The background of Bubba Starling is well known. He was the Royals first pick, #5 overall, in 2011. A potential five-tool mega athlete out of Gardner-Edgerton who played just about every sport imaginable while there. He was a legitimate Top-5 pick and the local flair gave the Royals an even larger reason to draft him. If they would have passed on Bubba, it seems pretty easy to say the Nationals would have taken him with the very next pick.
The outcome of this draft has been well discussed. Many believed Starling would be on the board for the Royals at #5, but they would need to decide between him, one of the major college arms that were still available (Bauer/Cole/Hultzen), or Oklahoma prep pitchers Bundy/Bradley. As draft day approached most saw a somewhat liquid first four picks but generally it was down between Cole/Rendon/Bauer/Hultzen; all college players. This meant the Royals would have their pick of prep guys Starling, Bundy, or Bradley.
As drafts, baseball, and life in general does, things didn't go as planned.
Cole at #1 overall was the obvious choice. He had some rough starts his Junior year, but he went multiple games with no hitters into the 7th inning and finished with more strikeouts than innings pitched.
With the second overall pick the Mariners threw out a curveball of sorts. While Hultzen, who they ultimately took and was up there in draft prospects, many saw Anthony Rendon of Rice appearing at this pick. Rendon had injury questions, but he was easily the best college hitter available (George Springer would possibly be next).
Surely Rendon would go at third no? Instead, the Diamondbacks would take Cole's college companion in Trevor Bauer.
Okay here we go. The Orioles would grab Rendon at number four and he would make a possibly elite up the middle duo of Machado at short and him at 2B. Good for them...except Baltimore would jump off the board a bit and take prep righty Dylan Bundy who they've been in on for weeks prior.
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With perhaps the Royals top four candidates off the board, even though Dylan Bundy told Kansas City and Pittsburgh to not draft him, the Royals were in a bit of a panic. While they would have loved for Rendon to fall to them, they certainly weren't expecting it. Kansas City loved Starling and scouted him heavily, but they recognized the project he would be and they were also considering Francisco Lindor at #5 as well. Had Cole/Hultzen/Bauer been on the board at the fifth pick this draft would have been different. Ultimately the Royals would take the gamble on Bubba Starling and the rest has been history.
Bubba's struggles have been well known. He's had that hitch in his swing, LASIK surgery, and questions about perhaps a neurological disorder effecting his ability to recognize pitches.
So far Bubba has had two and a half seasons to show results and here they are:
2011 - Rookie League Age 19: 53 GP 10 HR 9 SB .275/.371/.485 12.1 BB% 30.2 K% 135 wRC+
2012 - Low-A Age 20: 135 GP 13 HR 22 SB .241/.329/.398 10.6 BB% 25.7 K% 111 wRC+
2013 - High A Age 21: 45 GP 2 HR 9 SB .198/.303/.311 10.3 BB% 25.1 K% 81 wRC+
* Note wRC+ is not park adjusted
The triple slash lines are a little uglier than in reality and as noted they aren't park adjusted, but Starling has been better than league average in each season he's played (this season so far not withstanding).
Perhaps the true face of a prospects stats are who they are putting them up against. A 25 year old destroying A+ isn't nearly as impressive as a 21 year old destroying AA, or an 18 year old holding his own in A+ (cough Raul Mondesi cough). Also putting up video game stats in Las Vegas isn't quite as impressive perhaps as putting up a solid line in Lakewood or Savannah (cough Travis D'Arnaud cough).
Another key aspect is quality of opponent. Baseball Reference had a similar idea in Spring Training as they introduced their OppQual stat to quantify and weed out the good and bad pitchers that can appear in spring games.
Obviously a guy hitting .300 against Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and James Shields (of course I included him) is doing better than someone hitting .400 against Johnathan Sanchez, Kyle Davies, and Chris George (been wanting to drop that reference for a while).
In the minor leagues though that is hard to do. There is a lot of noise the further up the ladder you get. AAA is littered with ex-major leaguers, players on rehab, AAAA players, and legit prospects. The same holds true in part for the low minors, but I think you see more actual prospects or more clearly defined non-prospects there. You generally don't see 25 year olds and ex-major leaguers in A ball unless on rehab, and there is a lot of age-to-league parity down low. Most guys in A-Ball, whether it be Advanced/Low/Short Season, are recent draftees or young players. This helps drown out the noise a bit.
One way to look at how a player is performing against legit competition is by looking at the data against another teams top prospect(s). Thanks to the absolutely wonderful site MLB Farm we have that data for 2013 and 2014.
Below is Bubba Starlings data against pitchers who are on their Teams Top-20 ranking as ranked by MLB.com:
Lucas Sims (Atlanta): 2-8H 1 HR 2K 3BB
Eddie Butler (Colorado): 0-3
Tyler Glasnow (Pittsburgh): 1-1
Jason Hursh (Atlanta): 0-2 1BB
CJ Edwards (Cubs): 1-2 1 2B 1K
Mauricio Cabrera (Atlanta): 2-2 1 2B 1BB
Matt Purke (Nationals): 0-2 1K
Chi Chi Gonzalez (Texas): 0-6 1K
Chris Stratton (Giants): 4-9 2 2B 1K 1BB
Derek Law (Giants): 0-1 1K 1BB
Luis Heredia (Pirates): 0-2 1BB
Luis Severino (Yankees): 1-2 1 3B
Steven Matz (Mets): 0-2 1BB
Joan Gregorio (Giants): 0-4 4K 1BB
Brian Johnson (Boston): 1-5 1HR 3K 2BB
Martin Agosta (Giants): 4-16 1HR 6K
Branden Kline (Orioles): 1-6 1K
Clay Holmes (Pittsburgh): 1-6 1K 1BB
Josh Hader (Houston): 1-5 1K
Rayan Gonzalez (Colorado): 1-3 2K
Parker Bridwell (Orioles): 0-3
Keone Kela (Texas): 0-2 1K
Francelis Montas (White Sox): 2-7 1BB
Cody Kukuk (Boston): 3-9 1 2B 3K 3BB
Victor Payano (Texas): 0-1 3BB
Braulio Ortiz (White Sox): 1-7 1HR 3K 1BB
Jayson Aquino (Colorado): 2-3 1 2B
Raul Fernandez (Colorado): 0-2 1K
Shae Simmons (Braves): 0-1 1K
Sam Wolff (Texas): 0-4 2K 3BB
Austin Brice (Miami): 0-3
Kendry Flores (Giants): 1-3 1 3B 1HR 4K 1BB
Shane Watson (Phillies): 0-2
Simon Mercedes (Red Sox): 1-2 1K 1BB
Wes Parsons (Atlanta): 1-10 3K 2BB
Overall line: .214/.331/.377
Overall, Bubba has hit against 35 pitchers on their teams respected Top-20 list. While he's shown a decent OBP clip, he's not hit for average or power against them. One thing Starling doesn't necessarily get much credit for is his ability to walk at a decent rate. Usually that gets drowned out by his higher strikeout totals, but as referenced above he's had multiple seasons of double digit walk rates.
Against a teams Top-10 pitchers Starling has hit .275/.395/.500
Against a teams 11-20 top prospect pitchers Starling has hit .200/.316/.350
Starling has been better against teams better pitchers and obviously worse against their worst pitchers. Is that good? Is that bad? On one hand he's doing well against good pitcher, but of course on the other he's doing poorly against worst pitchers.
The main pitchers of note here are probably Lucas Sims, Eddie Butler, Tyler Glasnow and CJ Edwards.
Butler was recently ranked the 26th overall best prospect by Baseball Prospectus, Sims the 40th, Glasnow the 42nd, and Edwards the 81st. Against that quartet Starling has hit .286/.411/.571. That's encouraging I guess.
This was just an exercise of our brains and I'm not sure any real conclusion can be found here other than Starling probably just needs to do better against everybody.
A few things to remembers are that one; small sample size obviously applies and two obviously Starling can only hit against prospects that play in his league and only if they are set to pitch on a day he plays.