LOWELL — It can be a 400-foot home run or a lucky bloop over the third baseman’s head. Aaron King isn’t picky.
“After five years of not swinging the bat, every hit feels pretty good,” said King. “Any success is pretty exciting. I want to show myself and everyone else I can do this.”
For the first five seasons of his professional baseball career, King’s batting gloves appeared to be in permanent retirement as he fought for a career as a pitcher in the San Francisco Giants system.
But after struggles brought an end to his time on the mound, King decided drastic change was necessary to attempt to save his baseball career.
This season, King made the move to outfielder full-time, and after five years without a single at-bat, the start is better than he ever could have hoped, hitting .282 with a team-high two home runs in 21 games for the Lowell Spinners.
“So far the move has gone better than I ever could have expected,” said King. “It’s really been about getting back on the bike and seeing live pitching for the first time in a long time. But I can still read a pitch and still play a ball off the bat.”
King was a two-way star first at Fred T. Foard High School (N.C.), then at Surry Community College (N.C.). In his final college season, the lefty struck out 98 batters in just 66 innings and hit .329 with five homers in 68 at-bats.
But when the Giants drafted King in the seventh round of the 2008 MLB Draft, there was no question what the plan was for him.
“When I was drafted I was a pitcher for sure,” he said. “That was 100 percent, and my No. 1 goal to pursue was making the major leagues as a pitcher. That’s where the organization wanted me and that was my focus.”
His career began promising enough, going 4-1 with a 2.84 ERA in the Gulf Coast League in 2008, then a respectable 7-6 record with a 3.70 ERA the following season at low single-A. But that was the best it would become for King.
The following season his ERA ballooned to 7.57 at high single-A, and between three levels he finished 2011 with an 0-2 record and 6.62 ERA. After that season, he was cut by the Giants.
“It was frustrating because it is losing your job,” he said.
“But I didn’t do my job, and it is a business. I thought for sure that my agent could make a few calls and I would find a job as a pitcher with another organization.”
But that never materialized, and at 22-years-old, King found himself out of professional baseball.
Inspiration soon struck, however, in the form of the memories from a conversation with a Giants legend during the 2010 season.
“We were taking pitchers batting practice one day and J.T. Snow came up to me and starting talking to me,” said King of the 16-year major leaguer.
“He asked me if I had ever hit before, and I told him I was a hitter in college. He said, ‘You can see that. You have some pop.’ Just hearing a guy like that gives you confidence and makes you think.”
Soon the 6-foot-4, 205-pound lefty picked up a bat and began to swing with determination for the first time since 2008, working out at a facility in his hometown of Charlotte, N.C. After some work, he decided to take a shot at a Red Sox tryout in Fort Myers.
“In February I went to a workout with the Sox at their spring training facility,” he said. “They seemed to like me, and sent me to play some independent ball.”
After going hitless in six at-bats with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League, he was traded to the Grand Prairie AirHogs where he hit .389 with two homers in nine games.
That was enough to convince the Red Sox to offer him a contract and assign him to Lowell.
At 24-years-old, King had made the unlikely transition from pitching prospect to hitter.
“I had always tried to keep my swing as sharp as possible,” he said.
“But for five years I never thought about being a hitter. All I did was take the occasional batting practice. I hadn’t faced live pitching. I hadn’t really swung a bat in a long time.
“Once I got to Boston, they treated me like a hitter. They don’t look at me as a pitcher trying to hit. I don’t mess around with pitching anymore. I am a hitter to them.”
King dazzled out of the gates for Lowell, going 2 for 4 with a homer in his debut and reaching base in 13 of his first 14 games, hitting .346 over that stretch.
“He really came out just smoking,” said Lowell manager Bruce Crabbe.
“He has hit a little bit of a rough patch, but that can be good. He is going through the progressions of every young hitter, he just happens to be 24.
But when you watch him hit you can see those positive signs.
“There was also a big question about how he would react on the defensive side. But he is actually a pretty good outfielder. He moves well, can still read balls and obviously has a very strong arm.”
Now King is working to settle into the realities of an everyday player.
“I feel more relaxed every day,” King said.
“Baseball can be a very humbling sport. Sometimes you get frustrated, but as an everyday outfielder I have to stay very medium. Now I feel like I can still swing the bat and do some damage.”