For Royals prospect Bubba Starling, ‘football mentality’ remains a challenge

The only source of natural light beneath the bleachers of Frawley Stadium was a narrow tunnel ringed by two lengths of chain-link fence. On a recent Sunday afternoon, Bubba Starling plopped himself on a metal bench and stared out toward the light, toward the diamond, the source of both his affluence and his angst.

“It’s tough, because I’ve got the football mentality on the baseball field,” Starling said. “I get so frustrated sometimes. And I’ve got to realize, ‘Hey, you only get four at-bats each game.’ In football, you have the ball in your hand every time. You can make up for the play before.”

Three summers ago, the Royals heaped a $7.5 million bonus upon Starling to entice him to choose baseball instead of Big Ten football. The Royals understood the unique forces swirling around him: He was a Gardner Edgerton product blessed with astounding athleticism and cursed with scant knowledge of baseball’s daily toll.

“There is no other situation that parallels his,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “Certainly not in our organization. I don’t know if there is in the game.”

The organization hoped the pressure would shape a superstar, rather than ruin a sensational talent. At 22, Starling is one of the youngest players at Class A Wilmington. The Royals remain protective of him, quick to dismiss his struggles and eager to relay any signs of development. When members of the front office visit, they gauge how often he smiles.

This summer, they’ve accumulated evidence for their optimism. Starling’s at-bats lengthened. His plate discipline improved. His body language reflected enthusiasm, rather than defeat.

His statistics exhibited progress. Two weeks ago, when Starling sat down with a reporter visiting from back home, he was completing perhaps his most promising month as a professional: a .287 average, a .350 on-base percentage and eight extra-base hits in July, plus his usual brand of eye-popping defense in center field.

“He’s really turned the corner, as far as the mentality of hitting, developing some confidence, trusting a plan,” Picollo said.

“The at-bats that I’ve seen out of Bubba this year, by far, have been the best at-bats that I’ve seen from him since he has been in our system,” said Scott Sharp, the Royals’ director of player development.

“I get the feeling when he goes up there, at any point in time, it’s going to click,” Wilmington manager Darryl Kennedy said. “Once it clicks, there will be no stopping him.”

Yet Starling has not clicked, not yet, not when so many rungs still separate him from success at Kauffman Stadium.

Eleven picks from the first round of the 2011 have reached the majors, most of them more advanced college players. Anthony Rendon merited All-Star consideration for Washington. Astros rookie George Springer has boomed 20 homers. Oakland right-hander Sonny Gray fanned seven Royals last week.

Meanwhile, before 2014 began, general manager Dayton Moore insisted the club required two more seasons of evaluation before discussing Starling’s path to the majors. As he resides in the lower levels of the minors, Starling still grapples with an attitude forged by football, the pressure of his draft status and the basic cruelty of the sport he chose.

“It’s tough for me,” Starling said. “I’ve just got to realize I can’t let it affect my other at-bats. Because I’m going to fail. Everyone is going to fail. But, unfortunately, it seems like there has been a lot of failure lately for me.”

Inside the visitors’ clubhouse of a minor-league ballpark tucked in the Tennessee foothills, Bubba Starling slumped at his locker and wept. He stayed in full uniform, undone by the result of the final game of the Appalachian League playoffs in 2012. His Burlington Royals lost on a walkoff grand slam, and for an hour Starling mourned the season’s end.

“I’ve seen guys upset, but I’ve never seen a guy as crushed as Bubba,” Picollo said. “It was everything to him to win that championship.”

To Picollo and other Royals officials, this characteristic is appealing. In another life, before he chose baseball, Starling accepted a scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska. The Royals view him as a leader. His passion to excel can be contagious, a rare quality upon which winning baseball clubs are built.

The quality is also, Picollo conceded, a “part of a double-edged sword” for younger players adjusting to the lifestyle.

For the past two seasons, the Royals and Starling have felt the destructive edge of that proverbial blade. Starling has struck out in more than a quarter of his plate appearances as a professional (325 times in his first 1,181 chances). A deflating season at Class A Lexington last year defenestrated him from Baseball America’s top 100 list for prospects. A sluggish start in Wilmington intensified the doubts about his future.

“His swing gives me nightmares,” one American League scout said. The talent evaluator also voiced an observation shared by Royals officials. Starling projected dejection. Observers could sense it in his body language and in the quality of his at-bats.

He chased changeups, observers said. He could not recognize breaking balls. He attempted to pull too many fastballs, even ones on the outer half of the plate. In conversation, he exposed his unfamiliarity with the intricacies of hitting. His fluency in the baseball language was limited. If a team official asked how he felt at the plate, Starling offered little beyond platitudes.

“I think he really didn’t understand what he was doing, or what we were trying to get him to do,” Picollo said. “And he had a hard time articulating and communicating with us, because it was hard for him to talk about.”

Starling excoriated himself after his at-bats. Strikeouts were infuriating. Even a productive out, like plating a runner from third with a groundball, disappointed him. He was not used to these results.

As his stock fell, Starling questioned himself. His bonus was the largest in team history. His more experienced draft-day peers were blazing through the minor leagues. He batted .223 with more than a strikeout per game in the first four months of 2013 before a torrid August improved his final numbers. In retrospect, he framed his struggles as part of “trying to do way more than I should be doing.”

“Given what I got, where I was drafted, (I thought) I needed to do all this stuff,” he said.

During his first two seasons, Starling admitted, he felt pangs for the gridiron. He missed the control of running an offense and the immediacy of in-game decisions. At the plate, he stewed and allowed mistakes to compound. “The football mentality” to which he ascribed clashed with the rhythms of this game, Wilmington hitting coach Milt Thompson explained.

“There’s an old saying in baseball: Good hitters have the ability to slow the game down,” Thompson said. “And it’s just the opposite in football. You’re going 100 miles an hour to make something happen. Well, that doesn’t work in baseball.”

Added Starling, “I feel like in the first half I got down on myself so much. And I was letting that carry on into other games, instead of just letting one game go by.”

Thompson, who coached the Phillies’ hitters during their 2008 World Series run, found stark the juxtaposition between Starling at the plate and in the field. As an outfielder, Starling looked sleek and graceful, “probably the best center fielder I’ve ever seen on a daily basis,” said Kennedy, a minor-league manager since 1998.

“Man,” Thompson told him, “if you could just take the confidence you have on defense up to the plate, you’re going to be a pretty good player.”

The line drive soared into the gap between right and center field. It was July 23, another night for Starling at Frawley Stadium, and he had already flashed signs of his progress. He had roped a pair RBI singles in two previous at-bats and doubled in a third.

Now, in the 10th inning, Picollo watched the opposing right fielder make a futile stab at an eventual triple.

“Once it hit off his glove, (Starling) kicked into another gear,” Picollo said. “I’m not going to say he’s as fast as (Royals outfielder Jarrod) Dyson. But he’s faster than (Royals outfielder Lorenzo) Cain. He’s faster than other guys. You don’t see how fast he is, until he gets going.”

There is no line of demarcation to denote Starling’s upswing. The moments are sprinkled throughout the season, flashes of promise amid the potential for despair. On May 21, with two outs in the final inning of a game, Starling laced a line drive to center field. The winning run scored in the process, but Starling kept sprinting to third base. Afterward, Sharp sent him a text: “Who has a walkoff triple?”

That moment occurred during Starling’s 14-game hitting streak in May. His hitting slowed again in June, with 38 strikeouts in 25 games. Yet team officials still found reasons to believe.

“He’s constantly making good barrel contact,” Sharp said. “He may mis-hit a ball, and fly out to center field. But the ball was on the barrel. It was on a good path. He swung at the right pitch.”

The advancement culminated last month. Starling finished July with an .818 on-base plus slugging percentage. He posted higher totals in only two other months of his career, August 2013 (.973) and July 2012 (.964).

During this stretch, he resembled the player the Royals sought. Kennedy credited Starling with working the middle of the field and “taking what they give him” at the plate. Moore has compared Starling's path to that of Tigers stalwart Torii Hunter, who spent five seasons in the minors, a lengthy but necessary period of development for an athlete with scant baseball experience. Thompson opted for Orioles All-Star Adam Jones.

“He has the speed,” Thompson said. “He has the power. He has unbelievable defense.”

Sharp spotted a growing player still crafting an offensive identity, once in which strikeouts are part of the package. Picollo noticed Starling had developed a leg kick in his batting stance, a sign of him trusting his athleticism.

He also is beginning to speak the language. He insists he no longer misses football, even if the sport still guides his philosophy at times.

“Right now, I’m just a baseball player, man,” he said.

Each day, Starling continued, he makes a conscious effort to set the result aside and move forward. It is a practice that carries over into his overall philosophy, to worries about expectations based on his bonus and draft status.

“Of course I want to play well and live up to what they gave me, and stuff,” Starling said. “But it honestly doesn’t matter now. I’m just working hard and trying to get better.”

At times, Picollo must remind himself to take the long view. Starling would have been a junior in college this season. His status, Picollo believes, would not be any different if he entered the draft this past June. He shuddered to think what Starling could have accomplished with an aluminum bat in the Big Ten Conference.

“Time is running,” he said. “But you’re not running out of time.”

Royals officials convey this same message to Starling. They tell him not to worry about his bonus or the other players drafted in 2011. Picollo often reminds him, “You’re Bubba Starling. Take care of Bubba Starling. And when the time is right for you, you’ll be in the big leagues.”

“Deep down inside,” Picollo said, “I really believe he knows that.”

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.