The emergence of Kila Ka’aihue (pronounced KEY-luh Kuh-eye-HOO-a) as a legitimate prospect was one of the top two surprises (along with Mike Aviles) of 2008 for the player development department of the Royals front office. After receiving dismal offensive production from first base (.720 OPS, ranking 27th in the Majors) in 2008, the Royals doubled their pleasure by drafting first baseman Eric Hosmer with the 3rd pick in the draft, and having a breakout year by the 6’3″, 230-pound Ka’aihue.
Born and raised in Hawaii, Kila and his younger brother, Kala (a farmhand in the Braves organization), are the sons of former Pirates minor league catcher, Kala Ka’aihue, Sr. Kila flew under the radar in high school given the (surprising) difficulty of attracting scouts to the islands from the mainland. Eric Tokunaga, a part-time Royals scout, saw him throw 90-mph as a high school sophomore, but after Kila smashed a ball farther than Tokunaga had ever seen, he recommended Ka’aihue focus on hitting.
Micah Kilakila Ka’aihue was drafted by the Royals in the 15th round (438th overall) of the 2002 Amateur Draft right out of Iolani high school. After discussing his options with his father, the left-handed batter decided to accept the Royals offer and forgo attending the University of Nebraska for baseball (where he would have been teammates with current Royal Alex Gordon) or going to the University of Southern California or Oregon for football. The 18-year old started his professional career that year by playing in 43 games for the Gulf Coast Royals, with a modest line of .259/.381/.381.
His first two years of full-time professional ball were with the Burlington Bees of the Midwest League, a league typically known for low offensive numbers. Over the course of those two seasons, he had a solid, but not eye-opening .759 OPS (the Midwest League OPS average was .680 in 2003 and .708 in 2004).
In 2005, he played in the thin air of High Desert (California League), and his numbers jumped. He slugged .497 with a great walk-to-strikeout ratio (97walks, 97 strikeouts). Along with his other High Desert teammates, Billy Butler and Mitch Maier, the 21-year old began to generate some buzz among Royals fans, which included a blurb in the Baseball Prospectus 2006 annual.
After flying high in the desert, it was ironic that his climb up the organizational ranks stalled in Wichita, a city known for aircraft manufacturing. His 2006 season was a disaster, with both injuries (a torn patella tendon in his right knee) and poor performance (a paltry .602 OPS), resulting in a demotion to start the 2007 season. The feeling was that he would likely be just an organizational guy, as evidenced by Baseball Prospectus leaving him out of their 2007 and 2008 annuals. He regained his plate discipline (35:38 BB:K ratio) with some power (.420 SLG) at Wilmington (the Royals had since moved out of High Desert), which earned him a promotion back to Wichita to finish the 2007 season.
In 2008, the Royals moved their AA affiliation to Northwest Arkansas, and Ka’aihue put on a show for the new fans in The Natural State. In his 91 games, he launched 26 home runs, while walking twice as frequently as he struck out (80:41 BB:K ratio). It seemed that he had found the correct balance between aggressiveness and patience, yet there were numerous skeptics as he was now 24, and it was his third season in AA. The Royals had confidence that this wasn’t a fluke and promoted him to AAA Omaha mid-season. He continued to mash, belting another 11 homeruns in 114 plate appearances, while maintaining a walk-to-strikeout ratio near one. At the end of the season he was rewarded with a September call-up to Kansas City, where he got 24 plate appearances in which he hit a respectable .804 OPS and hammered his first major league home run. He topped the season off by receiving the Texas League MVP award and the Royals’ Minor League Player of the Year award.
After an off-season trade with the Marlins brought first baseman Mike Jacobs to Kansas City, it was pretty clear that the organization wanted Ka’aihue to prove himself another year in the minors. As Ka’aihue told Omaha reporter Rob White, he really didn’t think he was going to be on the big league club anyway. He started a little sluggish in April, batting .238 with only 3 home runs, although he did have an OBP of .425, walking 22 times compared to just 18 strikeouts. The hits started coming in May, and he has moved his OPS up to .936 as of June 11th.
When talking about Ka’aihue, there is one trait that stands out among all others: plate discipline. Even before his remarkable 2008 campaign, Baseball America had named Ka’aihue the Royals prospect with the best strike-zone judgment. After his monster year, which included a 1.55 BB/K ratio, he retained that label. Also, Baseball America ranked Ka’aihue the 9th best prospect in the Royals farm system, and third best position player behind Mike Moustakas (#1) and Hosmer (#2). Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus concurred and designated Ka’aihue the 4th best prospect in the Royals organization, and likewise third best position player prospect.
John Sickels had rated Ka’aihue a grade C prospect throughout 2007. He did notice a smoother swing in 2007 as compared to a swing much more mechanical in previous years. While he hadn’t seen Ka’aihue personally in 2008, a number of scouts told him that Ka’aihue seems to have figured something out and fixed the remaining flaws in his swing.
J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ Director of Player Development, told Dave Sanford of Royals Corner (subscription material) in Spring Training 2008 that he was expecting a big year from Ka’aihue due to his great camp. Ka’aihue had spent the 2007 off-season getting into better shape, and improved his ability to hit the breaking ball and started going the other way with the outside fastball. Despite this, many teams still defense him as a dead-pull hitter. Picollo did admit to Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star that he would be lying if he said that he expected 2008 to go as well as it did. One scout told Mellinger that “insane production (that comes) out of nowhere” is not uncommon with prospects from low-competition backgrounds like Hawaii.
Others have noted Ka’aihue’s intelligence and attention to detail. He keeps his own thick notebook with all the matchups he’s had against the pitchers that he’s faced throughout his career.
What are the knocks on Ka’aihue? Sickels felt he was slow on the basepath, but had some decent range in the field at first. Kevin Goldstein counters that he is a sluggish defender and that his only value will come with the bat. Also, there are a significant number of scouts who still wonder if 2008 was a fluke. Mellinger has talked to ten different scouts, and has gotten ten different opinions, with one even saying that despite his production, they still see a slow bat, and another saying that Ka’aihue is “a dream that’s not happening.” Essentially, the 2009 season will be huge in terms of future perceptions.
To put the 2008 breakout year in perspective, let’s examine Ka’aihue’s six full years in the minors:
Year Level AVG/ OBP/ SLG/ OPS 2003 A .238/.355/.380/.735 2004 A .246/.352/.431/.783 2005* A+ .263/.381/.426/.807 2006 AA .199/.300/.303/.602 2007 A+ .251/.360/.420/.780 2007 AA .246/.359/.447/.806 2008 AA .314/.463/.624/1.086 2008 AAA .316/.439/.640/1.079
Now for those paying attention, you’ll notice that something seems wrong with these numbers. I can hear you saying, “I thought he had a breakout season in 2005 at High Desert but this shows just a mild improvement in batting average and not much else.” The reason is that I adjusted the 2005 numbers using a Minor League Equivalency calculator (http://www.minorleaguesplits.com/mlecalc.html) based on Sean Smith’s formulae. The 2005 data are the equivalent of what he would have hit had the Royals kept their advanced A team in Wilmington, a much more neutral park. Except for the injury-plagued 2006, Ka’aihue has showed consistent, but not particularly remarkable production at each level from 2004 to 2007. By removing the affects of High Desert, we see that 2008 truly seems to be completely out of nowhere based on the previous five years.
Essentially, this has been the story of Omaha first basemen four times in the last seven years. Up to this point, the Royals have little more than three mediocre major league seasons and a token all-star selection to show for it. Royals fans know the list all too well: Ken Harvey, Calvin Pickering, Craig Brazell, and Ryan Shealy. Is Ka’aihue’s production for real, or is it the next in a long line of teasers?
Player(Year) Age AB/HR BB/K OPS Ken Harvey(2002) 24 27.1 0.48 .807 Calvin Pickering(2004) 27 10.5 0.82 1.157 Craig Brazell(2007) 27 13.9 0.30 .953 Ryan Shealy (2008) 28 21.3 0.59 .879 Kila Ka'aihue (2008) 24 10.8 1.55 1.089
By doing this comparison, there is a lot to suggest that Ka’aihue may not be a mirage. Except for Harvey (who posted only mediocre numbers in Omaha, but did have the best ML career of the four), Ka’aihue was three years younger than the others, and once again the plate discipline jumps out at you. Omaha manager, Mike Jirschele told MLB.com that unlike Pickering, he can handle the good fastball up. Sickels likes the BB/K/AB line as an indicator of future success.
There is one piece of evidence that does suggest a likely regression from his 2008 season.
Year Level(s) 2B HR HR/2B Ratio XBH/AB 2003 A 21 11 0.52 .084 2004 A 23 15 0.65 .101 2005 A+ 31 20 0.65 .107 2006 AA 15 6 0.40 .064 2007 A+,AA 21 21 1.00 .093 2008 AA,AAA 15 37 2.47 .130 2009 AAA 17 8 0.47 .138
The home run to doubles ratio in 2008 is so vastly different than the rest of his career. Some feel that a huge power surge in home runs, without a corresponding increase in doubles is the sign of a fluke. In Bill James’ study of the 96 types of different hitters, a small number of major leaguers have a ratio of HR/2B over 1.00, and it almost never tops 1.50 for any sustainable period. In fact, only nine of the top 100 home run hitters have hit 50% more home runs than doubles for their career. Jim Thome is the highest active player with a ratio of just 1.36. Based on Ka’aihue’s track record, a more reasonable assumption is a HR/2B ratio of 0.60. On a positive note for 2009, Ka’aihue is knocking extra base hits at an even higher rate than 2008, though balls that were leaving the park last year seem to be just bouncing off the wall this year.
Projecting the Future
If we look at Ka’aihue’s plate appearances in AAA and translate these to their Major League Equivalents we get:
Level(s) AB 2B HR BB/K AVG/ OBP/ SLG AAA('08-'09) 303 21 19 75/70 .294/.433/.558 MLB-equivalent 319 18 15 55/76 .244/.358/.443
The .991 OPS that he has in Omaha translates (using the Sean Smith MLE formulae) to a .801 OPS in Kansas City. So far in 2009, with Butler and Jacobs getting most of the duties, Kansas City first basemen have a line of .289/.347/.452. The designated hitters were even worse, with a line of .200/.278/.376. We can begin to understand the frustration that has existed amongst many Royals fans about Ka’aihue not being with the major league club.
How is Ka’aihue doing compared to the expectations for this year? The most common projections (sorted by OPS) are shown in the table below:
Projection System AVG/ OBP/ SLG Bill James .259/.380/.475 Oliver .256/.351/.487 Marcel .277/.351/.436 ZiPS .258/.345/.432 CHONE .242/.343/.398 PECOTA .226/.323/.388 Projection Average .255/.352/.432 Omaha Equivalent .306/.427/.538
The second to last line are the weighted slash stats of the six projections, while the last line is the Projection Average translated back to AAA Omaha using the Minor League Equivalency calculator. The Omaha Equivalent is pretty close to what he has accomplished. These projections for a 25 year-old suggest a solid, but not spectacular, major-league first baseman in the future.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus suggests a likely range of possible outcomes. On the high side, “Ka’aihue will be an everyday big-league first basemen who hits in the middle of the lineup.” Some of the top comparables from PECOTA are David Ortiz (#5) and Travis Hafner (#8). On the downside he could be a “second-division starter…limited to designated-hitting duties because of his glove.” His #1 and #2 comparables are career minor leaguers Sal Rende and Pat Dodson. A cautionary reminder to Royals fans is that Bob Hamelin is Ka’aihue’s #12 comparable.
Some of Ka’aihue’s future will be out of his control, based on the current logjam of slightly above replacement-level first basemen/designated hitters currently ahead of Ka’aihue: Butler, Jacobs, and Shealy. Beyond these three, Ka’aihue will also need to be looking in the rear-view mirror at the progression of Hosmer. If one assumes that Shealy has missed his window of opportunity and Mike Jacobs is just a temporary fixture (though the Royals do have control of him through 2011), that leaves Billy Butler, who is two years younger, and Ka’aihue sharing the first base and designated hitter duties. The next big question is then who will be the odd man out when (or if) Eric Hosmer is ready.