His propensity to whiff became a liability as the K’s came fast and furious racking up 60 strikeouts from mid-May on. He ended his major league debut on a 9-for-73 skid. Dave Hudgens chimed in that Kirk had become vulnerable to pitchers throwing breaking balls in the dirt followed by high fastballs above the strike-zone. This recipe proved to be his undoing as he eventually got shuffled back down to Buffalo where he suffered a foot injury effectively ending his season.
Hudgens’ comments on Kirk’s struggles were ostensibly accurate, if somewhat blunt in their scope. There was more to Kirk’s gradual deterioration at the plate than his tendency to chase after high fastballs. Kirk burst onto the scene hitting everything they threw at him to all fields, he had power, decent plate coverage, speed, he could take a walk and steal a base or two. But Hudgens and his doctrine of patience flew in the face of Kirk’s aggressive nature and seemed to turn a dangerous and powerful young bat into an uncertain and insecure one.
Kirk seemed to take more early pitches for strikes than just about anyone else in the Met lineup. I found myself shaking my head more and more as the season progressed wondering how he let cookie after cookie float by only to be busted up and in with high cheddar. When you look closely at this kid’s splits, you see some interesting trends. With a 0 – 0 count, Kirk hit an excellent .364. Early on he seemed to jump on first pitch strikes clobbering them with consistency. With an 0 – 1 count his average drops to .250, still, not bad. Now all hitters do poorly with 2 strikes, but not quite as poorly as Kirk. With an 0 – 2 count Kirk hit .172, with a 1 – 2 count he hit .175, with a 2 – 2 count he hit .145 (!), and with a relatively neutral “start from scratch,” 3 – 2 count he hit .129!!
So the more pitches Kirk saw, the lower his batting average sunk. Hudgens’ assessment seems to align with this pattern in so far as Kirk could be lured into swinging at pitches out of the strike zone if you mess with his vertical line of sight, but it may also speak to another factor. Kirk is a really crappy 2-strike hitter, and he seemed to become crappier as the season progressed. If Kirk were able to adapt and lay off that high fastball he’d certainly live well and prosper as a serviceable major league outfielder, but by late June Kirk had become an almost automatic out with 2 strikes. Most of his at bats seemed to be some version of, called first strike, ball, foul ball, low breaking pitch in the dirt, high fastball swinging strike three.
They say by the time a prospect gets called up to the majors there is little room for development, their tools are what they are, sink or swim, you can’t make radical changes whether it be batting stance, mechanics, or approach at the plate. Now I don’t know whether this is true (I think it might perhaps be less true for younger more impressionable prospects), but I suspect that the Mets’ somewhat overblown focus on taking pitches messed with what got Kirk to the majors in the first place, namely his aggressiveness. It got so bad you could see the deer-in-the-headlights look with every 2-strike count. While contact for Kirk was never a strength, and while he didn’t quite get the hang of wasting pitches by fouling them off (especially with 2 strikes), he’d never been quite as clueless as he became in June and July of 2012.
In the end, you look at Kirk’s numbers and you are left wondering whether his career norms, which are totally in line with his first 6 weeks in the majors, are more a reflection of his true ability than his second half nose-dive – a skid that may very well have been precipitated by the coaching staff’s relentless OBP directive. Defensively most measures place him at or near average with Fangraphs’ FSR (fans scouting report) ranking him at a -1. Kirk had a couple of important and glaring miscues towards the end of his tenure and while his -1.2 UZR is (in my humble opinion) well within the margin of error (given his small sample) for “average,” overall I couldn’t disagree more. Center field at Citi is no piece of cake as Andres Torres’ lackluster performance demonstrated. Kirk showed speed, agility, good hands, a decent arm, and a good release, but above all he showed heart. He ran into walls and dove with abandon, and you just can’t teach that.
I could see Kirk developing into a well above average centerfielder with a year or two under his belt. The value of this can’t be overlooked, not when building a team based on pitching and defense in a large National League park. Kirk Nieuwenhuis is a keeper, if only because he seems to be a more than capable centerfielder who shows promise with the bat. Personally I think it would be best to stop trying to get this kid to take pitches and let him be aggressive. Kirk has to believe in himself before anyone else will believe in him, but the coaching staff’s misguided attempts at fitting this square peg into a round hole is not the best approach. Let him play to his strength. As Kirk himself once said, the 2013 outfield may explode into the biggest fireball this part of the galaxy has seen, but we’ve got to take that one in a million chance. Hudgens and Collins need to stop violating the prime directive of non-interference with the development of young players who appear to be holding their own. Who knows, maybe some day Captain Kirk will be joined by Commodore Matt den Dekker who will ram a shuttle craft into the Doomsday Machine that is the Washington Nationals bullpen.