He was drafted nearly 15 months ago and has played a total of 53 official rookie-league games.
But Bubba Starling’s development as a baseball player is right where the Kansas City Royals would like it to be.
“I’d probably say he’s ahead of schedule,” said Scott Sharp, Kansas City’s minor league director. “He exceeded expectations.”
Starling, the former Nebraska quarterback recruit who turned down the Huskers after being drafted by the Royals and signing for $7.5 million, just finished his first season as a professional.
Playing for the Burlington (N.C.) Royals of the Appalachian League, he hit a respectable .275 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs. In six playoff games, he hit .304 with three more homers and another six RBIs.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound outfielder missed time early in the season with a hamstring injury and sat out 13 games in all.
Still, he tied for fourth in the league in homers and was 11th during the regular season with both a .371 on-base percentage and a .485 slugging percentage, giving him an OPS of .856 that ranked sixth. He struck out 70 times, the sixth-highest total in the league.
He did all that while turning 20 just over a month ago, putting him slightly below the average age of players in the league.
“He played in a tough league for players in their first year of professional baseball,” Sharp said. “If you look at the history of what high school players have done in the Appalachian League their first year out, it’s usually pretty ordinary. He performed well above ordinary.
“He did what a lot of really good major leaguers did in this league at his age, and more than some.”
For comparison, Braves rookie shortstop Andrelton Simmons played in the Appy League at age 20 two seasons ago and hit .276 with a .695 OPS. His OPS numbers (the sum of a player’s on-base percentage and slugging average) increased each of the next two seasons, and he skipped both low Class A and Class AAA to get to the majors.
Twins shortstop Brian Dozier played 53 games in the Appy League as a 22-year-old in 2009, compiling an .848 OPS — and that was after completing his collegiate playing career.
The Pirates’ Travis Snider, an advanced hitter as an 18-year-old in 2006, hit .325 with 11 homers, 41 RBIs and a .979 OPS in the Appy League. But Desmond Jennings, Tampa Bay’s left fielder, was more similar to Starling at age 19 in 2006, hitting .277 with a .749 OPS.
Like top prospects before him in the Appy League, the pitchers all knew who Starling was. It didn’t always matter.
“He hit a home run one night (in the playoffs) against a guy (Johnson City’s Samuel Tuivailala) throwing 96,” Sharp said. “He turned it around pretty well in a big game.”
Kansas City’s front office personnel rave about Starling’s desire to be in the middle of things when the game is on the line and his ability to make clutch plays. Starling, who did not respond to interview requests for this story, also continues to draw praise for his tireless work ethic and his team-first personality.
“He’s got power and the bat speed,” Burlington hitting coach Justin Gemoll recently told the Burlington Times-News. “He has been asking a lot of questions, that’s for sure. He’s paying attention.”
And he’s more than just a slugger. His defensive ability in center field excites Kansas City, too.
“He made a play in center field that I don’t know if anybody else in the world would have made,” Sharp said, referring to the same playoff game. “A hard line drive to the gap in left center, and he took a completely flat route to the ball.
“No one would take that route, because they should just turn to go play the ball off the wall. The only person who thought Bubba would catch that was Bubba.”
Kansas City is encouraged that Starling is succeeding while still learning the game at a higher level than he’d played in high school, a process being accelerated since he is no longer starring in both football and basketball as well.
“This is his first full go-around with baseball all the time, and we have to remember that,” Burlington manager Tommy Shields told the Burlington Times-News. “But we can see what he has done and we like what we’ve seen.”
The Royals were cautious with Starling, who was drafted in June 2011, but didn’t sign for two months. He went to the instructional league last fall.
After spring training, he stayed in extended spring training — where many young players often gain additional seasoning while playing games from which the statistics aren’t publicized. The low-pressure extended season, which includes hours of on-field instruction, lasts until mid-June, when rookie leagues begin their seasons.
“I think that was tremendous for him, as well as for a number of other high school guys that were there with him,” Sharp said.
Starling finally made his official professional debut on June 28, more than a year after being drafted.
He helped Burlington make the Appy League championship series, where the Royals took a 6-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth inning of the deciding game but wound up losing 10-6 in 12.
For now, there isn’t much time to rest. Starling is scheduled to head back to the Royals’ complex in Arizona for the instructional league from Sept. 17 through Oct. 19.
Starling should play for a full-season club in 2013, with his likely first stop with Kane County (Ill.) of the low Class A Midwest League.
“That’s the natural progression,” Sharp said. “There’s a lot in between that could happen, but there’s been nothing to indicate any reason for him to be at any level below that.”
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