A player can’t be drafted fifth overall, sign for $7.5 million, and not retain extremely high visibility for his minor league career. This is especially true of a player drafted into a franchise with a recent history of struggles that has sent its fanbase constantly scouring the farm system for signs of hope. Add in the prospect in question being a local high school multi-sport hero, and you have a player who will constantly be under the microscope.
That is the situation Royals outfield prospect Bubba Starling has constantly found himself in in his professional career. He was the fifth overall pick in 2011 and passed up a football scholarship at Nebraska for the massive bonus. Many reported that he had five tools, but like many multi-sport high school hitters, he combined impressive athleticism with rawness.
Two years into his career, Starling has had mixed results that have led many to question whether it’s time to jump off the bandwagon, while others point to his relative youth (he’s still just 21) and hold out hope for stardom. I did get to see Starling three times in the 2013 season, and today I’m going to take my shot at projecting him.
Here’s a look at basically everything he did in those three games, on both sides of the ball:
I’m not going to pretend three games is a great sample to get a hold of what a player can do, especially when the player doesn’t record a single hit in the viewings (Starling was 0-for-9 with three walks and three strikeouts). There’s more here that’s telling than might meet the eye, though.
The tool that has always been in question with Starling is his ability to hit. He’s a career .252 hitter with 198 strikeouts in 730 plate appearances (27.1%). He did cut the K-rate from 30.2% in 2012 to 25.7% this year, but suffered a corresponding drop in walk rate and power output.
Last year, Mike Newman wrote a piece breaking down Starling’s swing, pointing out a number of flaws. A year later, many of the same issues remain. He has a fairly conventional setup at the plate, like so:
As Starling prepares to swing, however, his bat moves to this position:
Look at how far back his hands have moved. The bat has also moved back toward the catcher, too (it’s easier to see this in Newman’s video than my own, due to the angle). As the ball’s coming toward him, Bubba Starling is moving his bat away from the ball in two different directions. Sure, hitters have loading mechanisms to sync up the swing, but this particular one adds significant length to Starling’s stroke.
Starling also fails to use his lower half much in his swing, impairing his ability to drive the ball. There’s some leverage in the swing itself, and there’s some strength and power in Starling’s athletic frame, but while his power production (13 HR, .156 ISO) looks solid on the surface, there are significant issues.
Home: .271/.341/.496, 12 HR
Road: .211/.317/.292, 1 HR
According to StatCorner, Lexington’s home park has a 155 park factor for right-handed homers. When he left the friendly confines of Whitaker Bank Ballpark, he showed very little ability to put the ball over the fence.
One thing that I noticed a lot of in my viewings was Starling’s tendency to roll his top hand over the ball and ground weakly to the left side–there are nine such instances in the video. StatCorner has Starling’s groundball rate from the season at 50.8%, while Minor League Central claims 48.2%; in either case, Starling is hitting an above-average number of ground balls. While there is some value to a player with his speed hitting the ball on the ground, seeing as over a quarter of his at-bats are already taken up by the strikeout, his groundball tendency limits his ability to impact games with his raw power.
Starling’s swing seems geared for pitches middle-in, and he struggles to adjust to pitches up and/or on the outer half of the plate. At the 4:25 mark in the video, Ryan Bores throws Starling a slider on the outer half that he badly pulls off of, for example. He’ll need to do a much better job of fighting off pitches in varying locations in order to hang in at-bats at the upper levels.
That’s a lot of doom and gloom, but there are positives here. For a then-20-year-old who has always been thought of as very raw, Starling has a surprisingly polished approach at the plate, and is not just a see-ball-hit-ball player. He shows good patience, laying off not just waste pitches, but also borderline offerings and well-placed strikes, looking for a mistake to damage. This helps him stay in reasonably friendly counts and keeps him out of situations where pitches can simply exploit his weaknesses. If Starling can close some of the holes and flaws in his swing, his approach will play in the major leagues.
The other major positive about Starling, of course, is his natural athleticism. He shows good range and a solid arm in center field and should have no trouble holding the position in the majors down the line. I didn’t get any particularly impressive home-to-first times from him–the only two times he ran reasonably hard, he ran a 4.25 and 4.3–but his speed is definitely above-average, and his 22-for-25 stolen base rate shows he knows how to deploy his wheels on the bases.
What it all comes down to with Starling is the issues with the swing. As such, the range of outcomes for him is much like the one I outlined in my extensive discussion of Joey Gallo and his swing two weeks ago–if all of the swing issues get fixed, he’ll be an All-Star, while if none get fixed, he’ll end up as just a good organizational player.
Obviously, it’s quite difficult to forecast what the Royals’ hitting instructors will attempt to get Starling to do in the future (or what he’ll attempt on his own) and how well any possible adjustments will take. The safest bet, of course, is to assume a middle-of-the-road scenario where some of the issues get fixed but others persist. Starling is just 21, so there’s certainly plenty of time for him to refine his skills and develop further.
If the mid-level scenario for Gallo is a wandering Russell Branyan-esque MLB slugger, then the mid-level scenario for Starling is probably that of a second-division center fielder who always tantalizes due to his tools. Players like Drew Stubbs, Cameron Maybin, Michael Saunders, and Justin Maxwell come to mind. It’s also not too hard to see 2009-2012 B.J. Upton production potentially coming from Starling.
Nearing an age where development needs to happen, Starling still has very glaring issues at the plate, and anyone who still places him in the upper echelon of baseball’s outfield prospects needs to get realistic, even if a glimmer of star potential remains. At the same time, those writing him off as a bust who will never be much more than a replacement-level contributor are also likely guilty of a rush to judgment. There are certainly problems with Starling’s game right now, but his development of a sound batting eye has been a big positive and his superior athleticism remains quite present. The outlook for his future is mixed and should put him behind the first couple of tiers of outfield prospects in dynasty formats, though he has the sort of natural talent that always bears watching, because if adjustments take, he’ll rocket right to the top of lists.
Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.