Carter Kieboom spent ten days at the Washington Nationals’ Alternate Training Site down in Fredericksburg, Virginia recently, after the club sent him down because they thought that he was developing bad habits. The 2016 1st Round pick used the time down there to focus on his swing, get all the at bats he could against the pitchers that are gathered there, and get back on track for his return to the Nats’ lineup.
“We had a lot of early mornings when we were down there,” the 23-year-old infielder said once he was called back up.
“I first went in the cage and did a couple rounds of front toss and just went out there and swung. I had anywhere from 5-7 at bats, maybe eight at bats, in the span of an hour, so there was no thinking. I just went up there, grip it and rip it, and just go that route.
“I can think, think, think, and then try to overcomplicate something that at the end of the day all we try to do is make it as simple as possible.
“So I went down there and I didn’t think about anything, I didn’t think about changing anything, I just went with whatever I stepped in the box with and that’s how I hit.”
The Nationals wanted Kieboom, who got off to a rough start at the plate this season, to work on his swing in a pressure-free environment for a while and get back to doing what he did in the minor leagues as he worked his way up.
“We felt that he was getting into bad habits,” GM Mike Rizzo explained this past weekend.
“Pressing, getting into bad habits, so we felt — send him down for 10 days, he worked with [Triple-A Fresno hitting coach] Brian Daubach and [Triple-A manager] Randy Knorr and those guys down in Fredericksburg. Dauber had him in Fresno last year, so he knew his swing intimately.”
“I talked to Randy Knorr, who’s down there with him,” Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez said of the reports he received on Kieboom’s progress along the way.
“Daubach has relayed messages through emails and stuff. Yeah, they said the biggest thing was getting him ready to hit fastballs, they did that with him, they worked with him, so hopefully he can come up here and he just continues to do what he did down there. That’s exactly what I told him, I said, ‘Hey, whatever you did down there, nothing changes, just come up here and do the same thing and just go out there and like I said, have fun.”
“We made a few adjustments with him with his hands and his positioning as a hitter,” Rizzo added, “and when his ten days were up, we brought him back up here and he’ll play the rest of the way and I consider him a big part of our future and one of our core players that we’re going to build around.”
A number of the players in Fredericksburg are core players who are considered part of the franchise’s future, highly-regarded prospects, and players the Nationals thought might be able to help them along the way this season, and they’ve already pulled a number of them up.
Each MLB team has an alternate site where members of the 60-Man Player Pool for this 60-game season who aren’t on the big league roster are working out and staying sharp in case they’re needed at some point this year.
Reliever Kyle McGowin, who made his 2020 debut over the weekend in Atlanta, spent time in Fredericksburg refining his slider, after the team told him they wanted him to focus on it during Spring Training.
“They called me in and told me about my slider, they love it a lot,” McGowin recalled after he impressed against the Braves, “so they wanted me to focus on using that as a weapon, more so than in the past, as a reliever.
“So I dedicated the whole time in Fredericksburg learning how to pitch with that pitch all the time, and pitch often with it.”
McGowin took advantage of the opportunity to get comfortable with a relief role after he’d started in the minors, and waited for his shot.
“I just took my time down there, tried to find every little detail I needed to work out on, and just run with it. Obviously, guys were coming up ahead of me, but I still needed to work on stuff, so I couldn’t take it as a bad thing, I just wasn’t ready yet, and hopefully everything is going now.”
“We want to make him a long reliever,” Martinez said. “We talked to him about what makes him good, and a testament to him, he went to Fredericksburg and worked on it and got very consistent on throwing his sliders, he’s got two or three different speeds on his sliders, and he also started throwing a better fastball from that. So I really loved what I saw the other day in Atlanta, so hopefully he can continue to do that.”
“He went down there, he took what we said to heart, and he worked on different things and he looked really good,” the manager continued.
“When you can actually go down there and not have any pressure about wins or losses or giving up a hit, and just work on what you need to work on, it’s more about development, and that’s the way we’re looking at our camp in Fredericksburg. We’re developing some of our young guys and developing guys that we think can help us in the future, McGowin being one of them, and get as much as you can.
“We’ve got great instructors down there working with these guys every day, and that’s all they’ll do is they’ll stop the games — I talked to Randy [Knorr] about — just hey, stop the games if something goes wrong in the middle of the game, and explain what’s going on and then teach them. It’s a teaching process. They’ve done a great job, Randy and those coordinators down there have done a great job with these guys.”
It’s not just working for prospects and minor leaguers looking for a chance, of course. The big league teams use their alternate sites for injured and rehabbing major leaguers.
Veteran reliever Sean Doolittle, for example, spent some time down in Fredericksburg after battling with his mechanics and struggling on the mound early in the first few weeks of the season, and he had nothing but good things to say about the experience, though he wasn’t looking forward to returning any time soon once he returned to the big league bullpen.
“I didn’t know what to expect going down there but it’s a really, really good set-up,” Doolittle told reporters late last month.
“I don’t want to go back there,” he joked.
“I want to stay here and help... [but] it was — I found it to be a great environment for me to go in and get the work in that I needed, because of the way that the guys are going about their business there.”
“I got some incredible work in with Brad Holman, the pitching coach there, Tony Rogowski the strength coach,” Doolittle added.
“They’re doing really good work, and there’s a lot of talent down there. I’m trying to feel some things in my bullpen sessions, and I’ve got like [2020 1st Round pick Cade] Cavalli next to me throwing like 100 MPH, making it look super easy, and I was like this is definitely a wake-up call. But it was really cool to see those guys going about their business every day, because it’s such a grind down there.
“Every day is exactly the same and they’re facing the same hitters every single time that they go out to pitch, and after a while, you face the same guy 10-12-15 times, and you’re like, ‘How do I get this guy out now? He’s seen everything, all my different pitches and sequences,’ so it gets really, really grind-y going through that, but the guys are working really hard, and they’re certainly making the most of it which is what everybody is trying to do in 2020, staying ready.
“But, I mentioned, and I was really, really impressed, not just with how he’s pitching, he’s really good, but like his work ethic, the stuff he does on days that he’s not getting off the mound, the stuff he does in the weight room, and his conditioning stuff.
“[2019 1st Round pick] Jackson Rutledge, a lot of the same things, incredibly hard thrower, huge dude, fun to watch, I played catch with him a few times and I was like, jeez, man, he’s bringing it.
“Being able to be around those guys, share some things from my experience with them, I was learning stuff from them, like there are some guys down there that are that good, and their work ethic, there [were] things that I could learn from them.
“It was — it’s a really good set-up. They have great people, everybody is working really hard.”