Oakland first baseman Kila Ka'aihue has long been a sabermetric darling. A 15th-round draft pick a decade ago, he first showed up on the radar in 2005. At age 21, he walked 97 times while striking out 97 times and slugging 20 homers in High-A (Cal League/High Desert caveats applying on that last number). But he truly exploded onto the scene in a 2008 season that saw him post absurd numbers between Double-A and Triple-A: a 67/104 K/BB, 37 homers, and a .314/.456/.628 triple-slash.
Ka'aihue was drafted by the pre-Dayton Moore Royals regime, and he never seemed to have the backing of their current braintrust, who kept him mostly on the bench in a September 2008 callup and kept him in Triple-A for all of 2009. Another eruption in the PCL in 2010 (.319/.463/.598) added even more fuel to the "Free Kila" campaign, as sabermetrically-inclined fans grew increasingly frustrated with the team's unwillingness to give the eminently qualified Ka'aihue his fair shake.
He finally got something of a chance in late 2010, and after an ice-cold August (.167/.239/.274), Kila put together a big September (.261/.367/.511 with 6 HR) that seemed to solidify his place in the Royals' plans.
As you no doubt know by now, those plans were short-lived. Kila Ka'aihue would play 23 more games in a Royals uniform. He generally looked lost at the plate, striking out 26 times in 82 PA and hitting .195/.295/.317. Even when he got positive results--like on this upper-deck moonshot--he just didn't look like he belonged. Take a look at that swing. That is not the swing of an effective major-league hitter. That is the swing of a man desperate to come up with the big home run to keep him in the big leagues for another week. And, to be fair, there were reasons for that desperation--the organization's lack of confidence, for one, and some guy named Hosmer, for another.
Given that Kila turned 27 before the 2011 season started, he struggled (both statistically and to the eye) in his MLB time, and he hit just .252/.379/.433 in a fourth crack at Triple-A, most of us who were beating the "Free Kila" drum figured that was enough--he had his chance, we saw what he had, and that was that.
Or was it?
The Royals designated the out-of-options Ka'aihue for assignment in the offseason, and the A's decided not only to claim him, but to trade minor league pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth (a fringe guy, but not a total zero) for the first baseman. Even as an A's fan, I found it hard to care much about the deal--on one hand, I liked Ka'aihue's walks-and-power skillset, but conversely, he had struggled badly for much of his MLB time and turned 28 before the season started. Given the team's lack of an established first baseman, I thought he was possibly worth another quick look, but certainly wouldn't have cared much if he never put the uniform on. That is, until I read the great Rany Jazayerli's writeup of Ka'aihue in his offseason "Royals Report Card:"
If Kila had gone to Omaha and hit the crap out of the ball, the way he did in 2008 (.314/.456/.628), or in 2010 (.319/.463/.598), the narrative would be pretty simple: big guy, slow bat, AAAA hitter. He can beat up on minor league pitchers, but put him in a double-decker stadium against guys who can throw in the mid-90s and can control their secondary stuff, and he doesn't have the bat speed to catch up to the fastball unless he cheats and starts his swing early, in which case the off-speed pitches will eat him alive.
But that's not really what happened. Ka'aihue struggled for the Royals - granted, it was all of 23 games - hitting .195/.295/.317 before he was demoted to Triple-A. And he continued to struggle, hitting .272/.379/.433 for the Storm Chasers. He had an identical number of at-bats in Omaha in 2010 and 2011, but last year he hit 24 homers and walked 88 times, and this year he hit 11 homers and walked 57 times.
So then you take a step back, and you look at 2009, when Ka'aihue hit .252/.392/.433 in Omaha, and you wonder if he's just a wildly inconsistent hitter, prone to really good years and really mediocre ones. He just had the poor timing of synchronizing one of his mediocre seasons with his one big shot at everyday playing time in the majors.
Billy Beane is gambling that it's the latter. Granted, he didn't wager much, trading a fringy pitcher named......Ethan Hollingsworth for Ka'aihue. The A's will get a look at him in camp, where Ka'aihue will have to fight for playing time with Daric Barton and Brandon Allen and Chris Carter. If they don't like what they see, Ka'aihue could be looking at a long and financially rewarding career in Japan.
But the A's aren't yet convinced that Ka'aihue is a AAAA player, and neither am I. For the first time in his career, Ka'aihue is playing for an organization that not only respects his approach at the plate, they encourage it. I'd hold off on writing his career obituary for one more season.
I like to think I know a lot about baseball, but I'm pretty sure Rany knows more, and I'm definitely sure he knows more when it comes to guys who have spent their whole career in the Royals organization. The above got me to reevaluate my opinion of Ka'aihue enough to get squarely on board the "give him another 150 PA" bandwagon, even as A's fans left and right were assuming he was the odd man out of the first base/DH battle. Even when he made the roster, many assumed he would be DFA'd when the team needed a fifth starter.
But here we are, and Kila's already lasted longer than he did last year. He only has 66 PA, but he made it through the end of April on a major league roster, and he's actually been one of the A's most effective hitters. The strange thing, though, is how he's been effective.
Kila's backers always assumed that if he were to succeed in the majors, it would likely be as a Jack Cust sort of Three True Outcomes hitter (not necessarily as extreme as Cust, of course). And in his 2010-11 time, he fulfilled those expectations, striking out 65 times, walking 36, and bopping ten homers in 262 PA. This year, however, he's struck out nine times, walked five, and hit no homers.
It's ridiculously early, of course, but plate discipline stats tend to stabilize fast, and all of Kila's show dramatic improvement this year. He's very slightly cut his O-Swing% (from 23.9% in 2011 to 23.4% in 2010) while increasing his Z-Swing% (from 56.0% to 62.8%), which means he's overall swinging at better pitches. More pronounced, however, is his contact ability, as his dramatically lowered strikeout rate indicates. Ka'aihue's swinging strike rate has dropped from 10.2% to 5.6%. When he swings, he's made contact 87.6% of the time, up from 73.6%. Even in his larger (and better) 2010 sample, Ka'aihue's SwStr (7.6%), Contact% (80.2%), O-Swing% (25.6%), and Z-Swing (57.5%) were markedly worse than they've been in 2012.
That seems to bear out (with small sample size caveats fully in effect) Rany's idea of Kila's approach working better in the Oakland organization than in KC. He seems to be relaxing and coming into his own as a selective hitter who can make good contact, rather than trying to out-Hosmer Hosmer.
All that said, the guy's hitting .283/.348/.350, and he plays exclusively first base. In a world where many still doubt Bryan LaHair, Ka'aihue has yet to prove he belongs. It's nice that his approach looks to be much improved; that should allow him to hit for a league-average BA and OBP. But it's the development of the third triple-slash stat that will ultimately decide Kila's fate. If it turns out that all he's done is trade his power stroke for an empty-average one, he'll be no better off than he was in previous years, because you can't make it as an empty-average first baseman without the "gritty veteran" card being squarely on the table. As Rany noted in the long quote above, Ka'aihue's power stroke has a way of coming and going from year to year, so it's tough to draw definitive conclusions about where his true talent level lies at any given time.
In any case, if Ka'aihue can combine his 2012 plate discipline/contact numbers with some of the power output he's shown in the past, the A's just might have a very interesting offensive weapon on their hands. Even after all the false starts in the past half-decade, perhaps he's finally proving that the stat crowd was right, and that he should've been an MLB regular a long time ago. Time will tell, and this could all fall apart in a matter of days, but for now, it's hard not to start being intrigued.