In the box score, it was a trivial groundout to third in the eighth inning of the Royals’ 6-2 loss in their spring training opener against Texas on Wednesday at Surprise Stadium.
But everything about the at-bat illuminated the evolution of Royals prospect Bubba Starling.
It started with an emerging aura of authority, body language that conveyed comfort, confidence and a sense of mechanics that left Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo practically seeing “the wheels turning” where they once grinded.
Or, as manager Ned Yost put it: “He looks very ‘hitterish’ when he gets in the box.”
It continued with a fluid delivery of the barrel of the bat and a vicious smash to third base.
“I don’t know how that guy caught that ball,” Yost said.
And as tellingly as anything else in a player whose athleticism has never been doubted even amid a ponderous pace to the big leagues, it ended with scant signs of frustration as he ran off the field.
You’re always “happy about solid contact,” Starling said afterward.
But the point is that he wasn’t always.
In his first few minor-league seasons, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2011 draft would have pouted.
“Honestly, I didn’t handle failure very well, whether it was breaking a bat or throwing a helmet after a strikeout,” he said. “Just in little things, I’ve come a long ways.”
All of this might not say so much, of course, if it weren’t in the context of rapid improvement he flashed last season when he hit .386 in Class A Wilmington and .254 with 10 home runs and 32 RBIs at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
That hardly makes him a finished product, obviously.
But combine the strides at the plate with the Royals’ belief that he has long been playing center field at a major-league level (an attribute he flashed Wednesday by zooming down a fly in the right-center gap), and Picollo said it’s “not out of the question” that Starling could contribute to the parent club this September.
“If we needed a defensive guy, there wouldn’t be a hesitation one bit to call him up,” he said. “It’s just an aptitude that he’s blessed with, an understanding that he has.”
This all still reflects a longer gestation period than anticipated when Starling was touted as a potential franchise savior, one whose promise and burden were magnified by the then-sorry state of the Royals and by being from nearby Gardner.
When the Royals swayed him from playing football and baseball at Nebraska with a then-club record $7.5 million signing bonus, general manager Dayton Moore couldn’t contain himself.
“This guy is without a doubt one of the best athletes to play the game of baseball in many years,” he said at the time.
As it happens, riding a wave of homegrown prospects and shrewd trades, the Royals were transformed from perennial punchlines to World Series champions before Starling came of age.
And this ultimately is a fine thing for both the organization and Starling, who, after all, is only 23.
“You always want a sense of urgency; you don’t want players to feel like, ‘Aw, I’ll be there in two years.’ ” Picollo said.
But now the minor-league system can be more about preparation and developing depth.
Because it’s no longer a work-in-progress promising “some day” but, in fact, a championship organization.
“That’s a nice trickledown effect that hopefully makes you stronger as an organization,” he said.
And one that figures to further help Starling shrug away the weight of the world he’d been inclined to embrace — an equilibrium he’s specifically worked toward even as he’s refined his plate presence.
“Athletic ability is only 10 percent, probably, of this game,” Starling said. “If you’re smart upstairs and can handle this game and use that to your ability, it’s going to take you a long ways. I think that’s what I did last year by opening up a little more” to advice and counsel.
Part of the change in him is getting away from what he called “that football mentality” that seemed to leave him squeezing the bat into dust.
Now, he’s what might counterintuitively be called “trying easier.”
“Once I lost that and realized less is more in this game, it helped me out a lot,” said Starling, who also was aided by Lasik surgery in 2013 after realizing blurry vision was becoming a problem. “It’s crazy how it works. I’ll give you an example: swinging (with no balls and two strikes), that’s when I’ve hit (long) home runs. Because I was just nice and easy.”
That’s not the only way Starling has renounced the mindset of football.
The still-tantalizing notion of playing the game, questioning his own decision to go with baseball, had flared as he sputtered in 2013.
But with the encouragement of his parents and others, he fended off that impulse. And any such lingering sentiments apparently are gone now.
Much as he likes watching Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith …
“I don’t miss 6-5, 260-pound dudes running at me; I don’t miss it at all,” he said. “If you asked me that three or four years ago, I did. But not now.
“Definitely going to be a little healthier when I’m 40, 50 years old. It’s crazy the beating they take.”
That’s easier to see now as he’s maturing in baseball.
Now that the Royals see him in a new phase, now that he’s “sort of knocking on the door,” as Picollo put it, they’re pleased enough with his progress at the plate that they’re eager to see him incorporate new elements into his game such as stealing more.
He hasn’t arrived yet, of course, and he may well start the season at Northwest Arkansas instead of Class AAA Omaha.
But he has turned a crucial corner in the last year, all encompassed in one at-bat Wednesday that suggested his deliverance sooner than later.
“I’m anxious,” Yost said, “to see him get a bunch more at-bats.”