To say that Kila Ka’aihue‘s first 71 plate appearances in the Major Leagues this year were disappointing is a major understatement. After the 26-year-old tore up the league to the tune of a .322/.465/.601 line, good for a 174 wRC+ that qualifies as ridiculous even in the minor leagues, Ka’aihue had been utterly awful entering today’s game, showing no power and hardly walking at all. Kila’s overall MLB line sat at .164/.211/.224 entering today’s extra inning thriller against Detroit, a .200 wOBA that screams AAAA player.
Today, though, Ka’aihue was key in the Royals’ 4-3 victory over the Tigers, walking twice, homering, and doubling in six plate appearances, compiling .202 WPA. That marks only Ka’aihue’s second double and second homer, and, perhaps more remarkably, the two walks raises his total to only 6 in 77 MLB plate appearances. Games like these were Ka’aihue’s signature in the minor leagues, but this is only his second multi-hit game, first multi-walk game, and first multi-XBH hit game in the majors in 2010.
Regardless of how well Ka’aihue performs down the stretch, we’re not going to get enough plate appearances to truly evaluate his true talent in the majors. That’s really unfortunate, because Ka’aihue clearly had nothing left to learn in the minors by at least the All-Star Break. Instead, the Royals will go into next season with at best an unclear picture of Ka’aihue’s true talent and at worst a distorted one.
It will be important for evaluators both inside and outside the Royals organization to remember two things. First, and I think the Royals have clearly demonstrated this (a little too strongly), is that minor league success is not a simple translation to the minors. Obviously, the Royals weren’t convinced by Ka’aihue’s 2008, which almost matched his 2010, nor his decent 2009, and it took another 400 PAs of fantastic performance in AAA in 2010 to finally earn a spot on the MLB club. Expecting Kila to be a star is probably just as unreasonable an expectation, however, and the list of players that have torn up the minors to go on to fizzle in the majors is quite long, and the list of players that unexpectedly play well in the majors after unimpressive minor league careers isn’t exactly tiny.
It remains to be seen if the Royals will understand the second point, which is the ever-repeated argument of sample size, sample size, sample size. Given how poorly Kila started out the season, it would be a surprise if his final line is much more than average. The Royals aren’t going to know how he handles the Majors after only 150 or 200 PAs, and if Kila finishes with something like a .315 wOBA and gets sent back to the minors for the opening of the 2011 season, the Royals will have made the wrong decision.