If you haven’t read it already, I heartily recommend Sam Mellinger’s piece on Kila Kaaihue in the Sunday Star. I think this column strikes the perfect balance of wonder, optimism, and skepticism for the most monstrous season any Royals minor leaguer has put together in years.
Here’s the gist of the column:
1) Kaaihue, out of nowhere, is having an utterly ridiculous season.
2) A lot of baseball men, both inside and outside the organization, still have major reservations about him.
3) Those same baseball men agree that if he continues to put up these kinds of numbers, he deserves a chance to prove them wrong.
Let’s take these one by one.
1) Kaaihue, out of nowhere, is having an utterly ridiculous season.
Kila Kaaihue — pronounced KEE-la KY-uh-hooey — is as close to an overnight, Internet sensation as we can have in this time of oversaturated sports coverage. Four months ago, he was a non-prospect. Baseball
Since then, he has torched minor-league pitching, putting up on-base and slugging numbers comparable to recent big-league MVPs, and strong-arming his way to the Royals’ top affiliate here in
Since this article posted, Kaaihue has played in four more games, hitting two more homers and drawing four more walks. He started the year for
If you translate Kaaihue’s minor league numbers this season into what he would have hit had he played at the major league level, here’s what you (or more precisely, Clay Davenport, the creator of the Davenport Translations) will arrive at:
356 AB, 93 H, 10 D, 28 HR, 78 BB, 58 K, .261/.394/.525. Yeah, that'll play.
Yeah, that'll play.
I struggle to come up with more than a handful of Royals who have ever had comparable seasons in the high minors. Calvin Pickering, as Mellinger pointed out, was the last player with a season even remotely as good – in 2004, he hit .314/.444/.712 with 35 homers and 70 walks in 89 games. There are a few others I’ve been able to come up with, as we shall see.
[T]here are real questions to go along with the faux skepticism Kaaihue sees in those text messages.
“I still don’t see him as an everyday major-league player,” says a scout for an opposing American League team. “I still see a slow bat. But I hope I’m wrong, because he’s a guy you root for.”
You can’t blame scouts for their skepticism – Kaaihue has simply never done anything like this before. He has 33 homers this season; in six previous minor league seasons, his previous high was 21. He’s hitting .323; his previous high was .304, and that was set in
The plate discipline, at least, is not a new thing. Kaaihue drew 97 walks that year in
Kaaihue came into pro baseball with what we call “old player’s skills” – good plate discipline, and the ability to use that plate discipline to hit for power because he’d see a lot of 2-0 and 3-1 counts, but no speed or defensive value. Prospects with old player’s skills can be immensely valuable, but the downside is they tend to age very poorly. Almost all players lose foot speed as they age, and eventually bat speed, but they compensate by judging pitches better as they age. A lot of guys reach the majors with tremendous tools but no concept of the strike zone, and the aging process works in their favor. Sammy Sosa is the classic example of this; if you want a player closer to home, look at Jermaine Dye.
The problem with a guy with old player’s skills is that he already does a good job of pitch recognition; that’s how he has compensated for his lack of athleticism in the first place. If he loses even a little bat speed over time, he has no ace in his sleeve; he has no other skill he can improve to compensate. When the bat speed goes south, the career can follow in a hurry. See also Hafner, Travis.
And this is a significant concern with Kaaihue. Consider the comparison to
The Royals didn’t like
More specifically to our discussion, Pickering and Kaaihue are very different players.
So I think that
A decade ago this season, the Royals had a player who hit .372/.466/.634 in
Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. We must start with the fact that, well, he took steroids. I don’t know how much of his success through the minors was a chemically-induced mirage, but it certainly explains why his career would quickly go in the toilet along with all his syringes.
And even then…Giambi had his moments. The Royals never liked him – as you probably know if you’re a Royals fan, the Royals don’t like guys who do nothing but walk and hit homers – and after a rookie year in which he hit .285/.373/.368, they traded him to – surprise! –
I don’t claim to have an exhaustive knowledge of every minor league star in Royals history, but I’d be remiss to not bring up Ken Phelps. Phelps was – like Kaaihue – a 15th-round pick in 1976, but out of college, and hit out of the gate. He reached
With the Expos in 1982, Phelps reversed Kaaihue’s travels and played for
Then there was Dwayne Hosey, who signed as a minor league free agent with the Royals before the 1994 season, at age 27, and hit .333/.420/.628 for
And finally, we reach my favorite comparison, that of Karl Derrick Rhodes, best known as Tuffy.
Habyan threw 14 innings in his Royals career.
With three weeks left in the season, Kaaihue is on pace to have one of the most prodigious, if not the most prodigious, season of any Royals minor league player. As you can see, that’s hardly a guarantee for success.
“You gotta believe what you’re seeing,” says Royals general manager
Here, at least, we see that the Royals are willing to take a different perspective with Kaaihue than just about every player listed above. They have a healthy skepticism, as they should. They just don’t have an unhealthy skepticism. It’s true that none of the guys above, with the possible exception of Phelps, ever gave the Royals any long-term regrets for letting them go. At the same time, it’s not like they should be patting themselves on the back for cutting bait on these guys. Giambi did have three good years after the Royals traded him for a guy who never won a game in the majors. Phelps for Grant Jackson was a terrible trade, and just because the Expos made an even worse decision to let him go doesn’t mean the Royals get off scot-free.
The Royals weren’t always so dismissive of young, slow, patient power hitters with monster numbers. On the contrary, one of the great trades in franchise history came at the 1971 winter meetings, when GM Cedric Tallis snookered the Astros into giving up John Mayberry for Lance Clemens and Jim York. Mayberry’s minor league numbers are a little sketchy, but we know he was playing in Triple-A at age 20, and over the next three years he slugged .522, .498, and .559 – amazing numbers in that era. He was no more than an average hitter after age 26, but from 1972 to 1975 was one of the best first basemen in baseball, and his peak outshines Sweeney’s as the best first baseman the Royals have ever had.
So the mere fact that the Royals are taking Kaaihue’s production seriously means something has changed. Maybe the Royals are taking statistical analysis a little more seriously than they used to. Maybe they recognize that when Ross Gload has played 70% of your team’s innings at first base, you don’t have anything to lose by letting a guy with Kaaihue’s credentials get a shot. Or maybe they look at Kaaihue and see a different player than all the failed sluggers of the past.
Kaaihue, after all, has been with the organization since he was 18, and was well regarded from the beginning. He dropped to the 15th round, but if memory serves it was thought he would be drafted much higher; certainly he was considered a draft steal by the end of the summer. If you ignore his injury-riddled 2006 and account for the hot air in his 2005 numbers, he has shown signs of steady development as he has moved up the minor league ladder. It’s quite possible that the Royals don’t see Kaaihue as a flash in the pan, as a guy whose numbers won’t translate to the major leagues. Mellinger quotes an
I asked my colleague and minor-league expert Kevin Goldstein to give me 25 words about Kaaihue. Understand that Goldstein is not one to mince words or hedge his bets with prospects; if he (or the scouts he talks to every day) thinks that someone’s no good, he’ll say so. For instance, if you’re a Royals fan you probably don’t want to hear what he has to say about Joe Dickerson.
So I was expecting to hear the typical pessimism about Kaaihue that I’ve heard about almost every hitter in the farm system other than Mike Moustakas. I was pleasantly surprised. “Two words: Scouts Believe.” He gave me a few more. “His approach, power, and hitting skills project as an everyday MLB first baseman. A scout I talked to put a 50 on him.” On the scouting scale that runs from 20 to 80, 50 is dead average – so a scout felt he could be a league-average first baseman in the majors, perhaps along the lines of what Carlos Pena is doing this season (as opposed to the highs and lows that Pena has traversed in previous years.)
And I think that is what’s really different about this situation. The Royals look at Kaaihue differently than they did
Talk is cheap, of course. I understand
Barely two months ago, I wrote that “Other than shortstop, there isn’t a position the Royals need filled more than first base.” Who would have thought when the season began that the Royals might have filled those two holes with Mike Aviles and Kila Kaaihue? And moreover, that we’d be thrilled with that arrangement?
But that’s why baseball’s such a great game: it always surprises you, if only you’re willing to let it surprise you. The Royals let themselves be surprised by