The story of Bubba is well known so I'll jump right to my point here. Starling has struggled to live up to his high pre-draft praise and outlook. His biggest detractor has always been his plate discipline. This is a more blanket term than I'd like it to be so let me be more precise. Generally when people say "plate discipline" they are referring to swinging at balls outside the zone. That's one aspect of plate discipline for me, but there's another, possibly as important, aspect of plate discipline in being able to recognize pitches. A hitter could swing at nothing but strikes, but if he can't pick up the spin on a breaking ball or gauge the timing of the pitch then it doesn't matter if it's down the middle. A changeup could look like a fastball.
Starling has multiple issues at the plate. Not only does he have poor pitch recognition, some have said it's a neurological issue (which would essentially doom him entirely), while others attribute it to a hitch in his swing. I think it's a factor of both probably. Starling has/had a noticeable hitch in his swing where his hands would almost gyrate inwards during his load which would make him late on swings. That can be fixed and reports have said that it has to an extent. Starling has had his hands higher and has been quieter in his foot strike. Mechanical changes aren't always a fix all, but since Starling has returned to his high school mechanics in some regards there have been some recent better results. You still have to worry about the neurological aspect because if he can't recognize a pitch then he's useless at the plate on anything that's not a fastball.
Starling will play in the major leagues, but the question is in what capacity he'll play and perform at. He has the tools to be an All-Star. That's a thing we've heard since day one and have been repeatedly told by the Royals front office whenever he struggles. Right now he appears to be a fourth outfielder at best and could carve out a few seasons as Drew Stubbs. That's not a bad outcome as Drew Stubbs has pieced together 2700+ plate appearances at the major league level and accumulated 10.8 fWAR over 5 1/2 seasons including a 3.6 win season. One major difference perhaps in Starling vs Stubbs is that Starling is a better defender and absolutely should play CF like Stubbs has in his career. Also like Stubbs, Starling could steal 20+ bases a year given the opportunity.
Unfortunately being like Drew Stubbs also means you to be a below average hitter at the plate. For his career Stubbs has a 92 wRC+ and 8% below average at the plate isn't as bad when you add in above average defense and base running. Stubbs has had multiple poor offensive seasons (2012 - 65 wRC+, 2013 - 87 wRC+) which have been balanced out by mutiple above average seasons (2010 - 105 wRC+, 2014 - 124 wRC+). All those seasons have come with poor strikeout rates. Three years he's had at least a 30 K% and a career 29.4%.
Stubbs biggest problem at the plate have been curveballs as he's been nearly 10 runs below average for his career on the pitch. Where Stubbs does his best work, like most other hitters, is on fastballs (career 18.7 runs above average). One interesting thing about Stubbs is that he doesn't swing at a lot of outside pitches (generally ~5% better than league average), but when he does swing at them he makes terrible contact (generally ~10% worse than league average).
I don't have Pitch F/X or plate discipline data for Bubba Starling, but from what I've seen with my own eyes is that he certainly chases pitches outside the zone and doesn't make a lot of contact. I've seen him connect on outside pitches but he seems to roll them over or generate a weak infield fly.
I don't think it's too extreme to say that given Starling's speed, power, and defensive prowess he could be Drew Stubbs in some fashion. That's maybe his major league comp.
One thing I'd like to see from Starling would be for him to follow along the lines of Nationals outfield prospect Michael Taylor. Like Starling, Taylor was an older high school draftee, but he was taken in the 6th round instead of the early first.
Taylor obviously wasn't as heralded as Starling before his draft, but he carried some of the same attributes: great speed, power, and defense, but carried contact issues due to pitch recognition. Taylor was drafted at SS but that dream only lasted for about 20 games until he moved to the outfield eventually landing in centerfield where he can show his defensive skill.
Taylor had a trying professional debut in Rookie League as he hit .195/.270/.297 before moving on to A Ball where he hit .231/.333/.308 over five games. He would repeat A Ball the next year and would go on to bat .253/.310/.432 htting 13 home runs and stealing 23 bases.
John Sickels would remark at the time
Toolsy outfielder still has tons of work to do with the strike zone, but flashed power/speed skills in the Sally League.
Like Starling, Taylor would debut in the Carolina League at age 21 and struggle to the tune of .242/.318/.362 with a 26% K-rate and like a lot of Carolina League hitters his power would be zapped (3 home runs, down from 13 the previous year).
Sickels would rank him as the Nationals 20th best prospect saying that
Toolsy outfielder saw power vanish in High-A, hitting just three homers after 13 last year in 2011. Turns 22 in March, still has time to develop.
2013 was Taylor's first solid season as he repeated the Carolina League at age-22 hitting .263/.340/.426. He stole 51 bases, hit ten home runs, and cut his strikeout rate to 22%.
Taylor would suddenly return to the prospect scene and find himself now as the Nationals 7th best prospect going into the 2014 season. Baseball America noted that
The wiry, quick-twitch Taylor earns frequent physical comparisons to Mike Cameron and Adam Jones, and one scout said his ability to go back on balls in center field evokes Jim Edmonds. He's a plus runner with plus-plus range thanks to his outstanding reads and jumps, and his plus arm is accurate. He made huge strides with his baserunning, demonstrating good leads, reads and jumps. Taylor also has above-average raw power, but scouts have reservations about whether he'll ever hit enough to unlock it. He has a choppy, disjointed swing and a tendency to get very aggressive with his stride, though he made progress toning it down in instructional league. He still struggles mightily against offspeed stuff, but he can punish fastballs in or over the plate.
While Sickels mentioned
Outstanding defensive outfielder, stole 51 bases in High-A last year. Has some power potential as well, although hitting skills less refined than defense/baserunning. Contact troubles may prevent high batting average but his broad base of tools will get him to the majors eventually. I am optimistic about his bat but it will take more time.
If Taylor can become even a below-average hitter, his other tools could give him significant big-league value. If he can mature into a fringy or average hitter, he can be an all-star.
Sounds a bit like Bubba Starling no? Starling doesn't have the supreme baserunning ability of Taylor though.
Finally after a season of good results and a return to prospectdom, Taylor would go into 2014 riding his biggest wave and prospect followers would hope to continue to see those results. Taylor has not disappointed them. So far this year he's hit .313/.396/.539 even with his K-rate ballooning to 29% and has had some help from a .421 BABIP as he debuted in AA at age-23.
|R - Gulf
|A - Sally
|A+ - Caro
|A+ - Caro
|AA - East
|R - Appy
|A - Sally
|A+ - Caro
Taylor participated in the Futures Game a few weeks ago and Baseball Prospectus summarized him as
Taylor is yet another outfielder on the U.S. roster who can be labeled as a toolshed. The 23-year-old shows plus tools across the board, but there are large questions regarding his hitting ability. Taylor's swing features plenty of feast or famine due to inconsistency when firing through the zone. If he can figure it out, Taylor could be a dynamic center fielder with an exciting speed-power combination.
If Starling can unlock his tools after a slow start like Taylor did then perhaps he can change his fourth outfielder profile to a first division regular. That's a tall order and especially so if the plate discipline problems stem from a neurological deficiency. There's still hope for Starling and he turned 22 just a few days ago which still makes him younger than the Carolina League average. Starling has also destroyed lefties this year to the tune of .313/.404/.531 but has been very poor against same handed pitchers .195/.270/.307.
I'd be surprised if they don't push Starling to AA next year given how he's performed over the last few weeks (.278/.350/.454 since July 1st and .300/.371/.488 over the last month).