Toolshed: Kramer ready to regain momentum

No. 9 Pirates prospect looking forward to Arizona after lost time

A second-round pick in 2015, Kevin Kramer has hit .284 over three seasons in the Minor Leagues. (Mark Olson/

By Sam Dykstra / | September 18, 2017 10:45 AM ET

The way Kevin Kramer sees it, he's already had his offseason.

The Pirates' No. 9 prospect was enjoying a breakout campaign back in June with Double-A Altoona when he stepped in against Richmond's Andrew Suarez and took a 2-2 fastball squarely on his right hand.

"It hurt really bad, but I didn't know what to think," he said. "I'd never been hit on the hand like that before. But I knew it was broken when I got to first base and took off my batting glove and saw my whole hand was purple. I don't bruise that easily, so something was up. The whole thing was just unfortunate."

The diagnosis was a break in the fifth metacarpal bone in the right hand. Kramer didn't return to the Curve lineup until Sept. 9 for Game 3 of the Eastern League semifinals, right in the middle of Altoona's undefeated run to its first league title since 2010. After the clincher Thursday, the 23-year-old headed back to Bradenton, Florida, in preparation for instructs and the coming Arizona Fall League campaign, where he'll try to once again show off his potential as one of the game's most exciting second-base prospects.

A second-round pick out of UCLA in 2015, the left-handed hitter developed a reputation for consistent contact with little power -- a standard offensive profile for a middle infielder. In his first full season in the Bucs system, he hit .277/.352/.378 with only four homers but an impressive 12.3 percent strikeout rate in 118 games at Class A Advanced. Because of the bat, he entered the season as Pittsburgh's No. 21 prospect, but long before Opening Day, Kramer had decided he wanted to be more than just solid at the plate for his position.

"Throughout my career -- pretty much since I've started playing -- I've been more of a line drive hitter," he said. "That remains true, but last year I noticed I was hitting a lot of hard ground balls still. I'm not sure if it was launch angle, but I'd hit a lot of one- or two-hop balls to the infield. So I wanted to get into the mentality of, if I'm going to miss, I want it to be in the air. I'm not going to upper cut or dip and rip, but get a good pitch with elevation and focus on driving it more to the gaps.

"It paid off to where soft line drives were now hard line drives, hard line drives were deep fly balls, fly balls were now going over the fence. Not that I'm not a speed guy, but I knew I wasn't going to beat out infield singles for my career either, so everything needed to click in the air and it did."

Indeed, at the time of the injury, Kramer was hitting 40.3 percent of his batted balls into the air, up from 26.8 percent the previous year in the Florida State League. His line-drive rate also ticked up to 22.7 percent from 17.8, while his ground balls dropped to 37 percent from 55.4.

That change in strategy resulted in a .297/.380/.500 slash line through 53 games, despite the jump to Double-A. His six homers in that span were already more than he hit in his 176 previous Minor League games, and with 26 extra-base hits in just two months, it was clear that his career high of 35 in that category would fall, potentially before the Eastern League All-Star break in July. 

Video: Curve's Kramer cracks solo shot

Then came the injury -- and the setbacks. Kramer was meant to be out six to eight weeks, and an early August return to Altoona was his initial goal. But he couldn't quite get comfortable in the rehab process as the bone took longer to heal than expected.

"I just wasn't swinging right," he said. "I couldn't follow through without some pain. The knob of the bat was basically digging into exactly where I had broken the bone, and I wasn't going to play through pain just to get back when I wanted to. That wasn't going to be a good long-term solution."

In essence, Kramer wasn't willing to mess up his mechanics and throw away the gains he'd made the previous months just to add a few extra games. The pain set him back an additional three weeks, and he finally made his return with a rehab appearance in the Gulf Coast League on Sept. 2, followed by three games with Class A Short Season West Virginia. As he returned to game action, Kramer didn't quite see the results come back with him. He went 3-for-15 (.200) with no extra-base hits over his four rehab contests and just 1-for-13 (.077) over four postseason contests. 

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He was, however, able to find some comfort once again in the batted-ball data.

"It's taken some time to get comfortable back in the box," Kramer said. "I'm still only at only 20-something at-bats since coming back, and I've had to think a lot to myself, 'Is this still the rehab process or is this baseball?' Some of these at-bats lately that haven't been hits, I've started to realize that's baseball because I'm comfortable and they're balls being driven to the outfield, instead of ground balls where I know I'm not strong enough yet."

Kramer soon will be able to prove just how ready he is during his time at instructs, and then, he's off to the Fall League in October to make up for the lost at-bats as well as measure his newfound offensive ability next to some of the game's best young names. He'll play for Glendale alongside other prominent Pirates prospects like Mitch Keller and Cole Tucker as well as top Indians prospect Francisco Mejia, who he developed a relationship with while facing each other in the Eastern League.

"In pretty much every case, everyone who makes it to the Fall League deserves to be there," he said. "They've made the right strides to push themselves to that level, and it'll be an honor to get to play against those types of talents. ... I made it a goal of mine during the offseason to get there, so I'm happy it worked ut. Obviously getting hurt kinda helped me out there, but I'm confident that I'd be going anyway, even if I was healthy, based on how I was playing before I got hurt."

In the meantime, Kramer is going to bask a bit in Altoona's title, his second Minor League crown in three seasons. (It would be three, had he not been promoted from Class A Short Season West Virginia -- the eventual New York-Penn League champion -- to Class A West Virginia in the fall of 2015.) He's got the rings. He's got the improvement in performance. And coming up, Kramer is ready to prove he's got the health necessary to make another big jump in 2018.

"That winning feeling is contagious," he said. "It's special, too. A lot of the guys who were on this team at the end hadn't been around a lot because of injuries or promotions or whatever, but it means a lot to all of us just to experience a championship like that. I know even if I didn't play, I wanted to be here for that moment, and now, it's something I can carry forward with me."

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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