One of them will turn 20-years-old on August 3, the other will celebrate his 20th birthday two months later on October 16. One was the first pick in the 2010 draft, the other was the fifth pick in 2011. Both players were selected by teams with basement dwelling recent histories but high hopes for the future. Both of them are represented by super agent Scott Boras.
Bubba Starling and Bryce Harper grew up wowing fans and scouts alike at a young age with their prodigious home runs, playing against competition 2-3 years older. Both are relatively humble kids with a strong work ethic and professional demeanor who are expected to make strong role models for the next generation of baseball fans. Both are considered to be five tool players, freaks of nature with once-in-a-generation athleticism (well, maybe twice in a generation) and the ability to contribute mightily to dragging their respective clubs toward contention.
For all their similarities, comparing Bubba Starling and Bryce Harper is like comparing apples to oranges, or more accurately like comparing baseballs to footballs, basketballs, and more baseballs. To begin, Bubba grew up on 20 acres in Gardner, KS and Bryce Harper grew up in the bright lights of Las Vegas. Bryce’s father’s name is Ron. Bubba’s father’s name is Jimbo. (I’m not making that up.) Bubba bats right handed, Bryce bats from the left. (They both throw right handed.) Bryce grew up eating, thinking, breathing, and playing baseball non-stop since he was three years old. Bubba grew up in an athletically diverse and competitive family of cousins that all played 3 different sports, and played each sport very well.
As I’m sure you know, Bubba accepted a scholarship to play football AND baseball for the University of Nebraska. If not for that $7.5 million signing bonus the Royals game him (the largest ever offered to a high school player), we might have watched Bubba in a red jersey last Fall tossing footballs around Lincoln, NE. And oh by the way, he could dunk a basketball when he was in 8th grade and averaged 28.3 points per game as a high school senior on the hardwood. So, you could say Bubba had options when it came to deciding his future as a professional athlete.
Bubba’s baseball experience stems from playing for only two months out of each year, partially because it’s not generally realistic to throw a baseball outside between November and March in Kansas, and partially because he was too busy playing other sports during the baseball off season.
Bryce grew up in a warmer climate which afforded him more time to spend outside on a baseball field, and traveled all over the country participating in tournaments and winning more awards than you can carry in an F-350. Bryce was named to the All American Travel Ball Select team as a 12, 13, and 14 year old, he was the TBS player of the year at 14, he was the Baseball America High School Player of the Year in 2009, the SWAC player of the year in 2010, the Golden Spikes award winner in 2010, plus the recipient of many additional accolades and trophies that would take another entire story just to list.
Both Bryce and Bubba can hit the ball a ton. It’s been widely reported that Bubba has belted 500 foot home runs on more than one occasion. Bryce’s high school coach says he hit a 570 foot blast while playing in the desert of Las Vegas. Read that again – 570 feet. Now read this – when he was 15-years-old!!
Bryce’s high school home run story seems just a tiny bit farfetched to me. Baseball America says that “anything in the 500-foot range is genuinely historic.” The computerized measuring system installed in the major leagues since 1982 has only recorded one, just one 500+ foot home run. Cecil Fielder (you know, Price’s dad) hit a ball 502 feet in Milwaukee in 1991. This is the last time anyone hit a 500 foot home run in the majors. So, how could we possibly believe that Bryce Harper hit a ball 570 feet?
Now, having said that, full disclosure requires me to inform you that Bryce did touch the back wall of Tropicana Field during a Power Showcase home run derby, setting a stadium record with an officially measured 502 foot home run. Although this blast was hit off a batting practice pitch, I suppose anything is possible, including maybe even a 570 foot dinger.
Bryce Harper’s pure focus on baseball has created a player who is major league ready, or nearly so, at just 19 years of age. He’s well deserving of the moniker, “the Lebron James of baseball.” The fact that there is some discussion about whether Harper might break Spring Training with the Washington Nationals seems incredible. More than likely he’ll begin the season with the Syracuse Chiefs, he’ll destroy AAA pitching for a couple months, and then he’ll be called up sometime midseason.
It’s the rarest of talent that can play in the big leagues at 19. Robin Yount played for the Brewers at 18-years-old in 1974, but it just doesn’t happen very often. Even Bret Saberhagen had to wait until he was 20-years-old, and Eric Hosmer until after his 21st birthday before receiving their promotions to Kansas City.
In my opinion, Bubba Starling has equal or greater athletic gifts than Bryce Harper, but his baseball talents are more raw and will require additional time to refine. It might be more meaningful for us to compare Bubba to Hall-of-Famer Dave Winfield who played both college baseball and basketball at the University of Minnesota, and then was drafted by the San Diego Padres, the Atlanta Hawks, and the Minnesota Vikings as well although he had never played a down of college football. However, this still isn’t a perfect comparison because Winfield wasn’t drafted until he had graduated from college at 21 years of age, three years older than Bubba Starling when he was drafted. But then again, the Padres did place him directly into the major leagues that same year where he hit .277 in 56 games, so the resulting age when he arrived in the bigs will likely be comparable to Bubba’s.
Another comparison could be between Bubba and multi-sport star Bo Jackson who played both football and baseball in college. Bo’s baseball talents were considered to be less refined than his football skills when he was drafted (he was a Heisman Trophy winner), but his sheer otherworldly athleticism enabled him to jump to the majors after just 53 games of AA ball at the age of 23. To the dismay of Royals fans, in 1987 Jackson decided to play football as a “hobby.” This unfortunate decision ultimately resulted in a devastating hip injury that ruined what potentially could have been a career as a perennial All Star.
Maybe Joe Mauer would make a better measuring stick to compare with Bubba Starling. Joe played football, basketball, and baseball for his high school team, just like Bubba. He was drafted upon his high school graduation, just like Bubba. He was the first pick in the 2001 draft while Bubba was the 1st non-pitcher taken in the 2011 draft.
Mauer was the USA Today High School baseball player of the year in 2001, but because he grew up playing multiple sports, in a cold climate (St. Paul, MN) where he couldn’t practice baseball for several months of the year (sounds similar to Bubba, doesn’t it?), Joe’s baseball talents were not as well refined as someone like Bryce Harper. Because of this, Joe ended up playing parts of 4 seasons in the minors. When he debuted with the 2004 Twins at 21 years of age, in 35 games he blistered the ball at a .308 clip. Since then, he’s led the league in hitting 3 times, he’s been an All Star 4 times, he’s won 3 Gold Gloves, and he threw in an MVP season too just for good measure. Refinement complete.
I’d like to think that we can expect a similar timetable for Bubba Starling’s development and hopefully similar results. Bubba said as much to Ashley Marshall of MiLB.com last week when he indicated he expected to arrive in Kansas City within 3-4 years. Unfortunately, Bubba signed too late last summer to obtain any significant professional experience in 2011 so it became somewhat of a lost year for his development track. This seems to occur frequently with a large percentage of high caliber talent during the Scott Boras era.
Based on what we know of Starling’s skill sets and the track record of similarly talented athletes, I’m hopeful that we may see him as a September call-up in 2013 and possibly a mid-season promotion in 2014. I don’t want to rush Bubba, but I’m a little anxious because as of today, we don’t know for sure what we have in Lorenzo Cain. With only 181 major league at bats, MLB Radio Network’s Inside Pitch has already proclaimed Cain one of the most overrated players of 2012. (I’m surprised they’ve even heard of him so I’m shocked they would say he was overrated.) If “The Painkiller” performs well, then this should take the pressure off Bubba and allow him to develop at his own pace. If not, then the Royals will either need to rush Starling along, or find another Melky Cabrera type player to sign for a year or two to hold his place.
I see nothing but high ceiling potential and a positively bright future for Bubba Starling in a Royals uniform. That is, except for one hopefully remote possibility. Let’s just pray he doesn’t ever decide to take up football as a hobby.
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