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Is 2017 finally the Year of the Starling?

Bubba’s just one level away from the Bigs.

Bubba Starling about to clear the bases
Photo Credit | Minda Haas Kuhlmann

In June 2011, the Kansas City Royals owned the fifth overall pick in the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft. They were interested in four arms—Geritt Cole, Danny Hultzen, and Trevor Bauer out of college, and Dylan Bundy out of high school. Of course, the four teams ahead of Kansas City picked those four players.

The 2011 draft was actually quite a draft. Cole, Bauer, and Bundy have all started games at the MLB level, and there were a fair number of names further down the draft that are pretty big names nowadays. Anthony Rendon, Francisco Lindor, George Springer, Jose Fernandez, Sonny Gray, and Jackie Bradley Jr. were all drafted in the first round. So too were Javier Baez, Kolten Wong, Joe Panik, Michael Fulmer, and Trevor Story.

Kansas City drafted none of the above. Rather, they picked a local kid from Johnson County, Kansas, a multi-sport star that they lured away from being a quarterback at the University of Nebraska with a record $7.5 million signing bonus. His name—Bubba Starling.

It’s June—but June 2017, not 2011. Six years and six drafts after he was drafted, Starling has yet to play a single game at the Major League level. Of the first 31 players taken in that 2011 draft, Starling is one of only five players who haven’t done so. Sometimes the reason for a player’s failure is complicated, but the reason for Bubba’s sadness is painfully and rather amusingly simple: Bubba just hasn’t hit. He had a .727 at A Lexington. Then he had a .680 OPS in two seasons at A+ Wilmington. Then a .673 OPS in two seasons at AA Northwest Arksansas. Now a .565 OPS over two seasons at AAA Omaha. That is not good. None of that is good. Those are the kind of numbers that whisper ‘draffffft bussssst’ in the middle of the night from dark corners.

But it wasn’t all about the offense regarding Bubba. The reason why Starling was drafted so high is because of the enigmatic, all-encompassing scouting term of “tools.” This is from Keith Law, baseball writer and draft guru:

Starling is the best athlete, bar none, in this year's draft, and one of the best in any recent draft. If you want five tools, this is the place to shop. Starling has explosive bat speed and above-average raw power that will become plus in time; right now, he tends to drift forward at the plate, robbing himself of a little power because his weight is on his front foot too early. He's a plus-plus runner who led all players at last year's Area Code Games in 60 times, and it translates to easy range in center.

You could rightfully throw shade at Law’s usage of generic scout catchphrases that really don’t mean much of anything (explosive bat speed! raw power! plus-plus runner!), but it’s hard to ignore a declarative statement like “Starling is the best athlete, bar none, in this year’s draft, and one of the best in any recent draft.” That’s because, as Law says in the next line, he has lots of tools.

For batters, in absence of evaluating specific pitches, scouts focus on tools. There are five tools for position players: hit, defense, power, arm, and speed. True five-tool players are very rare, as the things that help a player hit for average and power are totally different than the ones who field and run well. Starling is one of the rare players who had a ceiling as a five-tool player: fast, strong, and skilled, Starling could impact the game in a multitude of ways.

The key word being ‘had’. After over 2300 minor league plate appearances, it’s evident that Starling just isn’t going to be the, ahem, star the Royals thought he might be. You need to be able to hit well in order to be that star. According to an analysis by Fivethirtyeight, the most important tools to have, the ones that correlate the most to MLB success, are the hitting and power tools. Those are the tools that Starling does not have. Again, you can hear ‘drafffffffft buuuuussssssssssssssssstttt’ coming from an indeterminate location somewhere near the clubhouse toilet.

But the key to Starling is that it may not matter. His other tools are still really good.

Since the first game of his professional career in 2012, Starling has stolen 70 bases at a very good success rate of 82%. Only 11 Major Leaguers since 2012 have 70+ stolen bases at an 82% or higher success rate. Starling also has 48 outfield assists in that time period. Only seven Major League outfielders have that many or more. And while minor leagues don’t have Statcast or DRS or UZR, excited quotes from the front office about Starling’s “Major League-ready defense” and an unteachable “aptitude that he’s blessed with” speak to his range and general defensive skill.

So is there a place for a guy with fantastic defense and baserunning but poor offense? I took a look at the past decade of baseball and looked at every outfielder with 200 or more plate appearances, hit 15% below league average or worse, and who still produced at least two Wins Above Replacement per Fangraphs.

The results:

That’s 21 individual seasons of poorly-hitting outfielders who still had productive years. Widening the search parameters to include guys who hit 10% below league average and were worth 1.5 WAR more than doubles the number of individual seasons to 50. And shifting the parameters to include guys who hit 25% worse than league average or worse still yields 16 players who produced 1 or more WAR. It’s certainly possible to be a decent or good outfielder for a team even without good hitting, especially if you’re being paid the league minimum. Average players are valuable, and cheap average players are very valuable.

Still, there’s an offensive floor you need to hit in order to get that chance. You need an OPS that starts with a six in order to get a shot. Starling’s career AAA OPS starts with a five.

And yet! In his first 73 plate appearances this year, Starling hit .121/.205/.182 with zero home runs. In the 127 since, he’s hit .305/.339/.449 with three home runs. More importantly, he’s struck out only 18% of the time over that stretch. Starling’s next season with a strikeout rate under 20% will be his first. When something’s been dead for a long time (IE: Bubba’s offense), any life draws attention to itself.

Starling only needs to convince the Royals front office that he can hit a reasonable offensive floor. To do that, he needs to continue hitting an .800 OPS for another month or two in Omaha. Whether he can do it or not might be his last gasp as a legitimate option for Kansas City. First round draft picks don’t get forever, and as soon as you cross into your mid-to-late 20s you’re in no man’s land.

Two summers ago, I wrote that Bubba’s star was finally exploding. It didn’t happen, or if it did happen, it exploded in the bad way rather than the good way. Bubba is probably not going to be a star anymore because there’s just too much history of him floundering at the plate. But the Royals don’t need superstars; they need good, productive players. Starling could be one of those guys still—he’s only in his age-24 season, after all—but time is running out for him. Regardless, 2017 will be the Year of the Starling one way or another. If he’s not a Kansas City Royal by the end of this year, he never will be.