Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: After nearly quitting baseball, Starling closer than ever to majors

Past midnight, still in full uniform, Bubba Starling sat in the batting cages, clutching his cell phone and texting his parents that he wanted to give it all up. No more baseball.

His parents kept asking him to call, but he kept tapping out responses on the screen. He couldn’t take it. The failure. The pressure. Forget it. Maybe he’d play football. Maybe he’d do something else. But this? This wasn’t working. Finally, he called.

A mother can tell so much just by hearing her son’s voice.

“He was pretty much at rock bottom,” Deb Starling said.

That was in April. Bubba Starling is today, if this keeps up, in the middle of one of the most interesting and in some ways surprising seasons of any of the thousands of men in minor-league baseball. He is here with the Omaha Storm Chasers, the Royals’ Class AAA affiliate, playing the best baseball of his career immediately after playing the worst baseball of his life.

He is closer to a big league call-up than ever before, immediately after feeling like he wanted to quit.

Starling signed for a Royals-record $7.5 million as something of a folk tale out of Gardner Edgerton High School. Back then, his talent was tantalizing. He signed a football scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska, and major college basketball coaches wanted him on their teams, too.

He hit 500-foot home runs, ran over linebackers, dunked over power forwards, and caught fish in his spare time. In the 2011 draft, the Royals actually targeted pitcher Dylan Bundy with the fifth overall pick. When he was gone, a Royals official called Starling the most important draft selection the franchise would make in years.

On May 7, through 26 games of his sixth full professional season, Starling was hitting .133 with a .209 on-base and .205 slugging percentage, this after five largely disappointing seasons. He was miserable, on the field and off. He turns 25 in August, no longer young in the world of baseball prospects, already older than seven men who’ve played for the Royals this season.

But since May 7, a span of 35 games, he is hitting .333 with a .367 on-base and .508 slugging percentage. Starling is as close as he has been to a major-league call-up. The worst baseball of his life, immediately followed by the best.

Mostly, Starling has pointed to a changed batting stance to explain the success, and the timing lines up. Hitting coach Tommy Gregg asked him to stand more upright, and hold his bat lower and further back — not unlike Cleveland Indians star Jason Kipnis.

The run of success started the very first game he tried it, so it’s tempting to believe, and we’ll get to that part of the story too.

But Starling also knows it didn’t matter how he stood, or where he put his hands, when he was wrecked mentally to the point of wondering if he should quit.

“I know where I want to be, and that’s playing baseball,” he said. “But at that time, when you’re struggling so much, it’s like, ‘Man, should I even be out here?’ You just have doubts.”

Bubba Starling is freakishly athletic, even by the standards of professional sports. Baseball may have been his third best sport. He stands 6 feet 4 and 210 pounds, and has the best arm of anyone on the field in almost every game he plays. If not for teammates Terrance Gore and Raul Mondesi, he might be the fastest, too.

One baseball personnel man said Starling is already a better defensive center fielder than Lorenzo Cain. Another, told of that evaluation, said, “It’s close. Bubba has better tools. Much better.”

But for all of Starling’s gifts, his personality is often a bad fit for baseball’s unrelenting grind.

“Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself,” he said.

That can be compounded by his physical talents. He’s a pleaser, and knows what’s expected of a bonus baby drafted to his hometown team. The next 15 players taken after him in the 2011 have made the big leagues, including stars Francisco Lindor, Anthony Rendon and George Springer.

That was never to be Starling’s path, not this quick, anyway. He was a part-time baseball player entering a world where he competed against others who’d dedicated their entire lives to the sport.

The Royals saw him as exceptionally talented, but also raw enough that a big-league career was far from a certainty. When they drafted him, one club official expressed belief in Starling’s future, but added, “you might see him struggle for a while but when he gets it, it could happen quick.”

Sports have always come so dang easy to Starling, so this was something new, and he was nearly six full years into that struggle when he called his parents that night from the batting cages.

We all have our struggles, and our down moments, but Deb and Jimbo Starling could tell this was different. At first, they told their son to call George Brett or Mike Sweeney.

“I’ve talked to them,” Deb remembered Bubba saying. “I’ve tried that already.”

Deb thinks Bubba got some of that personality from his parents. They were hard on him growing up, Deb more than anyone. They expected a lot, and most times got it. They’re proud of their son, for a million reasons that have nothing to do with baseball, but this was as big a challenge as they could remember.

“You’re being tested,” Deb remembered telling him. “I don’t know why, but you’re just being tested. Things aren’t easy. I don’t know why that is. You need to reflect on all of that and figure it out.”

Deb doesn’t think Bubba was really going to quit. Bubba doesn’t, either. He needed some positivity in his life at that moment, and his parents were there. But that’s all easier to say now, because Bubba is crushing his way through the Pacific Coast League.

This is real, too. Or at least as real as it could be. The Royals have not had substantive talks about calling him up, but they know he would help them defensively, is immensely talented, already on the 40-man roster, and playing well.

Brian Poldberg, Omaha’s manager, said that if his bosses asked his recommendation he’d tell them to give it a shot. His answer would’ve been fundamentally different five weeks ago.

“You have to put him there to find out,” Poldberg said. “If something happens, he’s as ready right now as he’s ever been.”

At least some of that is a new approach at the plate. Gregg’s mechanical fix had some real baseball reasons behind it. He thought the old stance had Starling too tense, his hands needing to do too much before the swing, his timing often slow and forcing him to commit to pitches too early.

This is simplified, Starling with an extra fraction to decide, which means he’s spitting on pitches he used to swing and miss. That makes an incredible difference. He used to be an automatic out with two strikes. Now, he’s battling. Teams used to shift on him, knowing everything was going to left field. Now, he’s hitting line drives the other way.

It’s a confluence of at least three factors. The new stance freed his hands, the talk with his parents freed his mind, and something he heard from a Royals official gave him an extra boost. It came from J.J. Picollo, assistant general manager, with whom Starling has grown close.

Picollo was direct, and accurate. He told Starling to quit caring about what other people think. Quit trying to impress people. Just do what you’re capable of doing.

“I was like, ‘Shoot, yeah, why am I trying to impress all these people?’” Starling said. “I feel really, really comfortable now. I have some great guys around me who’ve helped a lot, too. I just want to keep going up and up. Yeah, I feel great right now.”

Nobody can know how this story will turn out. Starling is working on six weeks of hitting like a future star, and maybe that’s all this is. Six weeks in six years.

But the timeline does line up with what the Royals suspected when they drafted him — years of struggles, but if this is now him “getting it,” this could be his career progressing quickly.

“I hear people say that,” Starling said. “And I mean, yeah, it’s success because I haven’t done a lot in the minor leagues so far. But I think I’m capable of doing a little bit more than that.”

There’s that personality again. The pressure he puts on himself. That’s good, to a point. Nobody succeeds in professional baseball without having high expectations. But nobody succeeds in professional baseball by focusing on the negative, either.

Starling thinks he’s getting better at that balance. The people around him do, too. Coaches, Royals officials, his parents, friends.

“He just needed to let the mental take its toll and focus on the positive,” said Cam Gallagher, Omaha’s catcher and Starling’s roommate.

The progression of baseball prospects is impossible to predict, but step back for a moment, and it looks and sounds like a young man growing into a big-leaguer. He was always going to need time, not just because of his relative inexperience when he was drafted, but also because of how hard he can be on himself.

One thing that’s always encouraged the Royals is how he is with his coaches and teammates. He is humble, supportive, and never misses a chance to work. At home and in the dugout before plate appearances, he mimes a drill Gregg taught him to sync his legs and arms.

He is easy to believe in, then, despite the results of the last five years. With prospects, nothing matters as much as the moment, and in this moment Starling is as high as he’s ever been.

This is now an emerging success story that nobody would have guessed even a month ago. The man with so many physical gifts, but an internal dialogue that often worked against him, is at the moment standing on the other side.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m excited. We finally came to a point where something’s working for me. It’s comfortable.”

If and when that call-up comes, Starling will face an entirely new and bigger challenge. The grind and expectations in the big leagues dwarf those in the minors. His coaches think his major-league career could play out like a quicker version of his minor-league one — struggles in the beginning, then success later and quickly. Who knows? They’re all excited to find out.

It’s a conversation they did not imagine having a short time ago, not when Starling was thinking of giving it all up, no way of knowing how much he would soon have.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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