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Began In '96

Bubba Starling takes the hard road

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By Joe Schackman

Top prospect Bubba Starling never met an athletic challenge he couldn’t overcome. Until now.

For Bubba Starling, hitting a baseball has not come as easily as nearly every other physical challenge he’s faced in life.

Twenty games into his second professional season, the outfielder owns a pretty pedestrian .167/.221/.306 line in Single-A Lexington, with one home run. That wouldn’t be much cause for concern for most 20-year-old prospects. Kids are young. Kids are raw. Kids struggle. And hitting a baseball is really hard.

But this isn’t just your average prospect. This is Bubba Starling. The Bubba Starling who everyone wanted a piece of just a couple years ago. His list a suitors included almost every MLB team, along with some of the best college football programs in the country. Nebraska, Alabama, Notre Dame, all of them wanted Starling, the baseball whiz who also happened to be a top-ranked high school quarterback. Nebraska came the closest; he committed there before the Kansas City Royals lured him away with the fifth overall pick and a $7.5 million bonus.

Now, I’m probably the furthest thing from a baseball scout. I’ve never seen a minor league game, I don’t own a radar gun or stopwatch, and I didn’t even play baseball beyond the eighth grade. But watch highlight videos of Starling playing quarterback, and it’s clear why college football and professional baseball coaches were rushing to his door. The Kansas native possesses natural power, great speed, and and an arm that dazzles. It’s easy to picture that athleticism translating to the diamond.

But when it comes to baseball, athleticism doesn’t always translate quite right. Hitting in particular is more of a refined skill than anything else, marrying balance with split-second reactions with hand-eye coordination and practiced decisionmaking. But overall, there are few instances where classic athleticism — speed and power and leaping ability, for example — are on full display.

An elite defensive center fielder like Michael Bourn makes roughly 300 putouts a year, the majority of which are routine. And that represents just a fraction of the 4,000 or so made by his team each year. So while speed and range make him more valuable, it is only by small degrees. He doesn’t make millions to play a nice center field; he makes millions to play a nice center field and hit. The Royals are paying Starling his millions with that same expectation.

Football, on the other hand, is a different story. Almost every play requires some type of pure athleticism, the kind that Starling certainly has. While there’s no guaranteeing success in such a use ‘em-and-throw ‘em-away sport, there was no question he could have skated further on raw talent in football than in baseball. For some of history’s rarest athletic specimens, that raw talent alone has taken them to the NFL.

Starling chose baseball, though. And the Royals chose Starling in hopes that they could take an exceptional athlete and turn him into a great baseball player. The rest of the league agreed with his promise, ranking him the No. 21 prospect in the MLB’s Top 100 and No. 26 in Baseball America’s rankings in 2012.

Given a year in professional baseball to show off his talent, Starling has instead done the opposite. He’s slid to No. 26 on the MLB Top 100 and No. 35 on Baseball America’s list, and while there’s no single identifiable flaw dragging him down, there are enough negative reports to make a any baseball executive uncomfortable.

"The more I watch Bubba Starling, the more questions I have. Elite athlete, but doubts about swing; seems to pick up the ball late," Baseball Prospectus head of scouting Jason Parks tweeted a few weeks ago.

Grantland writer Rany Jazayerli followed that up with a critical tweet of his own: “Look, I know it’s way too early to write off Bubba completely. I’d just feel a lot better if I found even one scout who’s excited about him.”

It’s still early, but Starling’s early-season numbers have added to the worry that he’ll fail to turn his tools into tangible baseball skills, and — to use a term most are scared to — that he’ll end up a bust.

That’s always been the high risk to go along with the potential stratospheric reward. After all that time away from baseball spent playing other sports, it was the belief that raw talent would overcome a lack of specialization. It was a belief that’s become a reality in every case so far for Starling.

Except when it comes to hitting a baseball. And when you choose to become a professional baseball player, that can be a problem.

Joe Schackman is an editor and co-founder of Began in ‘96.