Fading Starling

Bubba Starling signing and press conference

It is fairly safe to say that there is no greater crap-shoot in sports than the Major League Baseball Draft. Unlike the other main sports, determining whether a high school or college baseball player will be able to make all the transitions from level to level isn’t as easy as how fast they run or how hard they throw. Guys who look like total locks end up being average players at best and some don’t even make it to the big leagues. With that in mind, former Royals first round pick Bubba Starling has gone from bona-fide prospect to giant question mark, all in just a few years.

KANSAS CITY ROYALS 2012 SPRING TRAINING

Starling was the first round draft pick of the Kansas City Royals(5th overall selection) in the 2011 Major League Baseball Draft. Starling graduated from Gardner-Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just a shake and a wiggle away from Kansas City. He had been widely considered as one of the most athletic players in the draft and him being in the Royals backyard rated him higher within the Royals organization. Some believed the Royals felt burned when Albert Pujols played nearby at Maple Woods Community College and was passed over. To be fair, so did pretty much every other team, as Pujols wasn’t drafted until the 13th round of the 1999 Amateur Draft. So the Royals didn’t want to let Bubba get away, especially with the story that could be told when he reached the majors. The thought was ‘Local Boy Becomes Star Outfielder for Royals’ seemed like a great story that could be profited from. After a long back and forth for Starling(as he decided between signing with Kansas City or playing football at Nebraska) , he signed with the Royals to a contract with a $7.5 million signing bonus. Now it was time to play ball.

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Bubba would begin his pro career in 2012 at the age of 19. That year Baseball Prospectus would rank Starling as the 27th best prospect in baseball, a huge honor to a kid just beginning his career. Unfortunately 2012 didn’t turn out the way most hoped, and by 2013 he fell to the 49th best prospect in baseball. This year Baseball Prospectus didn’t even rank him. It is still early in his career, but questions are already being asked. He struck out more than 25% of his at bats in 2013 and there is concern about his inability to read breaking pitches. There is a hitch in his swing which could be affecting this. He does seem to be improving his walk ratio, which is good considering his high strikeout rate. His numbers haven’t been glowing either early on this season:

Year              Age    AgeDif         Tm   Lg Lev Aff   G  PA  AB  R   H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB  SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS  TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
2012               19      -1.2 Burlington APPY  Rk KCR  53 232 200 35  55  8  2 10  33 10  1 28  70 .275 .371 .485 .856  97   2   3  0  1   2
2013               20      -1.6  Lexington SALL   A KCR 125 498 435 51 105 21  4 13  63 22  3 53 128 .241 .329 .398 .727 173   8   6  0  4   1
2014               21      -2.0 Wilmington CARL  A+ KCR  17  74  60  8   8  4  0  1   6  1  0  9  24 .133 .284 .250 .534  15   0   4  0  1   0
3 Seasons   3 Seasons 3 Seasons               3 Seasons 195 804 695 94 168 33  6 24 102 33  4 90 222 .242 .337 .410 .747 285  10  13  0  6   3
But there is more. Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus had this to say just the other day about Starling:

https://twitter.com/ProfessorParks/status/458655355166531584

The picture that has been drawn is one of a prospect who has amazing raw skills(power, speed, agility) but hasn’t seemed to start putting them together yet. Royals GM Dayton Moore isn’t too worried, and in a lot of ways he is right. Starling will be 22 in August, so one breakout season this year or next could elevate him in most people’s eyes. Speaking of eyes, Bubba got the famous LASIK surgery almost a year ago, as the feeling was maybe his eyes were part of the problem. So far that doesn’t seem the case, but Eric Hosmer also got that surgery and he didn’t start reaping the benefits until the following season of said surgery.

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So where does this leave Starling and his future with the Royals? As of now they seem content with him taking the slow climb up the minor league ladder. It’s conceivable that if he starts to take off this year he could be advanced to AA Northwest Arkansas. But that seems to be a big ‘if’ considering how Bubba has produced so far in the minors. As much as the Royals and the Kansas City community are rooting for Starling to live up to the hype, it’s possible he won’t reach expectations. It’s unfortunate, considering he would be the second top ten draft pick during the Dayton Moore era to not be a regular for the Royals(Christian Colon would be the other). Luckily for him, this book has many chapters left in it. At this point though, it looks like instead of his abilities being more in line with Amos Otis, Starling might be closer to Mitch Maier. It goes to show you that there are no guarantees when it comes to the MLB Player Draft. Crap-shoot, indeed.

 


		
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The Battle Between Heart & Mind Rages On

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I started this evening pondering why the Kansas City Royals offense has been so punchless the last few years and why nothing seems to change. New batting stances, a new spot in the lineup, a new approach; it just always seems like nothing really does the trick for these guys. As I was writing all of this out on the Twitter, the Royals offense exploded for eight runs off the Cleveland Indians. Yes, the superstitious part of me wanted to say it was because they wanted to prove me wrong. But the truth was they were facing a pitcher with great stuff but lots of issues in Danny Salazar. Let’s just call him Cleveland’s Hiram Davies. But while watching the Royals offense show what they are capable of, I realized something. It’s the battle that every fan encounters from time to time. I was letting my heart run the show instead of my brain.

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For example, two of my favorite Royals are Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar. I’m a sucker for the above average defender, and for the most part these two fit the bill. But both struggled mightily(at least offensively) in 2013 and there was no guarantee they would bounce back this year. I kept saying I thought there was a good chance they would, or at least be better than they were last year. I know, neither could have been much worse. But I was saying that just as much because I wanted it to be true as much as I really thought it would happen. Both got off to horrendous starts(they were the last two Royals regulars to get hits this year)and it was hard not to think that we were going to see a repeat of 2013. But then Esky got a hit, and he hasn’t stopped hitting since. Moose would be the last to get a hit, and despite him still hitting .138(and holding an OPS of .531), I held out hope. Part of it was his approach at the plate; Moose already has six walks on the year and has looked way more patient than I can ever remember him. But the other part was my heart wanting him to improve and be a vital cog in the Royals machine. I’ve been rewarded this week with home runs in three straight games for the man we call Moose. Obviously when it comes to some players, your heart as a fan wins out over what your brain tells you to feel.

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But there are times the brain wins out. Take for instance Billy Butler. I’ve been accused of being part of the Billy Butler fan club lately because I tend to stick up for him. To be honest, there are probably five to six Royals that I enjoy watching more than Billy, so he isn’t a top favorite of mine. But Billy has done one thing in the eight years he has been in Kansas City blue: hit. Butler has only had one season where his OPS+ was below 100 and has been the model of consistency for those Royals teams. So when Butler struggled a bit last year, I didn’t worry. When he struggled to start this year, you worry a bit, but your brain keeps telling you “he has always hit. He will hit again.” Your mind tells you to go with the pattern and know that the percentages say he will continue to hit, especially since he is still only 28. Consistency wins out almost every time. There are exceptions to that rule (like regression), but for the most part you should side with the consistent pattern. That is why I will side with Billy, until he proves otherwise.

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Speaking of regression, that is the third part of this tale. Your heart will sometime lead you astray, and so will regression. The thing is regressing happens to every ballplayer whether they like it or not. That 96 MPH fastball you used to be able to catch up to? First you continually foul it off, then gradually it just blows past you. For a pitcher, you once were able to hit 96 on the radar; then you are only hitting the low 90’s. The thing with regression is you can see a player slowly aging, but still assume he can do the things he used to be able to do. Look at Albert Pujols. Pujols is 34 now. Injuries have slowed him down considerably to where he has gone from the best player in baseball three years ago to just a very good player. The thing is, despite his numbers declining, he can still be an elite player. Pujols is still capable(if healthy) of 20-30 homers, 100 RBI’s and a .300 average. Not bad, huh? What most expect from him is his old numbers: 40 homers, 120+ RBI’s and a .340 average. It really puts into perspective just how great of a player Pujols was when he could still put up top notch numbers but because it is so far below his old standard, he looks like a shell of his former self. This is what regression does. It takes longer for your mind to realize that time has taken it’s toll and your expectations should be lower than what the player was capable of in his 20’s.

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So which should you listen to more, your heart or your brain? Honestly, a little of both. Your mind will follow logic and allow you to separate the reality from wants and needs. But your heart…your heart gives you optimism and is more likely to believe in the unbelievable. Your heart will give you hope that otherwise might have been taken out to pasture years ago. Is it sometimes misguided? Obviously. But it also helps you get through a long season and see the good even within losses. Sometimes those of us that follow baseball so religiously forget that being a fan is equal parts optimism and evaluation. Sure, the snark will still be there at times and even hostility toward mistakes. But sometimes following your heart makes the game that we love that much more satisfying when something unbelievable happens. That’s why I still listen to my heart, even if my mind knows better. I want to believe.

Just One Fix: Helping the Ailing Royals Offense

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We are through eleven games so far into the 2014 campaign and to say the Kansas City Royals offense isn’t clicking is a major understatement. It’s been awful. Disgusting. Weak. Punchless. Craptastic. Describe it any way you want, they are simply not getting the job done. The good thing? We are only eleven games in. Seriously. I get that as Royals fans we are programmed to expect the worst, but the reaction of the fanbase this weekend was frightening. The season is over already? Eleven games, people. Chill out.

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I heard a lot of ideas that fans had yesterday to fix this club. Fire Yost/Moore/Grifol? Sorry, it’s none of these guys’ fault. For once, the blame doesn’t fall on their shoulders. Trade Butler/Moustakas? To who? For what? Their value has never been lower, but they should trade them? The Royals wouldn’t get anything of value in return for them, so that is a pointless argument. Bring back Brett? I love George Brett, but he isn’t coming back and he shouldn’t. He isn’t what elevated this team last year; Grifol is the one who worked on Hosmer’s mechanics, not George. George was just there for motivation, which he was fine at, but he was the hitting coach in name only. To be honest, why would the Royals bring Brett back? Is that the answer every time this team struggles offensively? When I answered that question in my head, I kept coming back to the same thing: no more hand-holding. No more coddling. The younger core of this group has been in the majors now for over three years. They need to either produce or lose playing time. With that in mind, it got me to thinking of what the Royals should do. Now, I’m not totally sure I have the answer to this; hell, maybe I’m not even close. But if I was in charge, or even just asked my opinion, this is what I would do.

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First thing I would do is shuffle the lineup. Move Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler from 3rd and 4th to 6th and 7th in the order respectively. I would then bump Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez from 5th and 6th up to 3rd and 4th. Gordon and Perez are at least having good at bats, with Perez getting off to one of the few good Royals starts to the season. I would then move Lorenzo Cain up from 8th to 5th in the order(nice call, Dalton!). Cain is also getting some key at bats, so he should be rewarded for it. With all these moves, it would move Mike Moustakas down from 7th to 8th in the order. Here is the thing though; I actually think Moose had some of the best at bats of the Minnesota series.

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Did I just say that the guy hitting .111 had some of the best AB’s in that series? Yes, yes I did. Moose had 2 hits in Friday’s game and a hit in yesterday’s contest. Moustakas was also able to accumulate a walk in games 2 and 3 of the Minnesota series. Mike actually looks like he has a game plan when he steps up to the plate(unlike Hosmer and Butler) and is still taking quite a bit of pitches compared to the rest of the team. We even saw him drive the ball throughout the three games, so there is reason to believe that he is just a tick off and about go on a bit of a hitting streak. I know Moose is struggling and not hitting even close to how he was in Arizona this spring, but he doesn’t look lost like others do. I know it’s frustrating, but I’m willing to be a bit more patient with Moustakas, at least for awhile.

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With all that lineup shuffling, I also think it wouldn’t hurt to have a few of the hitters struggling to sit out a game or two. Nothing major, just take a day off, no pressure and sit with hitting coach Pedro Grifol and go over a few things. Sometimes it just takes a different perspective to get your head on straight. Maybe let Justin Maxwell play a few games at DH while Danny Valencia gets some reps in at 1B or 3B. I know Ned Yost thinks it’s better to be in the lineup everyday to get out of a slump, but at this point it is just hurting the team. It won’t hurt for guys like Butler or Hosmer to sit out a game or two. In fact, Yost has a habit of not getting his bench players much playing time. Who already forgot Brett Hayes is on the roster? It looks like there has already been some work being done, as Grifol talked to Butler about moving off of the plate and stand in his normal spot in the batter’s box. It’s good to hear that a veteran like Butler is open to trying something, anything, to help his situation. A game or two talking baseball with Grifol might just be the thing for a few of these hitters.

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So it isn’t much, but that is what I would do to try and get the Royals offense going. Honestly, I don’t think a drastic event needs to happen for the hitters to come alive. They mainly just need to go out there, relax and try to keep it as simple as possible. This Royals offense has been living off of potential for years now; it’s time for them to either prove their worth or the team will have to consider Plan B. The Royals aren’t in a position where they can completely dismantle this team in the middle of the season, but something would have to be done if the offense continues to sputter along. The main thing is the blame needs to start falling on the players, not everyone else. 2014 could be the season we find out who really belongs and who needs to move on. But remember, we are only eleven games in; there is still lots of time to turn this thing around. Patience will be our greatest weapon.

All Righty Then

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Back in 2009, we witnessed one of the best pitching seasons (if not the best) in Royals history. That year, Zack Greinke showed everyone just how talented he really was, winning the American League Cy Young award and posting numbers that are few and far between. Since then, the Royals have done a poor job of producing homegrown starting pitching, with Danny Duffy being the most successful (and he is now in the bullpen). So it should come to no one’s surprise that Royals fans are elated about the prospects of young flamethrower Yordano Ventura.

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Ventura combines an electric fastball that reaches triple digits with an improving curve and a change-up. Anyone who has followed baseball for awhile realizes that just because you can throw hard doesn’t guarantee success but if you learn how to pitch (not throw), you have a chance for a long career. Ventura is good enough that there is already talk that when James Shields leaves after the season for free agency that Ventura will slide in and take over the role of ‘Ace’. Yes, it is ironic that he could be slotted in that role when he has already been given the nickname, as an ode to the classic Jim Carrey movie. So how does a 22 year old rookie get anointed savior of the Royals starting rotation with only four major league starts under his belt? It’s not just the blazing fastball or the cool nickname. No, it’s the ability to pitch to his strengths.

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In Spring Training, Ventura had outings where his curve was at its knee-buckling best. So he used it more than he normally would. This past week, during his first start of the 2014 campaign, Ventura didn’t have a good feel on his curve. So instead of continuing to try something that wasn’t working, he used his change-up more and made the Rays look completely lost at the plate. Ventura is already picking up the nuances of pitching that many guys don’t learn until their late 20’s. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why so many are predicting such a high ceiling for him. But there are concerns.

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Ventura is very small, especially for a guy who throws as hard as he does. In the past, many pitchers who throw that hard with such a small frame end up hurting their arms and shortening their careers. There are exceptions, as future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez easily comes to mind. There is also worry about pushing him too hard, too soon. Last season Ventura pitched the most innings of his career, a combined 150 innings between the minors and majors. The Royals have said they won’t put an innings limit on him, but don’t be surprised if he is sometimes taken out of games in the 6th inning, if anything to save his arm for later in the year. These things are concerns, but not anything that can’t be overcome.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals

As long as the Royals and Ventura are smart, the team has a chance of producing a pitching talent to rival classic Royals like Greinke, Bret Saberhagen, Kevin Appier and Steve Busby. That is pretty nice company for a 22 year old ‘kid’. At this point, the sky’s the limit for ‘Ace’ Ventura.

What is Working(and Not Working) for the 2014 Royals

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Well, it’s been eight games now. The Royals are 4-4. We’ve seen some good baseball so far. We’ve seen some bad baseball. Some things are working, some are not. Let’s go ahead and take a look at what we can take away from the first week of the 2014 season. First, let’s look at what is working:

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Patience  at the Plate

Over the years, it has driven me nuts that the Royals are just not a team who accumulates a lot of walks. This really isn’t anything new; this has been going on since the 90’s. Outside of Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, this team has been one that doesn’t take a lot of pitches and is always at the bottom of the league in bases on balls. But so far this year, we are seeing a different team. A team that has been seeing more pitches and taking more walks. Even a guy like Mike Moustakas, who didn’t get his first hit until last night, has shown a great amount of patience and has been able to take a few bases so far this year. This is a major improvement for this team and I really hope the patience is here to stay and isn’t fleeting. They are currently tied for 8th in the league in walks, which is way above where they have been in the past. In fact, they are currently way ahead of Detroit, who sits at the bottom of the league. If they can get some extra-base hits(more on that later), this team can make a big improvement on their ability to score runs from last year.

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The Starting Pitching is Still Great

I’ve been saying for awhile that the likelihood that the Royals would be able to put up the numbers the starting pitching had last year would be very small. Percentages say that it was just not realistic for that to happen, not with Ervin Santana gone and Bruce Chen and his clone(Jason Vargas) in the rotation. But so far, they are trying to prove me wrong. The Royals starting pitching is third in walks allowed, third in opponents batting average and second in WHIP. Jason Vargas has been the biggest surprise, as he has gone out there in two starts and has only given up two runs in 15 innings while compiling a 1.20 ERA and a WHIP of 0.73. Opponents are hitting a paltry .167 against Vargas. If he keeps this up(and I still believe he will be more in the middle and closer to his career stats this year), he will make Dayton Moore look like a genius for signing him. The rest of the rotation has been stellar, whether it be James Shields being, well, James Shields or Jeremy Guthrie continuing his magic tricks. Add in rookie Yordano Ventura, who made his season debut last night and made the Rays look awful(PLEASE, go check out these Gifs. They are worth it!), and you have a group of guys that might be able to challenge last year’s numbers. I hope it keeps up, as so far they have pitched above and beyond my expectations.

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Defensive Gold

This is no big surprise: the Royals defense is amazing. Anyone who has watched this team the last couple of years realize why they had 3 Gold Glove winners last year. It hasn’t slowed down, and might have gotten a bit better with the additions of Nor Aoki in right and Omar Infante at 2B. I don’t really see this changing and should continue throughout the year. The defense is working, oh yes, it is.

Now, onto the things that aren’t working:

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Royals Offense: MIA

This has probably been the biggest issue early on in the season for Kansas City. The Royals have struggled the last few years offensively, but the thought was with the additions of Aoki and Infante to the top of the lineup(and Alex Gordon moving down into the middle of the order)the Royals would see their offense flourish. So far, that has not happened. Sure, Aoki and Infante have hit, and so has Salvador Perez. Everyone else? Not so much. As a team, the Royals are 13th in runs scored, 14th in doubles, last in home runs, 13th in RBI, last in Slugging Percentage and next to last in OPS. Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon haven’t been horrible, but they haven’t been great. Billy Butler is struggling and Mike Moustakas, who tore it up this spring, just got his first hit of the year yesterday(in game 7!). I mentioned earlier that the team was doing a good job of taking some bases on balls, and it’s a good thing because they aren’t doing much else. I’ve had to remind myself numerous times so far that it is just eight games and is a very small sample size. But with the struggles the offense has had(especially scoring runs) the last few years, you hope this isn’t a regular thing and that the team can produce offensively the way management keeps thinking they should.

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Bullpen in Shambles 

I’ve been saying the last few years that bullpens have a very small shelf life. Normally, if a team can keep a solid group of guys together for 2-3 years then they are doing a good job. The Royals bullpen has been one of the best in baseball the last few years, and with their performance so far this year they might be drawing very close to a major shakeup. Tim Collins and Francisley Bueno have been roughed up, Greg Holland has looked human, and Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have already had minor blips. What was once the most reliable thing on the team has become a big question mark. Louis Coleman has returned while Collins and Bueno have ended up on the disabled list for the time being. This is still a very solid group and will probably continue to put up solid numbers. But the days of them being locked down might be over. If there isn’t a shakeup this season, there very well could be in the offseason. Luckily for Kansas City, relievers are easy to accumulate and acquire.

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Seven Relievers and No Backup Infielder?   

One of the biggest deciding factors on whether or not a team makes it deep into the postseason is roster structure. If you are lacking in any area to compensate for another, there is a good chance you won’t even make it into the playoffs. With that said, it has been downright maddening to know that Royals management would rather carry seven relievers than ditch one and add a backup infielder to the roster. Pedro Ciriaco started the year on the team but was quickly jettisoned to Omaha to add to their collection of infielders. Christian Colon and Johnny Giavotella have seen regular time in AAA, as has journeyman Jason Donald. You would think with the amount of time both Alcides Escobar and Omar Infante missed this spring that it would be wise to keep an extra around in case one gets hurt. Hell, you might keep one around just because you might be tempting fate if you don’t. The Royals tempted, and what happened? Omar Infante was hit in the face the other night and had to be replaced by Danny Valencia. Yes, the Danny Valencia that had never played second base before Spring Training. The Danny Valencia who is a corner infielder and doesn’t play in the middle of the diamond. So in other words, he was out of place on Tuesday night when a ball was hit near him in the ninth inning that got past him and helped win the game for Tampa Bay. I’m not throwing this at Valencia’s feet; it wasn’t his fault. He just went out and did what was asked of him. But it makes no sense to not have a backup infielder on the team. They finally called one up for Wednesday’s game, as Giavotella made it to Kansas City and got a hit and a sac fly. This might seem like a minor thing, but it’s the difference between a contender and a pretender. For a team like Kansas City, there is no room for mental mistakes by management.

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So there it is, a breakdown of the first eight games and what the Kansas City Royals are doing right and what needs improvement. Look, it’s only been eight games so far; there is a lot of baseball yet to be played. I’m not too worried yet, but check back again with me in May. This team still has the potential and could be very special. As long as they continue to improve and don’t press too hard, we very well could be in a pennant chase this year. If not, we have this:

 

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Ahhh, it’s already warming my heart!

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