Saturday, April 23, 2011

Give Me A Minute, Let Me Get It Together

...I just gotta pick myself up off the floor
(From "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)," Street Legal)

He was a promising young hitter, although it took him a couple of seasons to get out of Class A ball. After splitting a season between AA and AAA, he was sent back to Triple A the next season, although he did get a September callup. An injury basically wiped out the following season, but he finally stuck in the majors in his sixth professional season. However, he only managed a .248/.313/.442 line in 182 plate appearances, good for a 97 OPS+. It would take three more seasons and 266 games before he found his niche, at age 28.

Our mystery player is one of the greatest hitters in Royals history: Hal McRae. And I hope his story will encourage Royals fans to be a little more patient with Kila Ka'aihue.

The point of this exercise is not to say that Kila is the next Hal McRae, but rather to show that even very good hitters can get off to slow starts at the major league level. And frankly, Ka'aihue's minor league stats compare favorably to McRae's.

It has been frustrating to watch Kila struggle during the first three weeks of the 2011 season. Just like it was probably frustrating to watch McRae hit .188/299/.328 in his first 18 games in 1973. Or George Brett hit .242/.324/.409 in his first 18 games in 1978. But 18 games is just not enough to give up on a guy, particularly a guy who has only played the equivalent of half of one season in the majors, like Kila has.

I know, it seems like Kila has been around forever. We've been hearing about him and looking forward to seeing him play since his monster 2008 season, split between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. But really, he has only been a major leaguer for 82 games (going into Saturday night's game at Texas). After making him wait behind Ross Gload, Mike Jacobs, and Jose Guillen, I think the Royals owe it to Ka'aihue to give him at least into June to prove himself.

I understand why fans might want to push Kila aside. Both Eric Hosmer and Clint Robinson are off to hot starts at Omaha. The major league team looks like it might have a shot at actually contending for a title this year in a mediocre division, and division champs don't have first basemen who hit .188. But the same caveat applies to Hosmer and Robinson--both are in their first seasons at Omaha. If they can keep up their hitting for a longer period of time, then yes, figure out a way to make room for them in the majors. I don't think it's really fair to them (or to Kila) to bring them up now and expect them to keep the Royals in contention.

Furthermore, I would be more concerned with Kila's slow start if he were not still drawing walks. Part of the reason Royals fans have been excited by his minor league numbers was that sterling on-base percentage. In an organization that has done a great job talking about the importance of getting on base a lot, but has not been so good at getting players who actually, you know, get on base a lot, Kila stood out. So far this year, Ka'aihue is tied for second on the team with 10 walks. He's still exhibiting a good understanding of the strike zone, which gives me confidence he will hit at some point. Part of his problem is the team-high 21 strikeouts, which is rather high for a player who only struck out 39 times in 206 plate appearances last season.

Also, Kila's luck hasn't been the greatest this season, with a .256 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Since a normal BABIP is around .300, I would expect his average to go up. And as the weather gets warmer, his power should improve too.

The time is coming when the Royals will have to decide which two of the four 1B/DH types they have between KC and Omaha they want to keep. But that time is not now. Kila may need a change of scenery to hit, or he may just need a little more time to get his game going. Getting rid of him now, though, would be selling when his stock is at its lowest. And it would be a mistake.

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