Ka'aihue motoring through Minors
Royals prospect enjoying stunning offensive numbers
SPRINGDALE, Ark. -- Exhibit A of how truly unbelievable this season has been for Kila Ka'aihue comes on a July night at Arvest Ballpark -- the home of Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Ka'aihue steps up to the plate for the third time that night. He's currently at the Triple-A level in Omaha, but this scene occurred while he still played for the Naturals. Like always, the Arkansas Travelers put on the shift.
They fear the massive 6-foot-3-inch left-hander like Major League teams fear David Ortiz or Barry Bonds. The second baseman moves to shallow right field. The shortstop is positioned behind the bag at second base. They've heard the scouting reports -- he pulls almost everything -- and think this is the only way to stop him.
But they still can't. Ka'aihue, a first baseman, hits a fly ball to the opposite field that bounces off the top of the nearly 10-foot wall for a double.
And that sums up this summer for Ka'aihue: surprises everywhere. Whether it's the way he fooled the Travelers, or how he's come from almost nowhere and hit 26 home runs for the Naturals and four more in his first eight games for Omaha -- doing it all while batting above .300 and maintaining an on-base percentage around .400 because he walks so often.
"From an offensive standpoint, I don't think there's a player having that type of year," said J.J. Picollo, the Royals' director of scouting and development.
Ka'aihue (pronounced ky-uh-hooey) grew up in Honolulu and learned about baseball from his dad, who played in the Minors. As he got older, Hawaiian ballplayers like Mike Fetters and Lenny Sakata helped fine-tune his game.
Now the only place to go is where Sakata and Fetters played: the Major Leagues. The Royals need power, and Ka'aihue is surely providing that. But there's still plenty of skepticism. Other Kansas City busts have put up similar Minor League numbers, and Ka'aihue, a 2002 15th-round Draft pick, has hit better than .259 in just one Minor League season prior to 2008.
Ka'aihue knows this. He's aware of the doubters and Kansas City's decade-long power problem, and the infielder is confident he can handle another step up.
"When you're going good, you're always feeling good," Ka'aihue said. "To have it going this long this season, there's just a feeling that something good is going to happen."
A little help
Eric Tokunaga already knew Ka'aihue could throw. He saw him fire the ball 90-plus mph when he was a high school sophomore. But Tokunaga, then a part-time Royals scout, later realized that hitting might be Ka'aihue's forte.
At a tournament in Waikiki, Ka'aihue hit a home run as far as Tokunaga had ever seen. The ball went over the fence, out of the park and, finally, into the waters of the Ala Wai Canal. So much for pitching.
In 2002, Ka'aihue's senior year of high school, the Royals ranked him third overall for raw power and snagged him in the 15th round. Ka'aihue signed, forgoing a scholarship to Nebraska -- where he would've been Alex Gordon's teammate.
His father, Kala, recommended he go straight to the pros. Kala would know. He played Minor League ball for four teams, including a Pirates affiliate in the Triple-A Hawaii Islanders.
Ka'aihue and his brother, Kala Jr., spent almost every day around the Islanders' clubhouse until the first baseman was 5. The players would spray water on them as a joke in the locker room and let them shag fly balls during batting practice, even though most of the balls landed on Ka'aihue's wrist rather than in his glove.
"The best way I can compare it to is if your dad owned a business and you were supposed to take over the business," Ka'aihue said. "We were at his work all the time, and I just kind of fell in love with it."
Kala never made it to the big leagues, instead finishing his career with the Islanders. But he had enough contacts with other Hawaiians who did play in the Majors.
Ka'aihue met Fetters and Sakata through his dad, and from a young age received their guidance. It especially came in handy after he was drafted.
Back then, Ka'aihue's raw power was just that, raw. Sakata started working with him in the offseason back in Honolulu, sometimes up to five days a week. They fine-tuned Ka'aihue's swing by making it shorter, which has helped Ka'aihue hit the ball to all fields and catch up to faster pitches.
His numbers show the difference. Other than 2006, when a torn patella in his right knee slowed his season, Ka'aihue's power numbers and batting average have improved every year.
"What Lenny has given to me and Mike Fetters and others have given to me," Ka'aihue said, "I couldn't pay them back. There's nothing I could do."
And then enters this season, where everything has gone right. Combining his time with the Triple-A Royals and Naturals, Ka'aihue is hitting .322 with 30 home runs, 86 RBIs and 84 walks in 99 games. Those numbers jump out even more when you consider that Double-A teams usually gave him a maximum of one good pitch to hit in every at-bat.
Brian Poldberg, Northwest Arkansas' manager, saw Ka'aihue's potential five years ago when he had a long, powerful swing. After managing him this summer, Poldberg has seen how all the work improved his swing and made him a more consistent hitter.
"The way he's going now," Poldberg said, "he could be a Major League first baseman."
Power captivates, but yet the Royals have lacked it for a long time.
Barring a miracle, this will be the 23rd straight season in which no Royals player has hit 36 or more home runs. In this millennium, only Jermaine Dye has hit 30 or more in a season.
Kansas City has 87 home runs on the season entering Friday, on pace for more than last season -- but still 11th in the American League. Trey Hillman often talks about how important it is to get some "slug" in the lineup, and he's right. The Royals are 37-19 when they hit at least one home run, and 16-43 when they don't.
If Ka'aihue can bring the same swing to the next level, there's no telling how much he could help. Problem is, it's almost impossible to judge how a player's numbers will translate.
|"The way he's going now, he could be a Major League first baseman."|
|-- Brian Poldberg, Double-A Northwest Arkansas' manager|
"Until guys get up here and play every day, we won't know," Picollo said.
But the signs are encouraging for Ka'aihue. Longtime Omaha manager Mike Jirschele can't remember being this excited about a player in his first week with the team. He's already noticed Ka'aihue is better than Pickering in at least two ways.
For one, Ka'aihue doesn't strike out nearly as often. Pickering whiffed 85 times that season, while Ka'aihue has just 47 strikeouts so far.
Another difference means more for Jirschele.
"I think one thing to look for is: Can a guy handle a fastball?" Jirschele said. "I noticed you could get Pickering out with a good fastball, and I don't see that with this guy. When I see him get a high fastball, he gets to it."
Someone else who could get those fastballs at the Triple-A level, Jirschele recalls, was Mike Aviles. Aviles has made a seamless transition at the Major League level, and was just named American League Player of the Week. He only got a shot in Kansas City because Tony Pena Jr. couldn't get his average above .200 and, even then, Hillman trotted out everyone else at shortstop before finally giving Aviles regular playing time.
The Royals won't know about Ka'aihue until he gets the same opportunity.
"We have our feelings about how he'll do based on plate discipline and pitch recognition," Picollo said. "Guys like that who come up here will do the same type of things. The guy right now for us who did that is Mike Aviles. The big thing for Mike was to get up here and do it."
Big league dreams
The dreams started at age 15, and Ka'aihue's slept with these thoughts in his head many times since then.
He's in the Major Leagues. Most of the time it's Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, anything in the pros.
A star pitcher waits on the mound for him as he walks up to the plate. Usually it's Roger Clemens. A booming voice announces his name, and the bright lights shine on him in the batter's box.
It's a possibility that Ka'aihue could reach that point this year, as a September callup. But that won't be decided until much later this month, after the Royals have seen if Ka'aihue can keep hitting the ball consistently at Triple-A.
Even if he does, Jirschele said the Royals might not want to rush Ka'aihue too quickly. His swing is consistent, but he still needs work on hitting to all fields and going against lefties.
Ka'aihue wants to make the Major Leagues badly, but he'll let the organization worry about if or when it will happen. He thinks his first game in the big leagues would be like the day he married his wife, Blair. It would be the best day of his life, and he'd be excited but scared.
For now, Ka'aihue will just have to continue to dream about the Majors. How does that dream end, by the way?
Does Ka'aihue hit a home run, a sign that the Royals have found their power hitter after so long and Ka'aihue's accomplished his ultimate goal?
Well, the first baseman usually wakes up before then, his future still unknown.
"It ends with me waving at everybody," he said. "Just being there."
Mark Dent is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.