May 26, 2014

Royals prospect Bubba Starling starting to put it all together

The tall kid in the Nebraska Cornhuskers weightlifting shirt will not be having any of it. Not anymore.If social media outlets were the only avenue to discern the exploits of Bubba Starling, one might surmise that the No. 5 overall pick of the 2011 first-year player draft was a historic mistake for an organization regularly lampooned for such things. Add to that the ever-expanding cloud of baseball punditry inferring that, for a baseball prospect, Starling is a heck of a future college football quarterback. Yeah. Whatever.

The tall kid in the Nebraska Cornhuskers weightlifting shirt will not be having any of it. Not anymore.

If social media outlets were the only avenue to discern the exploits of Bubba Starling, one might surmise that the No. 5 overall pick of the 2011 first-year player draft was a historic mistake for a Royals organization regularly lampooned for such things.

Add to that the ever-expanding cloud of baseball punditry implying that, for a baseball prospect, Starling is a heck of a future college football quarterback.

Yeah. Whatever.

“You get all these people who write that, and they’ve never played a game of baseball in their life,” Starling said Saturday afternoon as his Class A Wilmington Blue Rocks prepared to face the Frederick Keys.

“Some of them don’t even have a clue what this is like. It’s a whole different kind of competition coming from high school to this. It really doesn’t matter, honestly, what they think.”

For a time, it did. Back in those early days in the Royals’ organization, as the bad plate appearances began to pile up, Starling spent the occasional afternoon playing the “what if” game.

Ask him about it now, in the middle of a career-best hitting streak that reached 15 games when he went one for four with an RBI in a 6-3 loss to Frederick on Monday, and Starling has to be reminded that he would have just completed his junior year at Nebraska. Playing quarterback in the Big Ten in front of 80,000 screaming fans does sound more appealing than being mostly anonymous during long bus rides to little black dots on Rand McNally maps.

“I haven’t thought about it lately,” he said. “My first year in pro ball, I actually did think about it. Quite a bit.”

A question posed to The Star’s Royals beat writer, Andy McCollough, via Twitter on May 9 revealed Royals fans had been mulling the same question. Derek Martin (@d2mart) asked, “What about Bubba Starling? When can we expect him in Lincoln, Nebraska?”

That same night, ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law was in the crowd at Wilmington watching the Blue Rocks lose to Lynchburg and tweeted, “I didn’t think it was possible, but Bubba Starling looks more lost at the plate now than he did a month ago.”

It was right around then that everything changed for Starling. The time had come to block out the rest of the world. To block out the many voices. To empty his mind.

Doing so would require him to do something that flew in the face of what the Royals had been drilling into him since his first day.

It was time to go back to where it all began. Back to Gardner Edgerton High School.

Deep in the territorial waters of the Philadelphia Phillies, Wilmington, Del., is an island of Royals blue, where “KC” ball caps seemingly grow on trees and herds of people in Zack Greinke, Eric Hosmer and Johnny Damon jerseys roam within the confines of Frawley Stadium.

Wilmington is almost directly east of Kansas City. Simply drive to the end of Interstate 70 and hang a left at Baltimore. For Starling, it is 1,140 miles from the Blue Rocks’ clubhouse to Kauffman Stadium, but the travel time is measured in years. The vehicle he is driving is fueled not by gasoline, but by routine.

For minor-league ballplayers, routine is derived from something akin to an artisanal apprenticeship. All teams have their own, unique approach to growing talent on the farm.

For the Royals, an organization that has been taken to task at times for its seemingly lumbering and overwrought player personnel deliberations — be it deciding when to pull the plug on Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis in the rotation, or whether to send Mike Moustakas to Omaha — their development philosophy is predictably extensive.

Many organizations distill their message to some sort of key phrase or easily remembered creed. On the clubhouse wall in Wilmington, a Royal Crown labeled “Royals Championship Player” contains nine words that begin with the letter “C” spread across it like a starting defensive lineup.

Comprehension, Concentration and Clutch roam the outfield. Coach, Composure, Confidence and Commitment round out the infield. Character is behind the plate, and Competitor is on the mound.

With each word, there are four to six bullet points explaining what a player must do to achieve oneness with the C.

When Starling arrived in the organization, the Royals saw in him a player with exquisite physical gifts but limited experience, thanks to being a two-sport athlete from Gardner in Johnson County, where the cold winters and sketchy springs meant very few games.

“A lot of people tried to work on this or that with me,” Starling said. “Change my hands, put them in a different spot or change my feet or whatever it is.”

None of it seemed to work. In the meantime, as a player who was given a team-record $7.5 million signing bonus, the Royals flunked him upward through the system, where new instructors would deconstruct him and begin from scratch.

On May 1, Starling found himself batting .127 with one home run and 28 strikeouts in 22 games.

“It seemed like every time I turned around, it was an oh-for-four, an oh-for-five, two or three punchouts and you know, it kind of took a toll on me,” Starling said. “I was trying to do way too much at the plate.

“I feel like with my hands, they were just stiff and I wasn’t getting my hands through the zone. I wasn’t seeing the ball when it was released. A little herky-jerky, I guess.”

Wilmington hitting coach Milt Thompson backed away. It was time to stick all those C’s in a drawer and simplify.

“He just told me I needed to relax,” Starling said.

Teammate Hunter Dozier, the Royals’ top pick in last year’s draft, repeated the message, and it reverberated with Starling, considering it came from someone who could relate to the pressures he was feeling.

“There was a lot of pressure,” Starling said.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m a first-rounder, I got X-amount of money, I’m going to have to work really hard and fly through the system.’ It was the complete opposite of what I needed to do. Getting to be around Dozier, he just says, ‘You need to relax, Bubba, quit trying to do more than you can. The more you relax, the better you’re going to feel.’

“It’s kind of nice having him as one of the guys around me.”

After another hitless night on May 10, Starling was given a day off.

On May 12, he singled in his first at-bat against Salem. On May 13, another single, and on May 14, a double.

There was a hit a day for the next week, and then three hits during a doubleheader against Carolina that was capped by a walk-off triple in the nightcap.

On Sunday, Starling briefly nudged his season batting average over .200 with a single in his first at-bat. He finished one for four, dropping back to .199, but got it up to .200 with his one-for-four effort Monday. Meanwhile, his on-base percentage has risen to .307.

Starling is hitting .316 during the streak with a double and two triples. Of more importance, his strikeout rate is plummeting (11 in 15 games) and he is taking more walks.

The key? A total reset.

“Up at the plate I kind of had a different stance and stuff,” he said. “Now I’m just in a comfortable spot for me and kind of going back to what I did in high school. That’s what I’m doing now.

“I just feel really comfortable. Milt does a great job of not putting too much stuff in my head. He just tells me to keep it simple and go get my work in.”

Perhaps it is coincidental, but the entire Blue Rocks lineup has caught fire during Starling’s streak. Sunday’s victory was the team’s seventh in eight games, pushing Wilmington into first place in the Carolina League’s Northern Division. Dozier is hitting .429 with four doubles in his last 10 games, making it virtually impossible to pitch around Starling.

“Bubba’s been looking awesome lately,” Dozier said.

“It’s just the same thing with him, just relaxing and not worrying about the numbers and looking for a pitch.”

Blue Rocks manager Darryl Kennedy agreed.

“I think he has realized he doesn’t have to do everything. He doesn’t have to carry the team on his back, that he’s got a bunch of guys to help him out,” Kennedy said. “I think he’s just relaxed at the plate and it has allowed him to just go up there with a clear mind and put a good swing on the ball.”

Hitting is the last piece of the puzzle, for Starling’s skills in the field have rarely been questioned. On Saturday, with Wilmington clinging to a 2-1 lead, Starling brought the crowd to its feet with an over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track with his back to home plate. It was an uncanny impersonation of Willie Mays’ famous catch in 1954.

“You never know what he’s going to do out there,” Blue Rocks first baseman Cody Stubbs said. “You see that ball and you think that’s a double and all of a sudden he just snags it out of the air. It’s pretty incredible what he can do out there.”

Starling often deflects questions about his defense, mostly because he considers it something that comes so naturally as to not be dwelled upon when he does something spectacular.

“I think right now for me, if I can figure out the whole hitting deal, I will be all right,” he said. “Milt said if I can take the confidence I have in center field up to the plate, I’ll be a pretty good player.

“I just feel like any ball hit to left- or right-center, I’m going to track it down and catch it. It may not always be the case, but I’m just competitive out there. And I think sooner or later, when I get more and more at-bats and get comfortable in the box, the hitting will come.”

The tenor of comments on social media is beginning to change as well. Despite his best efforts, Starling still finds himself occasionally scrolling through cyberspace.

“It’s funny how it works,” he said with a laugh.

“You go in a slump or start off really slow and it’s, ‘Why did we draft this guy,’ it’s this and that, ‘Why did we give this guy so much money.’

“Now, you know, I’m starting to play pretty well and it’s, ‘Oh, he’ll be up here in a couple of years’ or whatever it is. The less you can look and think about the outside stuff, things people are saying, the better. It’s hard to block it out, but whatever happens, in the clubhouse all of us guys know what we’re going through, what we’ve been through.

“I can focus on baseball now. It has gotten a lot easier for me.”

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