The numbers game has not been kind to Kenny Diekroeger since the outset of his professional career. The former Menlo School and Stanford standout is looking to change that though.
To say Diekroeger has struggled since signing with the Royals in 2012 is an understatement, as he has tabbed a sub-.200 career batting average through over 700 at-bats. So, after losing playing time this season at Royals High-A affiliate Wilmington to the likes of Raul Adelberto Mondesi and 2013 first-rounder Hunter Dozier, Diekroeger was demoted to Low-A Lexington on July 3. At the time, he was hitting just .212 on the season.
Since joining the Legends, however, Diekroeger has been absolutely raking. Hitting safely through each of his first seven games, Diekroeger is batting .345 (10 for 29) with one home and six RBIs. Perhaps more importantly, he is playing every day.
“I changed some stuff in my swing earlier this season but I’ve never really had a chance to show it off,” Diekroeger said. “(At Wilmington) I was only getting in there every couple days. This is my first time I’ve been able to go at it 100 percent.”
At Lexington, Diekroeger is playing under a coach who is no doubt familiar to many a Bay Area baseball fan — former Braves and A’s second baseman Glenn Hubbard.
“He knows a lot about the game, almost more than anybody, and he’s done it himself,” Diekroeger said. “So I like his instruction. He’s a great guy too.”
Hubbard is in his fourth year with the Royals organization. Having served three years as a roving instructor, he is in his first season as a fulltime coach with the Legends. Hubbard has been in baseball nonstop since the beginning of his professional playing career in 1975. After his playing career ended with his release from Oakland in September 1989, he took a coaching position in the Braves organization in ’90.
The Braves originally hired Hubbard to coach their Gulf Coast League Rookie-Class team in Sarasota, Florida to help work with a dynamic young shortstop in his first year with the organization — Chipper Jones.
Although Hubbard hadn’t previously considered a career in coaching, he jumped at the opportunity. He has been coaching ever since, including reuniting with Jones in the big leagues for 11 seasons in Atlanta.
Hubbard now has another high-profile infielder in his charge with Diekroeger, who has anchored Lexington at shortstop thus far. And the 23-year-old Diekroeger has made a solid impression both sides of the ball.
“He’s been phenomenal for us,” Hubbard said. “When he came to spring training, there were so many coaches that said, ‘Wow! He looks like he’s changed.’ He had the attitude. Not that he had a bad attitude before, but he had a little hop in his step. … You knew he meant business.”
With his assignment to Lexington, Diekroeger just may have landed in the perfect place. Hubbard certainly understands the ups-and-downs of professional baseball. After breaking into the big leagues in 1978, it took Hubbard three years to establish himself as a bona fide major leaguer. He bounced between Atlanta and Triple-A Richmond every season until breaking camp with the Braves in 1981.
“First year of ’78, I got brought up in the middle of the season,” Hubbard said. “They gave me the job; but the beginning of the next year, I struggled.”
Hubbard soon was demoted to Triple-A, where he once again set out to prove himself.
“I went down there and finished the season in ’79 and had a pretty good year at Triple-A,” Hubbard said. “Then the next year, I thought I was going to be on the team and they sent me down … but then they brought me up that year and I stayed the rest of the time in the big leagues.”
Hubbard experienced a similar developmental curve in the lower minors through his first two years of pro ball. Even after hitting .287 in his debut season at Rookie-Class Kingsport, Hubbard — a 20th round pick out of Utah’s Ben Lomand High School in 1975 — was on track to repeat the league in ’76. Since there was no such thing as extended spring training during the era, however, Hubbard started his first full season as a pro in A-class Greenwood.
Despite getting his hand tattered as a part-time bullpen catcher, Hubbard still hit .317 through June until he was reassigned at the beginning of rookie-ball season. Even with his outstanding production, the then 18-year-old Hubbard landed back at Kingsport.
“I got sent back, even having success,” Hubbard said. “So (now), I try to encourage these kids. You can either come back and you can [complain], or you can work hard and you can show them, ‘I’m going to make it.’”
The expectations long surrounding Diekroeger have been he is supposed to make it. Originally he was a second-round draft pick out of Menlo by Tampa Bay in 2009. He opted to attend Stanford where he hit for a career average of .307 while making the transition into the composite-bat era between his freshman and sophomore campaigns. His yearly average declined in each of his three seasons with the Cardinal, going from a .356 mark as a freshman, to a .292 mark as a sophomore. He hit .275 as a junior, after which he was drafted in the fourth round by Kansas City.
Now three years into his pro career, Diekroeger has found himself fighting for playing time. At Wilmington, he made the most of a two-week stint of everyday play when Mondesi went on the disabled list. But he has not seen anywhere close to as much success as a pro as he has throughout the past week at Lexington.
The demotion wasn’t such a tough pill to swallow, according to Diekroeger, who was informed by Wilmington manager Darryl Kennedy of the reassignment to the South Atlantic League.
“[Kennedy] said he was proud of me for the work I’ve put in this year,” Diekroeger said. “He said not to look at it as a demotion, but it’s an opportunity to play every day and prove to everybody what you’re capable of.”
According to Hubbard, Diekroeger came to play.
“He was in a great state of mind,” Hubbard said. “He came down knowing that he was going to get more of a chance to play. You know what? You can’t judge a kid — you sit him for four games, then you play him for two, then you sit him for four again. You need consecutive at-bats, I think.”
And so far, Hubbard and Diekroeger are on the same page.
“Pro baseball is meant to be played every day as a position player,” Diekroeger said. “So, it’s definitely nice to be doing that.”