The phrase “it’s early” substituted for crossed fingers or knocking on wood as the superstition of the day when folks in the Royals clubhouse spoke about the hot start turned in by Kansas City-area three-sport high school star Bubba Starling.
Even Starling himself adhered wielded the phrase as a means to ward off the cosmic forces and evil spirits that have conspired against the hometown kid making good with his hometown team.
After he first reached the Royals’ Triple-A club in 2016 at age 23, Starling’s past two seasons have included oblique injuries, a mountain of mental anguish and a total of 100 games.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder with freakish athleticism followed up Sunday’s two-hit performance in Cactus League play with a two-home run day on Monday, a pair of thunderclaps that resulted in loud, long drives over walls at Surprise Stadium.
“It’s encouraging,” Royals manager Ned Yost said after Monday’s game. “It’s too early (but) it’s encouraging. It’s a good day, I mean hitting two homers is a big day. You’ve got to continue, but he looks good right now.”
Starling, now 26, appeared to have fine-tuned his swing going into last season before injuries robbed him or all but 20 games between Triple-A Omaha and rehabilitation stints in Idaho Falls and Surprise. He hit .296 with four homers and 11 RBI.
The two home runs on Monday were enough to wonder if Starling had managed to pick up where he left off with those adjustments. Could he be … back on track?
“It’s way early in the spring,” Starling said, who was quick to point out he had just five at-bats through Monday.
The Royals’ first-round draft pick (fifth overall) out of Gardner Edgerton High in 2011, Starling came to big-league camp as a non-roster invitee after the club non-tendered him at the end of November.
General manager Dayton Moore proclaimed a desire to retain Starling at baseball’s winter meetings in December. Starling signed a minor-league deal with the club a week before Christmas.
Now, this start. Sure, it’s way premature. Yes, it’s jumping the gun. It’s early. But Starling has already given some overzealous followers something to whisper about in hushed tones meant to avoid bad juju.
“I’m just seeing it well for now, Starling said. “Obviously you guys know I’ve had a rough couple of years. I got my body healthy this offseason. It’s just fun to be out playing again, being on the field with all these guys and having some fun.”
Starling said his focus has been on improving flexibility and strengthening his core in response to multiple oblique injuries that have kept him off the field in recent years.
He’s also leaning on the experience of those around him to steer him clear of temporary pitfalls that can turn to quicksand and continuously drag him into an even deeper malaise.
“Whether it was my swing or something mentally, every time I got down in the drain I couldn’t get back out,” Starling said. “It was mentally that I just got better at it, and I have veteran guys around me. I’m here at spring training with (Alex Gordon) and Whit (Merrifield) and guys like that. You pick their brains. You pick these coaches’ brains, and it helps you out a lot.”
Every player knows the struggle of a prolonged slump, Gordon said. But geography adds another dimension in Starling’s case.
“I think with Bubba there’s just been so many expectations, being a Kansas City kid and being the great athlete he is,” Gordon said. “That’s all he needs to be is a great athlete in the outfield and the box too. Just be an athlete and things will come.”
As far as the advice he may have passed along about Starling’s swing, Gordon recognized in Starling some of the same issues that have plagued him as well as the remedies.
“Right now, I can tell you he looks loose at the plate,” Gordon said. “His hands look free, where maybe in the past something I’ve dealt with is being stiff at the plate. I think he’s really working on that, being loose and letting the barrel get to the ball. It’s still early, but as or right now he looks pretty good.”