Kieboom tries to block out the noise and trust himself

Carter Kieboom has heard all your theories. That he wasn’t aggressive enough at the plate. That he was hampered by an injury. That he couldn’t handle the pressure of replacing Anthony Rendon at third base.

And he heard all the chatter this winter about his future with the Nationals. That the club was going to trade for a new third baseman, either Kris Bryant or maybe Eugenio Suárez. Or sign a free agent who would bump him out of the lineup, like Justin Turner or DJ LeMahieu.

Here, though, is what Kieboom wants you to hear as he spends his time in West Palm Beach, Fla., getting ready for the 2021 season: He’s going to be fine.

Thumbnail image for Kieboom-Hits-in-Cage-Sidebar.jpgThose theories about his struggles at the plate? Forget about them. He knows what the real problem was. And it was much simpler than anyone wants to believe.

“The common theme was just missing stuff,” Kieboom said Wednesday during a Zoom session with reporters. “Just missing pitches. Just fouling off too much stuff and not taking advantage of the cookie when it was given.”

Kieboom’s 2020 numbers certainly suggested something wasn’t right. In 122 plate appearances, he hit .202 with a .556 OPS. He recorded one measly extra-base hit: a double on Sept. 8, in his 78th at bat of the season.

But that wasn’t a byproduct of the groin strain he suffered in late July - “Just a little tweak, something small” - or of a too-patient approach at the plate that did lead to a .344 on-base percentage but not enough hits - “I felt like I had a good idea what I was doing at the plate.”

So what was it that prevented him from hitting good pitches with more regularity? The answer, Kieboom insists, lies in his hands. Specifically, where he positioned them as he prepared to swing. They were too close to his chest.

Not anymore. After an offseason spent identifying the problem, fixing it and then repeating that fix over and over until it felt natural again, he believes he’s in a good place again.

“Hands are higher,” he said. “They’re definitely clear from my body a little bit more. They’re not so tied up. I feel free. I feel a lot looser.”

It’s the way Kieboom held his bat throughout his minor league career, when he hit .287/.378/.469 with 79 doubles and 45 homers across 1,462 plate appearances. At some point after he reached the big leagues, though, something changed for the worse.

“It felt very tied up at times, and that’s not a feeling I used to have, that I’ve ever had until, really, last year,” he said. “Over time, things evolve and hands start to move. Our job is to try to find the happy medium.”

So now that he believes he’s solved his issue at the plate, and since he already believed he had comfortably made the full-time transition to third base after coming up as a middle infielder, all that’s left for Kieboom to do is show the Nationals he’s the right man for the job this spring.

Not that the club has given much indication it didn’t already believe that.

Despite plenty of speculation and calls from the outside to upgrade at third base, general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez have supported Kieboom all along and maintained they never seriously pursued anyone else.

They know he didn’t play up to his potential in a shortened 2020 season, but they also know the player he was throughout his amateur and minor league career, representing a far larger sample size.

“We have too many guys with too many eyes on him that think he’s going to be a really good big league player,” Rizzo said last week. “I’m not going to judge any player off 140 plate appearances in his major league career. We see him as a guy with great upside for us who’s going to be a really good player for us.”

Make no mistake, though, the spotlight is squarely on Kieboom’s 23-year-old shoulders. Fair or unfair, he was touted as the organization’s top infield prospect from the day he was drafted 28th in the nation in 2016. And though nobody with the club tried to claim he alone could make up for the loss of Rendon to free agency last year, he was nonetheless being counted on to take over the position Rendon played so flawlessly for seven seasons.

Given his demeanor - quiet, yet confident - Kieboom perhaps at times didn’t look to some like he was up to this difficult task. Again, though, he wants you to know perception isn’t reality.

“Some people carry themselves differently,” he said. “For me, I’m pretty even-keeled. I’ll show emotion at times, but I’m pretty even-keeled. Plus I think sometimes when someone who is very even-keeled such as myself, if they struggle it might come across as something a little bit different. But that’s just with anybody’s personality.”

So while everyone else wrings their hands and frets over his underwhelming 2020 season, Kieboom just blocks it all out and keeps his gaze forward at 2021, confident better days are ahead.

“It’s cliché, but we have small rear-view mirrors for a reason,” he said. “We look into a windshield; it’s a lot bigger.”

Everything’s going to be fine, Kieboom is trying to tell us. All we have to do is trust him.

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