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April 12, 2013

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

Checking In On: Bubba Starling

by Jason Parks

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Throughout the 2013 season, we will be providing updates on the developmental ups and downs of the top prospects in the game, with a heavy focus on scouting reports and, when applicable, eyewitness takes. Knowing why a prospect is thriving, surviving, or dying is more important than just providing you with the status, free from explanation. With an unbalanced playing field in unbalanced environments, players will rise and fall for a variety of reasons, and cutting away the costume that can obscure the realities of a situation is the task we will willingly burden ourselves with.

As the minor-league season starts to find its legs, our eyes turn to daily box scores and Twitter blasts, hoping to see the stars of tomorrow flashing that promise on the smaller stages of today. We look for patterns in order to establish momentum or regression, and we cross our fingers that the slow starts are merely small sample sizes playing the villain and the fast starts are not only sustainable but the opening salvo of a monumental climb up the prospect ranks and the corporate ladder.

When it comes to evaluating the first ~10 games of a minor-league season, context is always king and the tether to the sample size caveat is made of steel, but not every slow start is created equal and not every early season eruption is the result of an actual eruption. Unless it’s Jorge Soler, in which case it’s probably an actual eruption. It’s important to break down why a player is flourishing or floundering, especially when the difference between a statistical slump and a statistical success could be the result of one big game.

For this particular article, I want to look at one slow start and break down why the early season woes could be more significant than the sample size normally allows for.

The Player: Bubba Starling:

The Sample: 7 games

The Numbers: .077/.143/.077; 11 Ks

What’s Happening: Starling is obviously struggling with contact and timing, as the bat is just not finding the ball with any consistency. As a 20-year-old making his full-season debut, this shouldn’t be an alarming outcome, but the way he is struggling has triggered such alarms before; in fact, many industry sources expressed concern over Starling’s present skills during spring training, with one source calling him, “the most likely high-ceiling minor-league talent to bust.”

Why it’s Happening: At the heart of the matter is the overall timing and rhythm of the setup and swing, as the trigger is often out of sync with the weight shift to the front leg. This can force his hands into catch-up mode and will not only disrupt the overall timing of the swing but also limit the bat speed and bat control Starling can offer. But there are other issues at play as well.

It has been observed (by me and several other sources) that Starling can struggle with the initial pick-up of the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, forcing a late mechanical reaction; I’ve seen him struggle against quality fastball velocity for this reason. Along those lines, Starling also struggles to adjust his timing and swing plane to off-speed pitches, which could be a part of a larger pitch identification issue. Now that’s not to suggest that Starling is completely underdeveloped at the plate; I’ve seen him get extended and punish fastballs, and you can’t deny the overall strength possible in the swing, especially when he can open his hips and extend through the baseball. But at the core of every great hitter is a natural bat-to ball relationship that is both easy and fluid, and Starling rarely flashes the qualities of a natural hitter.

To expand the last comment even further, I do have some concerns about Starling’s instincts for baseball, the kind that players either have or don’t have. While it’s certainly not an obstacle that would block his path to the major leagues (the league is full of players who can be better classified as talented athletes that play baseball rather than instinctual players with baseball skills) the suspect instincts for hitting could limit the ceiling for a player whose voluptuous ceiling was the reason he was given a $7.5 million bonus to commit to baseball in the first place. The existence of said instincts are debatable, and given the fact that he appears to have some feel for defense, perhaps not as suspect as this observer might believe. But I do have legit concerns about the hit tool, the carrying tool that will not only drive Starling to the majors but also provide his other physical gifts the stage to play on.

You can suggest, and perhaps you have a good case, that Starling is only 20, he hit the baseball well at the short-season level in his rookie season, and he was a multi-sport athlete who only recently committed to the game, so more patience is required and expected when evaluating his present skills. This is a very thoughtful and realistic suggestion, and it’s not without merit. But I’d be lying if I said the multi-sport background didn’t concern me, as it can tie into the baseball instinct argument, one that has deep roots in the neurological functions at play; specifically, the idea that the required visual-motor skills to hit a baseball form very early in life’s developmental process. This isn’t to suggest that Starling is doomed to fail or lacks the aforementioned acquired skills to not only recognize the ball but trigger the action to strike it, but that his particular multi-sport background and adolescent athletic priorities might play a role in his overall feel for the game of baseball, and in particular, the feel for hitting.

Of course, my conclusions weren’t bred from an eight-game sample, but when coupled with countless hours of watching Starling play and conversations with numerous industry sources, the sample starts to look systemic. Starling is the type of prospect who encourages observers to acquiesce to the dream without confronting the realities on the situation. He’s a faith-based prospect on the highest level. The physical characteristics, the aesthetic qualities, they make persuasive arguments that this is a superstar starter kit, and with a little luck and a lot of patience and a lot of belief, this will be the face of a franchise for a decade. I’m quite susceptible to the charms of a high-ceiling prospect, even one who requires more faith than fact, which makes this case study all the more fascinating to me. No doubt influenced by my time spent watching him play, the dream starts to dissolve with every viewing, as the promised and propagated loud tools aren’t nearly as loud as advertised, and choir of voices signing his virtues have run into pitch issues. Literally.

What Happens Next?: Starling isn’t going hit .077/.143/.077 all season, and as he finds more comfort and confidence in his swing, he should start to put more balls in play and find more consistent hard contact. Because of his obvious physical gifts, Starling should survive the lower minors and might even coast on those physical merits until he reaches the Double-A level. If the instincts to hit are as a flimsy as I’ve suggested, that level could be his wall, the obstacle that weakens the case for superstardom to even those who are most steadfast in their fervor. As gifted as Starling is, the ability to hit a baseball is what will define his career, taking him to the heights of all-star status if the amateur reports prove to be prophetic, or leaving him twisting in the minor-league wind if the physical promise gets derailed by developmental issues that existed before he ever took his first professional swing. 

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

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