Kila's Free, Now What?

While Mike Jacobs swung at another ball in the dirt, the calls rang out.  Despite struggles in 2009, the alternative to Jacobs was the sensational Kila Ka’aihue.

As spring training rolled along, Ka’aihue hit four homers and put up a 1.121 OPS and the cries got louder, going so far as to demand the release of Jose Guillen (who still leads the team in homers a month after his release) to open the DH spot for one of either Ka’aihue or Billy Butler.

While Ka’aihue led Triple A in OPS and made a habit of walking in every game, while the Royals banged out singles but walked at a below league average rate, the cause was picked up by Twitter and #FreeKila became a rallying cry.  Upon placing Rick Ankiel on the disabled list in May, it finally happened.  Kila was free!

Sort of.

Ka’aihue got four whole at bats in about three weeks time with Kansas City in that first stint before being optioned back to Omaha. He returned to raking everything in site in Triple A, but it seemed the Royals had missed an opportunity to get a look at their Hawaiian Hammer against big league pitching.

His time came again in August and he’s been around since. Promised a steady level of at-bats, Ka’aihue struggled upon his return. He started off 3 for his first 31 back in Kansas City (all singles) and walked only three times for a .273 OPS.

Put it this way, he was .023 better than Tony Pena Jr’s 2009 OPS over that stretch.

Still it wasn’t until August 24 that he started to show what we were all expecting. The fun anecdote that might define the rest of his season goes as such: Yost had planned on giving Ka’aihue the day off on the 24th, but Ka’aihue hit a homer in the top of the ninth off Detroit’s Ryan Perry for the Royals only run. On the 25th, Kila homered and doubled, but was lost in the shadow of Willie Bloomquist winning the game with an 11th inning solo homer from the three hole.

Since that August 24 homer, Ka’aihue has produced a .257/.390/.571/.961 line with three homers 10 RBI and he’s walked seven times in 41 plate appearances. Considering that he was at .159/.209/.175/.384 to start the day on that fateful August day, that’s a strong turnaround. After today’s 0-2, two walk day, he’s at .194/.278/.316/.594 – still not at an all-star level for the season, but his on base and slugging numbers take a dynamic jump in those two samples.

He’s had a .250 BABIP since that first homer of the year, so he’s even been a bit unlucky (and had a .189 BABIP in his first 67 plate appearances, so he wasn’t just unlucky, he was REALLY unlucky).

So what’s that all mean?

Unfortunately not much. See, while I want to be encouraged by Ka’aihue’s upswing, going off two weeks of data is problematic because it’s too small a sliver to get any idea of Ka’aihue’s actual ability to hit major league pitching consistently. It’s too soon to make a determination of whether Ka’aihue can hit at the major league level well enough to stick around. Likewise, it’s too soon to say that his early August numbers mean he’s a clear lost cause.

That’s the problem. The Royals brought up Kila and in those three weeks on the major league roster, he got four at bats and only one start. It was a waste of time for both Ka’aihue and the Royals. Kansas City would have been better served keeping him up, playing him four or five games a week and seeing if he can actually do something with half a season of appearances. With 23 games left, he might get a shot at 80-90 more trips to the plate, but he’ll still be under 200 for the season and we’ll still have an incomplete picture of his major league abilities.

For a team like the Royals, who have to get their future leaders from the farm system, operating in the dark is a bad proposition. At 26 years old and after tearing up Double A and Triple A over the last two and a half years, calling up Kila wasn’t rushing a prospect.

Maybe Ka’aihue will slug 30 homers every year for years and walk every fifth appearance. Maybe he’ll top out at a .250/.370/.450 clip and be a brief star in Kansas City (and unknown everywhere else). We don’t know yet. At least, for a change, we’ll get a true look all year next season.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Kansas City Royals KC Kila Kaaihue MLB Royals

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