A Tale of Two Hitters


What you notice first is that he’s big.  Big-as-a-house big.  Standing at 6’4″ and an eighth of a ton, he’s an imposing figure.  Seeing him turn a fastball into vapor is just proof of what you’d expected – you don’t wanna mess with this guy.

Minor league pitchers found this out as he went to the plate in Double A and hit nearly everything out of the park.  A promotion to Triple A didn’t slow him down either.  he just kept chugging along, mashing everything in his path.

This hulking left-handed hitting first baseman had turned the minor leagues into his own personal batting cage.  Clearly he was ready for the show.

The Phillies, knowing this, brought Ryan Howard up shortly after and while he struggled a bit, he ended up becoming an MVP.

Up until that last sentence, the description would apply to another big left-handed slugger, and one that we know well as Royals fans by this point.  Kila Ka’aihue is the same height as the 2006 NL MVP.  He’s 20 pounds lighter, sure, but at 235, he’s not lacking in mass by any means.

Like Howard, Ka’aihue destroyed Double A and kept the momentum going upon a promotion to Triple A.  The difference in Howard’s case is that the Phillies brought him up for more than half a season in 2005 after he’d done everything he could in the minors.  Ka’aihue wasn’t so fortunate.

Granted, as a 15th rounder in 2002 (in the middle of the player development dark ages in Royals history), Ka’aihue didn’t command a lot of attention.  He’d always been able to draw walks but other than a 2005 season in High Desert in the California League, he’d never hit for average.  In hindsight, it looks ridiculous for the Royals to have left him down there after he’s spent two of the last three seasons making a mockery of minor league pitchers.

Like Howard, Ka’aihue started out in Triple A the season following his biggest year in the minors.

Howard had hit .291/.380/.637/1.017 with 46 homers and 130 RBI between two levels in 2004.  Ka’aihue hit .315/.456/.628/1.085 with 37 homers and 100 RBI in 2008 between Double A and Triple A.  Howard’s 2005 started off in Triple A, where, after 257 plate appearances, he’d hit 16 homers and put up a 1.157 OPS, earning a full-time gig he’s yet to give up.

Ka’aihue’s follow up season wasn’t nearly as good.

He was still pretty good, to be clear.  An .825 OPS isn’t anything to fuss about, but when it’s following what looked like a breakout season, it was nothing but a disappointment.  The walks were still there but after hitting 37 homers, in 2008, he managed only 17 in a full season at Omaha.  He didn’t even get called up in September when rosters expanded.

The pedestrian 2009 seemed to confirm the Royals suspicions that 2008 was a fluke.  Maybe opening 2009 with Ka’aihue in Triple A was a good idea to make him prove it, but after they’d traded Leo Nunez for Mike Jacobs, Ka’aihue was probably going to have to meet or exceed his 2008 numbers to get a look, even while Jacobs was whiffing at anything thrown by a lefty and hitting homers only when the bases were empty and the Royals were already down by six.

Maybe that 2009 snub inspired Ka’aihue.  He tore it up in spring last season, hitting .347/.448/.673/1.122 in 58 spring plate appearances.  He continued to hit after another assignment to Triple A, eventually leading the minors in on base percentage.  The entire minor leagues.  Ka’aihue made the lowest percentage of outs in the minors in 2010.  Yeah.

He finally – FINALLY – earned a shot at a full-time job in August (I’m not even going to acknowledge the token call-up he got in May when Rick Ankiel went on the DL – Ka’aihue saw less than nine innings of action).  As before, it seemed he wasn’t ready for prime time.  Through the first 16 games and 63 plate appearances, Ka’aihue had an OPS of .376.  Even in the minors when struggling, he’d been able to put up an on base percentage around .360 with regularity.  He seemed to be pressing until he had what may have been the most meaningful meaningless at bat in his career.

With two outs in the top of the ninth on August 24, the Royals trailed the Tigers 9-0.  Ka’aihue stepped to the plate against Ryan Perry and hit the first pitch he saw out of the park.

From that day until the end of the year, Ka’aihue put up a productive .248/.355/.513/.868 line.  Not flashy, but in line with his minor league numbers.  Despite playing just a third of the year, he finished fourth on the team in homers (with 8, which would have been amazing in 1902).

Ka’aihue opens 2011 with a clear shot at the cleanup spot in the lineup.  He’s no longer blocked, and after his finish to 2010, the Royals have no more excuses to keep him from the big leagues.

While he has similarities to Howard, he does lack some bat speed in comparison and despite good raw power, he doesn’t have the prolific potential that Howard does.  Still, his patience at the plate and slugging should make him a productive player in 2011.  He’s a favorite to lead the team in homers and his solid walkrate should keep him up at the top of the team’s ranks in OPS as well.

The Royals missed an opportunity with Ka’aihue.  Had they brought him up in 2009 despite some struggles, perhaps he’d have worked them out like he did in the bigs in 2010.  He’d have another year of experience and polish at the plate and would be a legitimate power hitter going into this year.  As it is, he’s still a bit suspect.

But heck, he’s still just 27 years old.  The guys at Baseball Prospectus like his odds, projecting him for 25 homers and comparing him to Adrian Gonzalez and Joey Votto.  While he might have gotten a raw deal over the past couple of years, he has the opportunity now, and while it’s there, he has to seize it.  After a 3-3 day in a spring training game today, he’s batting .433 and has three homers.  It’s no guarantee of success, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Is he going to be an MVP candidate? Doubtful, but wouldn’t you be fine with anything even close to resembling a Ryan Howard season?

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