Momentum shifts are no stranger to Bubba Starling. Now, they may be more critical to him than ever.
Bubba Starling knows momentum. It’s been his friend and enemy throughout an eight-year professional career launched on the promise of the $7.5 million signing bonus he received as the KC Royals’ 2011 first-round draft pick.
Starling agreed to his KC deal just before the August signing deadline, delaying his pro debut until 2012. He started and ended well–.275 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 53 games–but Big Mo then paid him an unfriendly and long-lasting visit. For the next six seasons, Starling suffered injuries, his power all but disappeared and, except for his 12-game .386 average at High A Wilmington in 2015, he didn’t eclipse his first season average until hitting .310 in 72 games at Omaha last season. (.500 in eight at-bats at Idaho Falls two seasons ago just doesn’t count).
But, as evidenced by that .310 at Omaha last year, momentum shifted in his favor in 2019. Preceded by an excellent spring training performance, seven homers and 38 RBIs in his 72 games complemented the .310 average; his .448 slugging percentage, .358 OBP and .806 OPS were all second-best career marks for seasons in which he enjoyed significant playing time. Impressed, the KC Royals called him up in July for his first taste of the big leagues.
But momentum shifted against him once again and he finished the season with a .215/.253/.317 slash and troubling 50 OPS+ in 56 games. His four home runs and 12 RBIs were disappointing.
The fact Starling won’t be competing for a starting job this season (the outfield is set with Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield and Hunter Dozier) didn’t get in the way of a good spring. Through 30 at-bats when play ceased, Starling was slashing .367/.441/.767 with a superb 1.208 OPS+ and three home runs.
By now, though, Starling knows all too well how volatile momentum can be. His great 2019 Cactus League numbers (.344/.432/.625, 1.057 OPS+) and fine Omaha stats meant little when he reached the big leagues and momentum became unfriendly.
Starling is out of minor league options and a handful of young outfielders on the verge of their major league debuts nip at his heels, making 2020 a crossroads season for him. No one knows when baseball will return but when it does, Starling probably can’t afford to lose the momentum of this spring.
Momentum is sometimes a friend, sometimes a foe. KC Royals Greg Holland, Ryan O’Hearn and Bubba Starling need it to be their friend when baseball returns.