The way Pat Portugal saw it, the path of least resistance to the big leagues for Aaron King was as a pitcher.
That’s understandable: With his body and stuff, King stood out. Portugal, then a Giants area scout, saw a big lefthander with solid velocity and swing-and-miss pitches, good enough to make him the Giants’ seventh-round pick in 2008. King had 98 strikeouts in 66 innings that spring for Surry (N.C.) CC, albeit with control concerns, evidenced by his 4.64 walks per nine innings.
But King thought he also could swing it in pro ball as a hitter. And after the Giants released him in 2012, he devoted himself fully to that side of the game.
King made stops in the Atlantic League and American Association, and now he has made it back to affiliated baseball, this time in the batter’s box.
As is true at practically all levels of professional baseball, King’s days as a two-way player ended when he got drafted, though he said it wasn’t easy for him to give up hitting. He batted .329 at Surry and showed excellent power, slugging five home runs in fewer than 70 at-bats. He could never choose which one he really preferred.
As he matured, King said his body started “tightening up” and he struggled to rein in his mechanics. The walks started piling up, as high as 9.2 per nine innings in 2011. He opened 2012 in extended spring training before getting released. A stint with the River City Rascals of the Frontier League featured the same control problems and lasted all of two starts.
In King’s mind, pitching was behind him. He took the rest of 2012 off and went back home to North Carolina, fully devoting himself to hitting and learning the outfield.
A Hitter Again
King had kept in touch with Portugal, now a Red Sox scout, after he was drafted and talked about the work he was putting in at the plate. When the Red Sox were building a list of players for an informal workout in Fort Myers, Fla., during spring training, Portugal suggested King.
At the workout, Red Sox pro scout Jaymie Bane looked at King’s short, powerful lefthanded swing and strong body and saw a hitter. He made that suggestion to King, who eagerly complied.
Though the workout didn’t yield a spot with the Red Sox, King found a spot with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League. King’s rawness at the plate was apparent when he struck out three times in seven at-bats, overmatched by the far more experienced pitchers, some of whom had experience in the high minors.
Barnstormers manager Butch Hobson saw the inexperience and wanted King to get more at-bats, so he called up Ricky VanAsselberg with the Grand Prairie AirHogs of the American Association and gave him the pitch: a pitcher-turned-outfielder with “unbelievable” power.
“(Hobson) was like, ‘I know how you are, you ain’t scared to give a kid a chance,’ ” VanAsselberg said. “I was like, ‘No man, you’re telling me he can hit, he’s got power, send him to me. We’ll find out.’ ”
King arrived in Grand Prairie and went through spring training with the AirHogs, impressing VanAsselberg, who wasn’t afraid to label King a pure hitter.
“This kid’s got the build, and he’s just got a beautiful swing,” VanAsselberg said. “His bat stays through the hitting zone for so long, he has no choice but to be successful. And he just needs at-bats, and the more at-bats he gets, the better he’s going to be.”
Though he went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts in his first game, King got a hit in his next game and didn’t have an oh-fer for the rest of his time in Grand Prairie. Overall, he was 14-for-36 with six of his hits going for extra bases and an otherworldly OPS of 1.115.
Bane happened to be in Texas and had a chance to see King live. He barely hesitated before purchasing King’s contract from the AirHogs on May 30
King is down in Fort Myers again, this time with the Red Sox’ Rookie-level Gulf Coast League team. He’s still raw, with fewer than 100 professional at-bats. Though he has a natural swing, he has to get more experience working at-bats, refining his pitch selection and other aspects of his mental approach. Bane said he couldn’t remember ever coming across somebody of King’s age and potential with so few at-bats.
“You basically signed an 18-year-old kid that happens to be 24,” Bane said. “You got to just see what he is.”
King sees himself as a hitter, and now the baseball world is starting to agree.