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SURPRISE, Ariz. – Six springs ago, a first baseman named Calvin Pickering rolled into Kansas City Royals camp on the wave of a movement. Every year or two, the sabermetric community picks a new cause célèbre to champion as someone wronged by the longtime baseball men who dislike him for all the wrong reasons. Calvin Pickering, all 300 pounds of him, was their latest exemplar.
The biggest support of the Free Calvin Pickering movement came from neither a Royals fan nor a number cruncher. A computer program named PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, made googly eyes at Pickering. It couldn't see the gut hanging over his belt. It didn't realize that Pickering's bat, which hit 35 home runs at Triple-A the previous year, turned impotent against major league fastballs and breaking balls. PECOTA's abject objectivity – predicting a season's statistics based strictly on numbers, and how similar players with similar stats had done at that age – led to its very failing with Calvin Pickering.
After Pickering struck out 14 times in his first 27 at-bats, the Royals sent him back to Triple-A Omaha. The next year, he was in an independent league. Two years later, Pickering was out of baseball. There are still those who argue if given the plate appearances, Pickering would have been a star. Those happen to be the same people whose focus again trains itself on Royals camp this season.
Now, Kila Ka'aihue(notes) is not Calvin Pickering. Let's get that out of the way. He is not fat. He does not strike out at an absurd rate. He's an artiste at drawing walks. Because he's wearing that Royals uniform, though, and because he plays first base, too, and because at 27 on opening day he's supposed to bloom while in his prime, and especially because PECOTA adores him – well, for all of those reasons, Kila Ka'aihue is the new Calvin Pickering.
Sabermetrics have changed baseball for the better, making for more intelligent fans and more insightful analysis. With Pickering and Roberto Petagine and Paul McAnulty(notes) and Dan Johnson(notes), however, PECOTA seems to have a distinct flaw: overrating first basemen whose skills are too good for Triple-A and not quite up to major league snuff. PECOTA doesn't often wildly miss a projection. It's too conservative by nature. Pickering, however, was a huge bomb. And it's setting Ka'aihue up to be just the same.
Of course, Ka'aihue could very well be what PECOTA imagined Pickering as: the next David Ortiz(notes). Pickering was supposed to hit 24 home runs with a .943 on-base-plus-slugging. He finished with one homer and a .485 OPS. PECOTA's prediction for Ka'aihue: 25 home runs, a .387 on-base percentage – its eighth highest – and a .860 OPS.
"It's plausible," Ka'aihue said. "It's not something that couldn't happen. But it's not what I'm going into the year looking forward to doing. I'd like to hit .300 to start. If that happens, I'm hoping the rest of it takes care of itself."
Ka'aihue knows of PECOTA, though he doesn't know much about it – like the fact that Nate Silver could've gone with a far simpler acronym but preferred the nod-and-wink homage to Bill Pecota, a utility player from the '80s and '90s whom PECOTA would've loathed. During high school in Hawaii, Ka'aihue said, "I loved math. Got to pre-calc." So he respects the idea of statistical analysis even if he has trouble finding merit in a computer judging an individual based on the attributes of others.
"I don't really buy into any of that stuff, " Ka'aihue said. "It's just predictions. I do think there's got to be some correlation with minor league numbers. But I'm not necessarily going into it believing that. I take minor league stats more as a horoscope than a prediction of the future."
If only the Royals could employ Ms. Cleo to tell them whether Ka'aihue does deserve the at-bats. Certainly his minor league numbers say so. Twice in the last three years he posted on-base percentages higher than .450. He slugged nearly .600 at Triple-A last season. Take away his first three weeks with the Royals last season – he went 8-for-55 and avoided the Pick ax – and Ka'aihue spent his last 143 plate appearances getting on base 35 percent of the time and slugging better than .500.
On the other hand is the positional glut they're about to face: Between the Royals' best hitter, Billy Butler(notes), and star prospect Eric Hosmer(notes), the Royals have their designated hitter and first-base jobs set for 2012. It makes the first month of 2011 – and the entire season, really – all the more important for Ka'aihue's future with Kansas City.
"Making the transition to the major leagues, there's always a chance they flop," said Colin Wyers, Baseball Prospectus' director of statistics and the keeper of PECOTA since Silver left to write a political blog for The New York Times. "What PECOTA does is translate a minor league line into a major line. It does that based on people who have successfully gone from the minor leagues to the major leagues.
"If Kila can't do that – maybe there's a hole in his swing that major league pitchers can pick up on – there's a chance he flat-out busts. That's realistic for any hitter transitioning to the majors. But he's hit at every level he's been at, and I'm not sure why he wouldn't here, too."
Wyers chuckles when it's suggested PECOTA has a crush on mediocre first basemen. The program is the program, one massive formula intended to project as accurate a set of data as it can. It runs for a day, spits out an entire league's worth of projections and then relaxes with a RAM cocktail.
And if it happens to anoint Ka'aihue, so be it. "He will do what he does every year," said Royals outfielder Alex Gordon(notes), another PECOTA favorite. "Hit bombs and walk." Ka'aihue already has three home runs in nine games. In 2005, Pickering hit one homer all spring.
The Royals wanted to like him. They really did. They demoted their All-Star from the previous season, Ken Harvey, to keep Pickering. The skepticism never could fade. Even Silver couldn't help but question his baby. "It might be a little off with Pickering," he said in 2005. Wyers is confident in Ka'aihue, saying the 25 home runs and excellent OBP are not "the most likely point, but I think they're close. "
Perhaps this is different, and Ka'aihue is Papi 2.0 instead of Pickering redux, and the Royals have been sitting on a star for all these years and realized it just in time, and the Free Kila goes over much better than Free Calvin. And if all that happens, Ka'aihue won't hear a peep from his biggest fan. It'll be in a corner churning out lines of code and figuring out which cause célèbre to crown next.