The summer of 2020 didn’t change that. He still feels in control of his baseball destiny.
“What’s understood doesn’t need to be discussed,” Kieboom said on a video call with reporters Wednesday. “Just go play third base. Go play your game and do your job. We don’t need to talk business, you could say. We don’t need to talk in that kind of manner. It’s an understood thing: ‘Carter, go play, man. Go do your thing and take care of whatever needs to happen.’ ”
Kieboom was paraphrasing an unspoken directive from Martinez, the Nationals’ manager, and Rizzo, the general manager. But the 23-year-old was also sharing what he tells himself. Those close to him say he is skilled at forgetting mistakes and blocking out noise. His results, though, could very well hint at the opposite.
Through 44 games, Kieboom, 23, has hit .181 with a .309 on-base percentage and a .232 slugging percentage in 165 plate appearances. In 2019, he made four errors at shortstop, his natural position, before moving to fill the star-sized void left by Anthony Rendon. Rizzo argues that this is far too small a sample size to judge a young player. And Kieboom, a former top prospect, is confident that his early struggles will help in the long run. He’s aware, too, that every opportunity has a limit.
“I’ll show emotion at times, but I’m pretty even-keeled,” Kieboom said. “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.”
The main point there: Kieboom knows he can occasionally appear apathetic to his failures. He smiled Wednesday when a reporter mistakenly asked about his one home run in 2020 (he hit zero). When asked about pressure entering this season and whether he’s feeling any additional urgency to keep his job, he laughed and said, “That’s a fair question.”
Then he detailed why the fair question didn’t apply to him.
“This game is crazy and works in mysterious ways. Anybody who’s played it knows you’re going to go through a time where you’re going to struggle,” Kieboom explained. “And it happens, and it sucks. But it’s life. What do we do? We wake up the next day and we try all over again.
“That’s all I’ve done, and that’s kind of just been my motto: Every day is a new day. Especially when you’re being scrutinized, especially when you’re in the big leagues. It’s highlighted. It’s emphasized a lot more.”
Since Rendon left after the 2019 season, each of Kieboom’s missteps has burned beneath a magnifying glass. He already had stumbled through 10 games in 2019. But the next spring brought skepticism whether he could transition to third base. He looked a bit shaky in drills. He later made a handful of errors in exhibitions. Then he figured out the defense in time for his bat to slip.
His final 2020 line was 122 plate appearances, 19 singles, one double and no other hits. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage was .556. He dealt with a groin strain in July, was sent down in August, then ended the season early after he was hit by a 95-mph fastball in September. The left wrist contusion required rest to start the winter. Yet once he was cleared to hit, Kieboom began tinkering with his stance and swing in Atlanta.
Along with Jay Hood, his usual offseason trainer, Kieboom noticed that his hands were too low and too close to his body. He focused on getting himself in a better starting position at the plate. A simpler approach, he believes, will get him back to the mechanics he thrived with in the minors.
“It starts with me,” Kieboom said of making minor tweaks. “ ’Cause I know how I feel. No one else can really explain how I feel. And the feeling I had wasn’t free, you could say. It wasn’t this loose, free feeling at the plate. 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.”
Justin Turner and DJ LeMahieu were free agents. Kris Bryant and Eugenio Suárez were rumored trade candidates. Kieboom’s name floated through multiple reports of whom the Nationals could deal to land a veteran at his position. But Rizzo says now that they never considered moving Kieboom or making a change at third.
“If we listened to Twitter world, we would have gotten rid of Robin Ventura when he was 0 for 48 or something like that in his early days in the big leagues,” Rizzo said last week. “So these things . . . it’s hard to judge on these short snippets of games and at-bats. And we have to lean toward our evaluators who have seen him through years and progressed through the system and trust that he’s the player that we think he is.”
Ventura hit .178 in his first month with the White Sox, whom Rizzo scouted for in the 1980s and ’90s. But Ventura finished seventh in rookie of the year voting the next season. The doubt vanished and he had a long, successful career as a corner infielder. Perhaps that will be Kieboom’s fate after all.