The Lexington Legends are off today, so Bubba Starling‘s April is complete.
It’s hard to call it a success.
Starling opened the year by going 2 for his first 26, a stretch that included 11 strikeouts in 28 plate appearances. Both hits were singles and he walked just twice. When you pay a player $7.5 million as a first round selection, you hope for much more than a .077/.143/.077 start to the season.
It confirmed a lot of the opinions about how Starling would have extreme bust potential, but that it was offset by enough upside if things came together. Starling was pitched as the prototypical five-tool player. So far he’s got four of those working fairly well for him.
The problem, though, is that the most important tool hasn’t been working and it’s hampering everything else. Bubba Starling has had trouble simply hitting the ball. If he can’t hit the ball, then it doesn’t matter how much power he has, and he’s not getting on base to utilize his speed. Reports are that his defense and his throwing arm are coming along fine, but he wasn’t signed to be a no-hit all-field center fielder.
After that initial 2-for-26 stretch, Starling has hit better, but he’s still not there. Since April 12, Starling has hit .246/.313/.508. Better, for sure. He has eight extra base hits in that stretch, including four homers.
Even with more power and better contact, he’s still struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances in this favorable stretch. He’s hit left-handed pitching much better, but in 19 plate appearances he’s struck out six times. He has five hits otherwise against lefties. That gives him a dynamic split: .927 OPS when facing lefties, but just .569 against righties.
Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus has filed a scouting report that discusses Starling’s struggles (it was written during his first seven games, but Starling has had some of the same contact issues at every stage from instructional days to now) in light of his athletic prowess. Parks’s theory is that Starling, as a multi-sport athlete, isn’t recognizing pitches as well as other players his age or younger who focused more on baseball growing up. The slight delay in picking up a pitch is enough to keep him from making good contact (if he makes it at all). Now, when he connects, it can go a long way, but he’s not connecting enough to realize his potential.
It’s still possible that Starling could turn it around. He’s still young and the Royals knew he’d be more of a slow development project when they drafted him. But Parks makes the comparison to young children learning language compared to older people. Young people are able to absorb things differently since connections are still forming and the brain adapts. He referenced Rany Jazayerli’s study on draft age and future performance. Players who were of a younger draft age seem to provide greater return.
Starling was nearly 19 when the Royals drafted him. He’s still going to be a project. He’s hit better as the month has gone on, so perhaps that bodes well for the rest of the year and it’s far too soon to call him a bust. Realistically, though, we can’t quite pencil him into the Royals 2015 lineup just yet.