Note: Everything in this article is subject to Small Sample Size Anomaly Syndrome. You have been warned.
Baseball has not been fair to Kila Ka'aihue. Well, that's not entirely true; he's made it to the Major Leagues with two different organizations, which is more than a lot of current minor leaguers will ever be able to say. It's also hard to complain about life when you got to grow up in Hawaii (unless, of course, you follow that up by living in Oakland...d'oh!) But expectations are all relative, and Kila could have reasonably expected, a few years ago, to have some sort of regular job in the Majors at this point. Unfortunately, his soul was owned by the Royals, an organization who seems to have gotten things backwards by seeking hitters who strike out and pitchers who walk people.
Kila's minor league track record was inconsistent, and politely suggested "4-A slugger." He has essentially dominated at every level of the minors, but only when he was a little bit too old for each level. He killed High-A-ball pitching at 21, AA at 24, and AAA at 25+. According to that trend, he should be able to just destroy Major League pitching when he's 35. After getting jerked around by GM Dayton Moore (not like that, perv), blocked by Mike Jacobs (inexcusable), and then passed by Eric Hosmer (totally understandable), he was mercifully released and washed up on Oakland's Island of Misfit Toys.
The early results have been as encouraging as they have been unexpected.
In his limited Major League playing time in Kansas City, Kila was underwhelming (.683 OPS in 326 plate appearances). A look deeper, however, shows that he still hit for some power (.159 isolated power), still drew some walks (OBP 90 points higher than his average, which is nearly Barton-like), and hit into incredibly bad luck (.242 BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, with the normal range being between .290-.310). The power and the plate discipline were still there, and there was reason to believe that his numbers would regress positively if given an extended opportunity to do so.
Kila has had 38 plate appearances in Oakland so far, and the results have been...weird. Any smart person will tell you that 38 plate appearances are completely meaningless for legitimate analysis. Luckily for you, I am not a terribly smart person. It's time for everyone's favorite game: Fun with Small Sample Sizes!
Before we start, we must consider Kila's career norms. In about a half-season's worth of PA's in KC, he struck out 20.6% of the time, whilst walking 12.0% of the time. According to this helpful chart on Fangraphs, he ranks as "Below Average" in the K department, and "Great" in walks. In other words, he struck out too much, but also walked a ton. This is about the distribution that you would expect from a power hitter (wait for your pitch, and swing hard if you get it). He also proved to be a pretty extreme fly ball hitter, which, again, makes sense for a power hitter. Just enough of his fly balls left the yard to qualify as "Average" (9.8% of his fly balls went over the fence, and 9.5% is average). Now you have context, which is one of the most important things in life. Well, it usually is. Depends on the situation. See what I did there?
In this season's 38 plate appearances, Kila has been doing his best Jemile Weeks impression (which seems appropriate, since Weeks has simultaneously been doing his best Kila impression, at least in terms of BABIP). Kila's batting average is .333, but it's almost entirely singles (plus two doubles). Not only that, but he's making contact nearly every time up; he's walked only once (2.6%) and struck out only four times (10.5%). Both of those percentages sit on the extreme (low) ends of the spectrum, and both are very uncharacteristic of Kila. His BABIP, which in the past was unsustainably low, is now unsustainably high (.375). For every one of his smash hits that goes right at a fielder, one of his bloops falls in for a cheap hit.
When you see a hitter stray so far from his normal profile, you would expect to see some change in approach, or, specifically, batted ball type. All his power is gone, he's making tons of contact, and hitting a bunch of singles? Why, he must have stopped hitting fly balls and started hitting tons of grounders and liners, right? Wrong. The results of his batted balls are so identical to his career norms that it's actually kind of spooky: 15.6% line drives (career: 15.6%), 37.5% ground balls (career: 37.6%), 46.9% fly balls (career: 46.8%). He appears to be EXACTLY the hitter that he's always been, except more aggressive.
And maybe that's just the thing. Maybe he's not cut out to be a wait-and-see type of Three True Outcomes slugger; perhaps he is best suited to an aggressive approach and lots of contact, since he has the ability to hit the ball pretty often and pretty hard. He has certainly been more aggressive so far, seeing 3.68 pitches per plate appearance (down from 4.09 for his career). That is a significant difference, and it suggests that he is swinging earlier in the count.
This is the part of the article where the author usually draws some grand conclusion. I am not going to do that, because only a fool draws a grand conclusion from 38 plate appearances (I lied earlier, I'm actually really smart. Fooled you!). What I have done here, rather, is point out some things to watch with Kila. As the unknown quantity who might become many of the things we've been searching for (a power bat, an offensive-minded 1st baseman, a player with an unpronounceable name to fill the hole left by Duchscherer), he is automatically one of the most compelling players to watch on the team. Now, you have something to look for. These are the things I will be paying attention to when I watch Kila:
- Will he continue to be aggressive, swinging early in the count, putting the ball in play consistently, and limiting the BB's and K's?
- Will he continue to be a singles-minded contact hitter, or will his power come around when the weather warms up?
- Is his ridiculous rate of infield popups (20.0%, twice the league average) a fluke, a result of his (theoretically) aggressive approach, or did he just catch the popup flu that has been going around the A's lineup all season?
- Will Batman escape from the Joker's evil trap? (Wait, wrong article...)