For the better part of three seasons, few minor league hitters matched the combination of power and patience displayed by Omaha’s Kila Ka’aihue.
But Ka’aihue ended up getting only about three months worth of everyday duty in the major leagues before Kansas City shifted gears and went with its first baseman of the future in Eric Hosmer, sending the 27-year-old Ka’aihue back to Class AAA in early May.
As a result, Ka’aihue has made a seemingly fundamental change in his approach to hitting.
“I’m not trying to walk any more,” Ka’aihue said. “It’s not going to do anything for my career. I’m done with that.”
In a situation where he could have drawn a game-ending base on balls Tuesday, Ka’aihue instead ripped a walk-off grand slam against Memphis to keep the Storm Chasers in first place in the PCL’s American Conference North.
Omaha returns to action at 7:05 p.m. Thursday, when Albuquerque comes to Werner Park for a four-game series.
Ka’aihue has still drawn walks in about 16 percent of his plate appearances. That’s only slightly below his rate the past few years, contributing to a well-above average on-base percentage of .418.
Still, it’s an odd sight to see the left-handed hitter swing at the first pitch of an at-bat. The new approach has the approval of Omaha hitting coach Tommy Gregg, under whom Ka’aihue had his breakout season in 2008 at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
“You never want a guy to think about not walking — because the reason you walk is because you take pitches that are out of the (strike) zone,” Gregg said. “But he’s wanting to make something happen — and that’s fine. He’ll still get his walks because pitchers are going to pitch around him.
“But as long as he’s trying to hit the ball in the gap and not trying to hit it out of the park, I think it’s a good plan.”
Ka’aihue intrigued prospect watchers in 2008, when he led all minor leaguers with 104 walks and a .456 on-base percentage. At the same time, he ranked second among minor leaguers with a .628 slugging percentage and tied for fourth with 37 homers. He was the model of the new-age power hitter.
Ka’aihue finished that season in Omaha, hitting .316 with 24 walks and 11 homers in 33 games. But Kansas City promptly traded for veteran first baseman Mike Jacobs in the offseason, effectively blocking Ka’aihue’s path to the majors.
Frustrated, Ka’aihue still ranked second among minor leaguers with 102 walks for Omaha in 2009, but he hit just .252 with 17 homers and didn’t spend a day in the majors.
He walked at an even greater rate last season — 21.1 percent of his plate appearances (88 of 416). And he brought production back to his game, with 24 homers and a career-best .463 on-base percentage.
After a brief big league stay in May 2010, he appeared to return for good in early August, getting regular at-bats most of the rest of the season. After a slow start, he finished strong to wind up with a .217 average, eight homers and 25 RBIs in 52 games.
He opened this year as Kansas City’s everyday first baseman, but he hit .195 while drawing 12 walks in 23 games. The Royals determined it was time to give the job to the 21-year-old Hosmer, who was hitting .439 in 26 games with Omaha.
“They had their plans, and they went ahead and made a move,” Ka’aihue said. “I guess it was for the best of the team.”
Ka’aihue said he decided to reinvent himself at the plate in Class AAA.
“It really doesn’t matter here, so I can take that chance,” he said. “Numbers don’t mean anything, so I’m not really worried about that.
“I think everybody knows I can take a walk, so I’m not trying to improve that part of my game.”
In parts of four seasons with Omaha, Ka’aihue has hit .288 with 57 homers and 189 RBIs, power numbers that equate to averages of 27 homers and 89 RBIs during a 144-game minor league season.
His on-base percentage in Class AAA is excellent at .423, and he boasts a .513 slugging percentage for a fine OPS of .936.
It seems as if Ka’aihue has done all he can do in Omaha.
“One would think,” he said. “But it never really works out that way.”
In about a half-season’s worth of plate appearances in the majors in parts of three years, Ka’aihue has hit .216 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs.
With Hosmer and Billy Butler in Kansas City and Clint Robinson also attracting interest in Omaha, it will be interesting to see how the first base-DH drama plays out.
Is there a chance down the road for Ka’aihue, either in Kansas City or with another organization?
“I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said.
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