That’s an unfair comparison, of course. Trout and Harper look like generational talents and while Starling has incredible tools and athleticism, he’s lacking in polish and experience. Those were significant questions when he was drafted and they exist still today.
But the Royals are looking at a potential solution that they hope will improve Starling’s development and performance. Reports are that Starling is heading back to Kansas City to be reevaluated by an ophthalmologist to determine if he’s a candidate for LASIK surgery.
There are some that may think that this is a desperation move by the Royals to make something happen, but given the context of Starling’s weaknesses, it’s a legitimate and appropriate option to explore. Jason Parks, the prospect guru at Baseball Prospectus, has seen Starling multiple times, and wrote an extensive report on his development with the thesis that Starling lacks some of the automatic pitch recognition abilities that athletes who had played baseball exclusively or more regularly earlier in their careers. Starling, a multi-sport superstar in high school, turned down a football scholarship to Nebraska to sign with the Royals and also played basketball at Gardner-Edgerton High School. Baseball wasn’t his only sport (and some may suspect not his best either).
So given that conclusion, LASIK surgery could help Starling immensely. J.J. Picollo mentioned that Starling has had trouble seeing the ball well at night and Parks has observed him having trouble against right-handed pitchers in recognizing pitches.
This isn’t the first time the Royals have gone down this road. In 2009, Eric Hosmer had LASIK surgery while recovering from a finger injury. According to a Dick Kaegel article, he’d already tried glasses and the adjustment wasn’t smooth. In August, he was hurt, so he had the procedure done, came back for two games in September and hit the Arizona Fall League. He had hit .241/.334/.361 in the 2009 season across both A ball levels. In 2010, after the surgery, he hit .354/.429/.545 and had 42 extra base hits in 87 Carolina League games. Do you credit a healthy hand, LASIK or both?
I think it certainly helped, and I think the procedure will help Starling. But there’s no guarantee. There are studies to suggest that in younger patients, due to continuing growth of the cornea, the procedure’s benefits can regress within just a couple of years. One such involved a high school junior who had LASIK surgery but her age required undercorrection and she needed a second procedure after trouble reading at the end of college. Many ophthalmologists want to wait for a patient to be 21 years old and/or with stable eye refraction. Bubba Starling turns 21 in August. Hosmer’s procedure two months before he’d turn 20.
With that in mind, I think it’s reasonable to say that Starling will see some improvement, but it’s possible that he’ll need a second procedure down the line (and perhaps Hosmer is due for one as well, given that he’s struggled for a while now and is a handful of years removed from his surgery). It’s a safe procedure and has a quick recovery time, so there isn’t the threat of missing much time if Starling goes through with the surgery.
And he’s got a good shot of coming back better than ever.