Why the hell was I in Lexington, Kentucky? Starting about 12 years ago, my dad and I have slowly tried to visit all the MLB ballparks and seeing as I’m about to be a senior in college, we figured we better try to squeeze the last few stadiums in before I head back to school and advance on to real personhood. Driving from St. Louis, and taking an amorphous circuit to South Bend to move me into my apartment, we hit Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Conveniently along the way to Cincinnati is Lexington, Kentucky home of our future hopes and dream, the Lexington Legends.
First things first, I am not a scout nor do I pretend to be. Scouting hitters is fucking hard, much more so than scouting a pitcher, like I did with Yordano Ventura here. I know enough about mechanics to know what looks "right" and I know what is aesthetically pleasing to my eye but for the most part, my ability to analyze hitting prospects comes down to the process at the plate and the result. I won't pretend to assess bat speed, hand placement or swing path, but I can tell how a batter responds to different pitches and different situations, so most of what I’ll be writing is from that perspective. Also, it is obviously incredibly unrealistic to expect to draw any meaningful insights from one baseball game, especially when we are talking about an 18 year old and 21 year old. So with all that said, let’s get to it.
Bubba F. Starling
I recently ranked Bubba as the 6th best prospect in the Royals system and was surprised to find that some thought that after several months of poor performance, he didn’t deserve to be in the top ten, despite a 2012 that found him hitting .275/.371/.485 though with negative scouting reports. I remained optimistic about his physical gifts, reminding myself of the adjustment from splitting time between sports at Gardner-Edgerton High School, to being committed full-time to baseball, playing against professionals.
Currently Bubba's triple-slash sits at .235/.323/.373. Peripherals include a 10.86% BB%, a 24.% K% and a .294 BABIP. As of the writing of this article, his wRC+ is 98. That's not much to get excited about; especially the slugging percentage. If you break down his performance by month—something we are no stranger to, given the streakiness off some of our young hitters—there are positives to be gleaned. By month:
April: 24 games .195/.263/.379 32 Ks, 7 BBs - Terrible Month
May: 23 games .225/.319/.350 24 Ks, 9 BBs
June: 24 games .250/.327/.369 24 Ks, 10 BBs
July: 27 games .223/.333/.330 19 Ks, 16 BBs - Much better K/BB ratio, but where's the power?
August: 9 games .367/.457/.567 7 Ks, 4BBs- Can he sustain?
So even if the hitting isn't improving much, it appears the approach has been refined at least in this small sample. Now his day/night split—the reason he underwent LASIK surgery in May— is still drastic.
Day Games: .286/.381/.451
Night Games: .218/305/.349
I want to note here that I thought the stadium was poorly lit. Behind home plate and in right-center field, the stadium was darker than other areas. If Starling is still having trouble picking up the rotation on the ball, it's entirely possible that the inconsistent lighting is a partial factor. On the topic of Whitaker Bank Ball Park, from the park factors (here, here, and here) I can find, the stadium is a slight pitchers' park, though with an above-average preponderance for homers.
Now what did my amateur eye see? Here's a link to the games box score.
Bubba is a few weeks younger than me, but goddamn is he a physical specimen. I wish we were selling jeans here. He'd be a jeans selling MVP. To improve on an analogy from Jason Parks at Baseball Prospectus, Bubba wears a baseball uniform like Don Draper wears a suit, or Gus Fring wears a yellow button-down, which is to say, it just looks and feels so right. He looks the part, standing tall, built, and athletic. Looking at Bubba Starling in a baseball uniform makes me feel a little like this guy. In pre-game warmups he was signing autographs for the kids and being a genuinely nice guy. He was also seen cradling a baseball glove like he just received a handoff, perhaps an apt embodiment and reminder that this is a football player, playing baseball.
But can he play baseball? The knock on Bubba has been his swing mechanics and his approach at the plate. There is plenty of video of Bubba’s swing on the internet so I feel no need to rehash what you can see with your own eyes, but from what I had seen in video, I found a long swing and awkward weight shift, with a spazzy toe tap that was disrupting his timing. In the game I saw, he did seem to be managing his front foot timing better. He doesn't have the quietest pre-pitch set-up, but it looked more fluid and aesthetically pleasing than what I was expecting to see.
Regarding his approach, Keith Law over at ESPN recently wrote this:
Starling was one of the most athletic high school prospects I’ve ever seen, but he’s been an enormous disappointment in pro ball, looking "lost at the plate" with "no approach or feel" according to one of several scouts I talked to about him, none of whom wrote him up as even an average regular.
He can still run and he’s playing solid defense in center field, but he’s a train wreck at the plate, with no silver linings to be found unless you want to find hope in him improving his contact rate in the second half while having less success when he makes contact. He just turned 21 on Sunday and doesn’t look ready for a promotion to high Class A, so he’s well behind where the fifth overall pick of the 2011 draft should be on the development curve.
Law and these scouts know multitudes more than I do and have presumably seen Bubba multiple times, but the game I sat on would contradict these reports. The most impressive part of watching Bubba at the plate was his selectivity; it seemed like he legitimately had a plan. From following box scores every night, and even watching the occasional game on MiLB TV, I garnered the impression that to make up for his own short comings with the bat, he was becoming passive (A la Eric Hosmer in Burlington), taking pitches he should be attacking. In this game I didn’t see passivity as much as selectivity. He has a better idea of the strike zone than I was expecting given his 30.2% K rate of last year and his 24.6% rate this year. He was able to spit on breaking pitches, getting into beneficial counts where he could attack a fastball.
As I’m writing this, I’m wishing I had taken better notes, and had I been attendance by myself I’m sure I would have. But here is what I have. The ball really sounds well struck off his bat. His first time up, he hit a slicing line drive double to right field on a pitch on the outer-half. His second at bat, he attacked an early fastball and sent a shot right up the middle for a single. His 3rd at-bat he got behind in the count and defensively fisted an inside pitch to the 2nd basemen, failing to get on base—though making it a close play due to his speed. His last at bat, came with runners on 2nd and 3rd in the bottom of the 9th with two outs in a tie ballgame. Bubba quickly got down 1-2 and I was certain he would strikeout, but he took an outside fastball and smoked it through the 3-4 hole for a walk-off single. Now every time Bubba steps to the plate, the stadium is very aware of who he his. He had quite a big cheering section and had several hundred people chanting "Bubba! Bubba! Bubba!" for each at bat, with that number rising markedly for this final at-bat.
Based on this heat map at mlbfarm.com, I was expecting him to be pounding pitches on the infield to his pull-side, but that didn’t manifest. He was working up the middle, and the opposite field, good signs for the development of his approach as a professional hitter.
Defensively Bubba was never tested; he made all the routine plays. There was one instance where there was a ball hit to right-center field that I thought should have been Bubba’s ball, but right-fielder Fred Ford made a long run to chase it down. Being the center fielder, he had a much better angle at it, and I thought he should have called off Ford.
But yes, I was impressed by Bubba. He came to the plate with a plan and executed, hitting the ball hard up the middle and the other way. I don't know what Bubba will become and neither do you, but he has an elite ceiling that he will probably never reach—but how many prospects ever reach their ceiling?. Nonetheless, I left the game encouraged. I saw an elite athlete with better baseball instincts and contact skills than I was expecting. It was only one game, but if he can finish strong, it would go a long way to reassuring fans and prospect evaluators that the potential is still there.
If he somehow manages to reach his atmospheric potential, he is a perennial MVP candidate, but obviously the odds of him reaching that ceiling are extremely low. I've mentioned it before and I saw Rany mention it the other day, but I see Drew Stubbs as a reachable outcome if his bat continues to advance. That would be premium athlete with the defense, speed and arm of your dreams, but a bat that often leaves you frustrated. I'm getting years ahead of myself, and my prognostications are meaningless, but it's hard to imagine a scenario where Bubba reaches the majors and isn't considered a huge disappointment. I think that speaks to the unrealistic expectations put on a hometown kid by his hometown, but at the current level of production, there is no doubt that Bubba Starling is a disappointing draft pick—especially given the seemingly historic talent level in the 2011 draft. So for now, let's temper our expectations a little bit and understand that this was never going to be a fast developmental curve and despite some comparisons, he is not Byron Buxton.
Now I will be absolutely fascinated to see what the Royals do with Bubba. If he finishes the season strong, I could see him starting 2014 in Wilmington, but this carries some major risk. We all know Wilmington is a miserable ballpark for hitters—especially those of the right-handed variety. If Bubba put's up the numbers of say Brett Eibner (.196/.299/.388), Cheslor Cuthbert (.240/.296/322), Mike Moustakas (.250/.297/.421), or Carlos Beltran (.229/.311/.361), I think in the face of glaring failure it become more likely he returns to football. There are numerous promotion possibilities, each one with its own complexities and complications. Again, if forced to prognosticate, I think Bubba will have a modestly strong finish to the year and will start 2014 at Wilmington with the current crop of kids at Lexington, probably joined by Hunter Dozier. That would leave an exciting trio of prospects in 2014 Wilmington between Dozier, Starling and Mondesi. Which brings me to...
Raul Mondesi Jr. Raul Mondesi didn’t do much to impress me in this particular game. In the field a couple hard-hit grounders found him at shortstop. He made all the routine plays, and never really had to range far in either direction. His arm didn’t blow me away, but there was never an occasion where he needed to put much juice on a throw. Like I said, he made all the routine plays, which is more than you can say for a lot of Low A shortstops, especially one who just turned 18. In Baseball America's Best Tools survey, Mondesi ranked as the best fielding shortstop in the SALLY, which gives you a good idea of his instincts at short. (It should be noted that after watching this game, I’m reminded of just how bad most A-ball defense is. Any player with reasonable speed should be able to rack up a fair number of infield "hits").
At the plate, Mondesi looked sushi raw. A switch-hitter, I had the opportunity to see him from the left and right side of the plate. From the right side he was getting sodomized by curveballs by the Tourist's lefty. In one at-bat, the pitcher for the Asheville Tourists threw him three straight hooks for strikes, each one taken looking. When he did swing at a breaking pitch, he was way out in front, lunging awkwardly at the ball. From the left side in the 9th, with a runner on 1st, he laid down an abysmal sac bunt, straight back to the pitcher who was able wheel around and nab the lead runner. Mondesi's a fast kid, that’s for sure. On this one occasion he got on base—the aforementioned sac-bunt-turned-fielder's-choice—he showed some serious wheels. While on first base, Mark Threlkeld laced a double to deep left-center. Mondsei promptly flew around 3rd base, only to see the 3rd base coach with a Rodriguez-ian gaffe, where he threw up the stop sign far too late, having Mondesi fall on his ass while trying to slam on the brakes. I thought Mondesi could have scored, but luckily he was able to get back to 3rd base, setting the stage for Lexington’s hero, Bubba Starling, to take care of the rest.
Terrence Gore is really really really short. Listed at 5"7’, that might be generous. He is all legs, and proportionally, he doesn’t look like he belongs on a baseball diamond. At the plate, his approach was slappy, allowing his speed to play. Goddamn can he fly though, nearly beating out a well struck ball to short. No stopwatch on me, but I've seen scouts say they've clocked him in the 3.7 range from the right side which is insane.
This was Mark Donato’s walk-up song.
Christian Binford is a tall tall man. I would've loved to get a shot of him standing next to Gore.
Miguel Almonte and Greg Billo were charting pitches behind home plate.
Kenny Diekroeger has fallen a loooonng way since his prep days.
The stadium is located north of the University of Kentucky campus. The stadium looks pretty shitty from the outside, but I found myself really enjoying the game. It took just over 2 hours, despite a laborious top of the first.
They had a "Friends of Coal" promotion in the middle of an inning where ballpark staff was running through the aisles throwing "squishy" lumps of coal into the crowd. They were essentially coal shaped stress balls. This struck me as extremely weird. But then again, Kentucky.
As always, going to a baseball game—especially a minor league game in Kentucky— is a reminder that most people are unfortunate looking (except Christian Binford's girlfriend).
Let me know if you have any questions about the stadium or the game itself. If for some random reason, you find yourself passing through Lexington, Kentucky (the Bourbon trail is located along the way, just sayin) I would definitely recommend stopping by.
As always, you can follow me on twitter here @mike_sport
Thanks for reading,
And here is a NSFW informational video about my city, South Bend, Indiana.
*South Bend, Indiana* Benzo Ft Gangsta & Duke Da Hazard - Official Video Shot By @DeeBoogieBrown (via BenzoTheRealest)