I can’t make an excuse for him. Kila Ka’aihue has been disappointing in 2011.
After being the Texas League MVP in 2008 and a Triple A All-Star last season, he entered 2011 with the opportunity that had escaped him until last August – a full time spot in the big leagues. Over the years, Kila’s been a mythic figure in the Royals farm system. As the big league club struggled to get on base and struggled even more to hit the ball out of the park, this guy with a funny name was doing both at remarkable levels.
In 2008, he was doing well enough to inspire fans to call for his opportunity to come up. In 2009, there was outcry that the Royals traded for Mike Jacobs to take a spot that was deservedly Ka’aihue’s. In 2010, Twitter became the birthplace of the #FreeKila movement. The day he finally made it to the big leagues outside of a September callup seemed like a shift to give younger players their shot.
He saw all of four plate appearances in May and was sent back to Omaha until August 2.
The Royals concerns have been his bat speed and maintaining his power against major league pitching every day. So far, their concerns seem valid. The new outcry, a year later, is to ship Kila off to the first team that’ll have him. Send him to Omaha. Cut him.
Am I disappointed? Of course. I want Kila to show that his success in the minors wasn’t a fluke and that he can be a part of a successful Royals team. His success just puts the Royals in an even better position as prospects continue their ascent to the majors. Watching his struggles is frustrating, to be sure, but what’s more frustrating is the fickle turn against him.
Current evidence suggests that there’s a more than decent chance that Ka’aihue never amounts to anything but a guy who can take a walk and occasionally hit a ball out of the park. If that’s the case, and the trend continues, I’m all in favor of making a change.
As has been pointed out already, by Gage yesterday and other voices, Kila’s performance can’t be entirely turned into a judgment of who he’ll be as a player. It’s far too soon to make that decision.
Generally, depending on who you ask, you really need 1000-1500 plate appearances to figure out who a batter will turn out to be. Kila’s accrued 302 in his career in the big leagues. It’s just too soon to call him anything yet. We have his minor league record to go off of, and that can give us an idea of the kind of hitter he is. There’s rarely a direct translation from the minors to the majors, but some skills are always apparent. In Ka’aihue’s case, he has a sharp eye at the plate and big power.
In the big leagues, he’s exhibited one of those skills – in 4148 plate appearances in the minors, he walked 16.2% of the time. In his 302 plate appearances in the big leagues, he’s walked in 12.9% of his appearances. His other skill in the minors, big power, doesn’t look like it’s shown up yet, but his homerun rate then (3.7% of plate appearances) isn’t far off from his major league rate (3.3%)*.
*If that seems low, consider that Albert Pujols has a career rate of 6% of plate appearances resulting in homers.
I subscribe to the school that once you show a skill, you own it. In this case, Ka’aihue can take a walk and he can hit homers. He hasn’t hit a lot of homers as a major leaguer, but he’s only seen about half the plate appearances a typical major leaguer will see as an everyday player over the year. It’s simply not enough time to evaluate him.
There’s no denying that he hasn’t hit at the same rate he did in the minors. The numbers are obvious. What I think some fans forget, though, is that not every player – in fact very few – make a seamless transition to the major leagues. I’m as big a fan of Billy Butler as a hitter as anybody else, but he didn’t hit right away. It took time to figure out the environment, the pitchers, the situations. Alex Gordon‘s struggles are notable. Granted, he’s a former first round pick and Ka’aihue was a 12th rounder, but would anyone have said we should cut Gordon loose after just 300 appearances or that it was time to give up?
In Gordon’s case, a 2007 trip to Omaha would have been a good idea, as he hadn’t stepped foot in Triple A before he’d made his major league debut. Kila, however, has proven that he can hit Triple A pitching.
More to the point, it does neither he nor the Royals any good to prove that point again. Maybe he’ll never amount to anything like Calvin Pickering, another big lefty who could walk and hit homers. His numbers aren’t too far off from Kila’s in a similar amount of time. Ka’aihue has a career .215/.310/.372 split in his big league career. Pickering, in 310 plate appearances, hit 14 homers and had a .223/.329/.428 career line in the majors after posting a .958 OPS over 4689 career minor league plate appearances.
The main difference between the two is that, while Pickering may have had slightly better career big league numbers, but Ka’aihue has a better track record of making contact. In the minors, Pickering struck out 24.6% of the time. Ka’aihue whiffed 16.6% of the time in his time chasing the dream. In the big leagues, Pickering struck out nearly a third of the time, and while Kila’s MLB career strikeout rate of 19.9% isn’t great, it’s still better – and he still shows the ability to walk.
My point is that he needs more time. Sending him to Omaha tells you nothing about his abilities as a big league hitter – he’s either never going to hit, or he hasn’t figured out if he can hit. The Royals have time to give him the chance to prove one way or the other.
If they do, he’s shown over the course of his limited big league time to be capable of making improvements.
If you break down his first 150 plate appearances and compare it with his next 152, he improved his walkrate, OBP and slugging.
If you break his career down by every 100 plate appearances, he shows a better track of improvement in those areas:
The batting average is very low, of course, but with the amount of walks he can get, Kila will still find himself on base at a better rate that a lot of Royals with better batting averages. Even a slight improvement in his average would put him into more than acceptable territory in regards to his other numbers.
Jeff pointed out some of the likely statistical corrections that are on the way. Kila has a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) that’s lower than expected. League average is generally around .300, but Kila’s BABIP is only .237. His line drive percentage is similar to nearly every year in the minor leagues – in 2011 he’s hitting a line drive 17% of the time according to FirstInning.com. Part of his struggles, I have no doubt, have been some bad luck.
He can’t be let off the hook for striking out so much, though, and that’s eaten into his productivity too. The knock on him at every step has been his “slider bat speed”, but in 2011, that’s been the best pitch for him. According to FanGraphs, he’s 1.7 runs above average so far when going after a fastball (of which the average velocity has been 91 mph). His problem has been offspeed pitches, particularly against left-handed pitching. He’s -2.1 runs below average against changeups, -0.5 against curveballs (which seems like it should be higher to watch him).
With Eric Hosmer raking and Clint Robinson doing everything to show that his success to this point was not pure luck, the Royals have other first base options a afternoon’s car ride away. But again, it does them no good to give up on Kila now before he can prove if he can or can’t hit major league pitching.
If you’ve followed the Royals for a while, you’ll likely remember the plight of many other internet darlings who floundered. Shane Costa was a former second round pick who debuted with the Royals in 2005. Over 442 plate appearances he had a big league OPS+ of 70. Anytime he was sent back to Omaha, people railed about the Royals missing an opportunity with Costa. He’d hit well in Triple A and was a former second rounder, but he never showed much of a skill beyond being able to hit Triple A pitching with no power and without much of a walkrate.
Aaron Guiel was another feel good story. Debuting in the big leagues at 29, he’d compiled years in the Mexican League and up and down the minors before the Royals gave him a shot. In 2003, he put up an OPS of .835 and hit 15 homers in 401 plate appearances. The next year, he hit .156/.263/.559 as a 30-year-old. When he was waived in July 2006after bouncing from Kansas City to the minors, he’d produced fairly well as a Royal, hitting .245/.320/.412. A lot of fans hated the move, again, saying he didn’t get a fair shot.
Even last season, there was a group of fans out there who were upset that the Royals had passed on Jose Bautista. Bautista, of course, had 25 plate appearances with the Royals in 2004 and didn’t even approach league average until 2006 with the Pirates before his breakout.
Rany summed it up pretty nicely. If we go with Clint Robinson or Eric Hosmer right now, it’s giving up on Kila entirely. At worst, he stays on the team and never figures it out, contributing only walks and better-than-Butler defense at first base. At best, he figures it out and becomes an average or better slugger, capable of 20-25 homers and a legitimate contender for 100 walks a year. When Hosmer is ready, he could be a nice trade chip to complete a part of the puzzle that may be lacking when the Royals are starting to contend.
He can’t do any of that in Triple A. Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with making sure Hosmer can stay hot in Omaha. Maybe he finds struggles down there and discovers an adjustment he needs to make that he’d otherwise have less opportunity to work out at the big league level. Maybe he gets called up and goes 10-55 (doubtful, but still). Clint Robinson is less of a sure thing even though I think he can hit at the big league level.
I guess I just don’t get the impatience. How does a fanbase go from howling about the injustice dealt to Shane Costa, but are ready, after three weeks, to toss Kila away? Ka’aihue has demonstrated ability to be a central figure in the lineup in the minors and neither his batting eye nor strength haven’t gone away. He needs more time to prove that he can’t hit before the Royals do anything else.