Considering Call-ups

When a major league team has a stacked farm system supporting it, prospect hawks come out of nowhere to watch all the young guys play. Reports start emerging from a huge array of sources to update fans on their potential future stars. It’s almost more difficult to be uninformed than to be knowledgeable about the prospects’ performances.

Of course, that’s where the Royals are now. While prospect discussions are always fun and can be interesting, the recent acclaim the system has generated have boosted prospect news to heralded status. Great sites like Greg Schaum’s Pine Tar Press have folks out at several minor league games to witness players’ performances and relay information to the Royals fanbase. It’s extremely helpful to hear this information and stay informed.

However, there’s an issue here as well. While I love hearing about the progress of the minor leaguers, it does put some occasionally unwarranted pressure on the big league club. When Royals players are struggling, there are calls for those players to be benched or demoted in favor of the minor leaguers that have been raking and could take their place. And that’s fed by all the reports about minor league progress.

Now, I’m not trying to bemoan prospect tracking. I love doing that and I would hate to lose that information. Instead, I’m trying to make a few points about being sensible with call-ups and demotions.

When the Royals are succeeding, it’s easy to look at that success and say, “We need as much production out of these guys as possible to keep the winning going!” While that would be wonderful, you always have to consider the impacts of too much shuffling and jockeying of players between levels.

The latest victim of the demotion calls has been Mr. Kila Ka’aihue, whose early struggles I discussed last week. And, really, when you have a .179/.299/.268 line, it’s never a good thing. You never want to see that kind of production out of a guy in the starting lineup, especially when they’re supposed to be a good power bat to drive in runs. The level isn’t even important here. If a guy hits like that, he’s likely doomed for some time riding pine.

At some point, that’s justified. If a player is struggling and you need production from that spot, you replace him. It’s straightforward.

But this isn’t the point. Kila, for example, has had 68 plate appearances this year. 68. That’s about a tenth of a season. It’s over 16 games.

I understand that he’s looked bad. Some of the strikeouts have been particularly ugly. But you have to realize what sort of time frame 68 plate appearances is. If we look at his final 67 plate appearances of 2010, he had a line of .255/.364/.564. That’s right, it’s an OPS of .927. Not so bad now, is it? And that’s after he hit .167/.239/.274 in 92 plate appearances in August. That’s right, he had a worse line over a longer period of time. Yet, he played. He improved. And he had a better OPS than Billy Butler did over his final 68 plate appearances of 2010.

It wouldn’t normally be a big issue. Two years ago, we probably wouldn’t have been clamoring as much for Kila to be demoted. But time changes things, and now two minor leaguers are banging on the door. When you hit above .400 and have an OPS above 1.000 (or 1.200, in Clint Robinson‘s case), you’re bound to make an impression. People will surely want you to be called up. They want to see that production in Kansas City.

There’s a danger with that, though. While both of those guys could absolutely come to the Royals and destroy major league pitchers with above .300 batting averages and .400 on-base percentages, they could also suffer from the quick adjustment. And that’s for the same reason that judging a struggling player like Kila makes no sense: it’s still early.

Eric Hosmer and Robinson have had 61 and 56 plate appearances, respectively. They have seen fewer games than Kila has. And they just reached Omaha this season. AAA pitchers haven’t even had a chance to see what they do and adjust accordingly. They’re finding it easy to hit what they want when they want.

I’m not trying to discount their successes. These guys are great players and are having an amazing start to the season. But every short-term success or failure comes with a caveat: it’s just a short time.

I have two examples from recent Royals teams. The first is the 2010 Scott Podsednik, who batted .449/.526/.469 in his first 60 plate appearances with the Royals. In his next 144 appearances, he hit .225/.271/.318.

The second is the 2003 Angel Berroa. In his first 53 plate appearances, he hit .204/.250/.327. Over the rest of the season, he compiled a line of .295/.346/.463 as he won the Jackie Robinson Award as the AL Rookie of the Year.*

*I won’t mention the rest of his career for obvious reasons…

Anyone can have good or bad streaks. It happens throughout the season. Sometimes, guys just need to work through those troubles. Calling up players when they’ve barely experienced play at Omaha isn’t the answer. Fretting over instant results isn’t a solution. Everyone deserves time to show that they can or can’t cut it. Sometimes, that’s at the beginning of a season. Sometimes, it’s just after being promoted.

Either way, don’t expect such a sudden promotion of some of the minor league stars. That’s not the way the club is handling things and they’re smart to give each guy time to adjust. Rushing players doesn’t solve any short-term problems and has the potential to create long-term complications. See Brandon Belt? While he doesn’t perfectly exemplify this point, he was pushed to the majors after being pushed through the Giants system last season. And now he sits back in AAA, where he can add to his 61 previous plate appearances there.

Have patience, folks. Enjoy the good times of the big league club. Enjoy the successes of the prospects. And someday we can all enjoy watching them as they deservedly take those major league roster spots.

But if things go wrong then, remember to give them time. Making adjustments takes time.

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Billy Butler Clint Robinson Eric Hosmer Kansas City Royals KC Kila Kaaihue MLB Royals

  • Derek Low

    Interesting article, it’s easy to see where the memory of the early call ups of Greinke and Gordon has left Royals fans wary. I am curious about your thoughts on the opposite problem, as in leaving a prospect in the minors too long so that they become too acclimated to minor league pitching. I often wonder if this is the case with Kila. Leaving him in the minor for such a long time seems to have cemented him into his his ways and encouraged bad habits derived from overexposure to sub-par pitching. While this won’t ever be a problem with Hosmer, do you think this could be an issue with a player such as Clint Robinson who has spent a much longer time in the minors?

    • Gage Matthews

      Thanks for the comment, Derek.

      I think you have a really interesting point there. I suspect, as you say, that the extended time Kila spent in Omaha might have conditioned him in a state where he understands and can react to AAA pitchers while being exposed by MLB pitchers. It’s the classic AAAA player that is so often discussed. These players spend so much time in the minors that they have a hard time reaching beyond their habits to adequately handle major league pitching. Had Kila gotten more time last season, things could be different. They could be the same, but we’ll never know how that hurt his ability to handle major league pitching. We’ll see what he does from here on out.

      I think Clint Robinson has a chance to be another example of such a player. At 26, he’s not exactly a youthful minor leaguer and will have to get some MLB exposure soon to see if he can handle it. While some guys do figure out major league pitchers in their upper 20s, it becomes more difficult with time. I think Clint has some time yet, as he was just now promoted to AAA and has only really been in the minors since 2007. If he spends the whole season with Omaha, he could enter the danger zone of becoming a AAAA player. Still, he has a chance to break out. With Hosmer in direct competition, he’ll have a tough time with the Royals. We’ll see what happens when AAA pitchers catch up to him, but he’s an interesting case to watch.

  • jim fetterolf

    Good points. Only reason for a possible rush at 1B/DH is that Kila and Clint are both 27 while Hoss is 21. Hosmer doesn’t need to be brought up this year but Robinson probably deserves a chance after being a good trooper and winning the AA Triple Crown last year. Only way to compare him to Kila is to give him a shot at the big leagues and it would enhance his trade value as we have four guys for two positions. Too much competition is a good problem but not an easy one when one is a potential batting champion with no other skills while another is a multi-tool ‘can’t miss’ prospect and the other two have apparent skills but limited experience.

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