Rookie Profile: Kila Ka'aihue
Royals slugger Kila Ka'aihue is one of the more controversial prospects of the last few years. He's torn up Double-A and Triple-A two of the last three seasons, but the Royals were reluctant (it seemed) to give him a full chance. He's playing now, albeit with unimpressive results. Who is this guy, where did he come from, and can he hit major league pitching?
Kila Ka'aihue was drafted by the Royals in the 15th round in 2002, out of high school in Honolulu, Hawaii. He could have gone several rounds higher due to his power potential and baseball background (his dad was a Triple-A player), but had a University of Nebraska scholarship he was expected to use. He didn't use it, signing with the Royals. Sent to the Gulf Coast Rookie League, he hit .259/.381/.381, showing excellent plate discipline but not unleashing his power yet. I didn't put him in the 2003 book.
Sent to Low-A Burlington for 2003, Ka'aihue hit .238/.355/.380, with 67 walks and 80 strikeouts in 395 at-bats. He hit 11 homers and posted a slightly positive +7 percent OPS. I saw him play that year for Burlington, and was impressed with his strength and feel for the strike zone, although he seemed to have problems with his swing mechanics. In the '04 book, I gave him a Grade C, but wrote that he had "a lot of potential as a power hitting first baseman" but that he was still trying to refine his swing. He also showed me good mobility for a big guy, although he was still raw with the glove.
Returning to Burlington for 2004, Ka'aihue hit .246/.361/.431 with 15 homers, 64 walks, and 98 strikeouts in 390 at-bats, slight progress although he was repeating the league. I gave him another Grade C in the '05 book, writing that "he works the count well and is strong enough to hit for a lot of power, but his swing goes through phases where it is excessively mechanical, resulting in long slumps." I also noted that he was scheduled to play at High Desert in 2005 and could put up big numbers in that environment.
He did exactly that, hitting .304/.428/.497 with 20 homers, 31 doubles, 97 walks, and 97 strikeouts in 493 at-bats in '05. I wrote that "he did make real progress, just not as much as you might think." His OPS increased from +11 percent in 2004 to +14 percent in 2005; a lot of the improvement was due to the change in environmental conditions, although scouts did think he made at least a little genuine progress. I raised his grade one notch to a C+ in the '06 book, writing that it was "still an open question whether he can hit for average sufficiently and make contact at higher levels."
Promoted to Double-A Wichita in 2006, Ka'aihue had a very bad season, hitting just .202/.305/.303. He still controlled the zone well (49 walks) but struck out a lot (73 in 327 games). I saw him several times, and his bat simply looked too slow against Double-A pitching. His weight (always an issue) was getting out of control, and he was bothered by knee problems that seemed to impact his weight shift at the plate. I did not put him in the 2007 book.
He began to show signs of life again in 2007, hitting .251/.360/.420 in 60 games for High-A Wilmington, then .246/.359/.447 in 70 games in Wichita. He combined to hit 21 homers and draw 76 walks against 78 strikeouts in 451 at-bats. I saw him play several times for Wichita. He had some of his bat speed back and was doing a fine job with the strike zone (as usual), although some scouts told me he was too passive at the plate and unaggressive on hittable pitches. On the other hand, he had lost a lot of mobility since I first saw him at Burlington in '03. I put him back in the book at a Grade C in '08, writing that he was young enough at age 24 to take a step forward, but that the risk was high he'd end up as a minor league slugger.
He took that step in '08. He came to camp in better physical condition, taking some stress off his knees and restoring some of his old mobility. He got off to an amazing start in Double-A, hitting .314/.463/.624 with 26 homers, 80 walks, and a mere 41 strikeouts in 287 at-bats. Promoted to Triple-A, he tore through the PCL in late July and August, hitting .316/.439/.640 with 24 walks and 26 strikeouts in 114 at-bats. He went 6-for-21 with a homer and three walks in 12 games for the Royals. It was a flawless season statistically; lots of power, lots of walks, with an incredibly low strikeout rate for a guy with that much power (37 homers, 67 strikeouts, 104 walks).
From seeing him in person, and from talking with sources, it looked to me like he'd made some genuine progress, combining his always-strong batting eye with a more aggressive approach, without sacrificing contact. He did a better job against the fastballs that previously ate him up inside, showing improved bat speed. Oddly, Royals officials seemed more skeptical about him than observers from other teams. I gave him a Grade B in the '09 book, writing that I thought much of his progress was sustainable, although I still saw him as more of a .250ish hitter in the long run, albeit with good power and OBP.
The Royals showed what they thought of his season when they signed Mike Jacobs as a free agent in 2009. Rumor had it that Ka'aihue was very disappointed in spring training, and he seemed to be discouraged early in the year at Omaha, according to PCL observers. He still showed excellent plate discipline, but was trying too hard to hit homers, to force his way back to the majors. Scouts reported that his previous vulnerability to inside pitches had returned. He did knock 17 bombs, but his overall line of .252/.392/.433 was disappointing. Plate discipline remained a strength with an 102/85 BB/K ratio, but a lot of people now agreed with the Royals and wrote his '08 off as a fluke. Bad luck may have had something to do with his season; "normalizing" his BABIP resulted in a line of .290/.420/.480 at Omaha, more like what was expected. The Royals didn't give him a September call-up, further indication of what they thought about him. I lowered his rating to a Grade C+ in the book this year.
2010 was more like 2008: .319/.463/.598 at Omaha, 24 homers, 88 walks, 69 strikeouts in 323 at-bats. He's received 78 at-bats for the Royals so far in 22 games, hitting .179/.256/.282 with eight walks and 10 strikeouts. He's going to have to pick up the hitting in September to have a clean shot at a job in '11, and even if he does that, he has Eric Hosmer breathing down his neck in the organization.
So, what do we make of him? Is he just a minor league slugger, or is there more here?
Sabermetrically, the thing that stands out most about Kila is his BB/K ratio. He always draws a lot of walks, but unlike many power/patience hitters, he does not strike out very much. Even his current major league struggles amount to a less-than-100 strikeouts in 600 plate appearances pace. Generally speaking, high walks/low strikeouts is a good statistical profile for future success.
Scouting wise, I'm not sure what to make of him. I have seen him a lot over the last few years. Sometimes, he shows very good bat speed and clean swing mechanics. I've seen him handle those inside pitches just fine. Other times, his swing gets long and mechanical, and he gets locked up on the fastballs and struggles. The fangraphs data so far does indicate problems with fastballs in the majors, granted a 78-AB sample size is too small to draw permanent conclusions. He seems to be streaky, with long cold spells but also huge hot streaks. He also seems vulnerable to pressing at the plate, and takes time to adapt to a new level.
My guess is that Ka'aihue never gets untracked in Kansas City, ends up somewhere else, destroys Triple-A again, gets another major league shot somewhere at age 28 or 29, has a good year or two as a DH, then fades out in his early 30s.