It isn’t hard, even now, to appreciate what the Royals envision when they preach patience in gauging the progress of outfielder Bubba Starling’s development.
Consider one three-inning stretch last week in an Instructional League game against a collection of Texas prospects in the desert heat on a practice field behind the Royals’ clubhouse at the Surprise Recreation Campus.
Starling, still just 21, pumped an extra-base hit into the gap and sprinted around the bases with the sort of my-gosh speed the Royals haven’t seen in a big man since Willie Wilson.
That speed came into play again when Starling, from center field, snatched away extra bases by running down a ball for a backhand grab in the left-center gap.
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And in his final at-bat, with the Royals trailing by two runs in the ninth inning, Starling sent a drive to deep right that resulted in an out — after bringing players on both benches to their feet to track the ball’s flight.
General manager Dayton Moore, seated in a golf cart outside the chain-link fence beyond the first-base dugout, was among the handful of club officials and scouts who watched it all.
“He’s a tremendous athlete, as we know,” Moore said, “and he’s a gifted center fielder, which is important in our ballpark. And he’s got a chance to hit the ball out of the park. There are not a lot of athletes like that.”
Except those words prompt the inevitable, and oft-heard, comparison/lament whenever the conversation turns to Starling, who got a club-record $7.5 million signing bonus in 2011 to forgo a football career at Nebraska.
It goes like this:
While Starling spent the summer batting .241 at Low Class A Lexington, two other young outfielders — Mike Trout, 22, and Bryce Harper, 20 — followed up breakout rookie seasons by appearing in the All-Star Game.
As a fact, it’s indisputable. Whether it’s relevant is another matter.
“I understand why (those comparisons are made),” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, “but those (other) players, 20 years later, are (Ken) Griffey and A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez). It’s every 20 years you see that.
“So that’s not only unfair to Bubba, it’s unfair to all of the other first-rounders because it’s just not normal.
“Those (other) guys, if they stay healthy, they’re going on to the Hall of Fame. The way they’ve started out, they’re going to be 3,000-hit guys and 500-home run guys if they stay healthy.”
The Royals insisted from the start that Starling would require considerable time for his abundant all-round athletic skills — which, even now, few scouts or analysts question — to become viable baseball tools.
“I think Bubba’s second half (at Lexington) was very good,” Moore said, “and it was his first full season. He’s certainly a better player today than he was last year.”
The second half: Starling batted .269 after the South Atlantic League reset itself at midyear. He boosted that to .311 after Aug. 1 through the end of the season.
Further, his strikeouts dropped, and his walks increased in the second half. His on-base percentage zoomed from .298 to .359; his slugging percentage jumped from .361 to .434.
“He has plus-raw power, even if it hasn’t turned into productive in-game power yet,” Baseball America reported in its postseason ranking of prospects in the South Atlantic League.
“Given the entire picture, scouts and managers are leery of giving up on his still impressive potential.”
The Royals aren’t close to that point.
“Bubba is progressing just fine,” Picollo said. “The defense is there. Very good defense. Base running, he’s very good. Offensively is where he needs to continue to make strides.
“The biggest thing with him is being on time at the plate. Figuring out a way to get his hands and feet where they need to be. His pitch recognition is good. He’ll lay off some good pitches because he sees them right away.”
Picollo points to other encouraging signs.
“We talk about QPAs all of the time,” he said. “Bubba’s QPA, quality plate appearances, in July and August, led the organization. He was 48-50 percent over the last two months of the year.
“Looking at that, we feel he’s ready for the next level. At 45 percent or better, you’re ready to move on.
“It’s all there. He just needs at-bats. I know that’s not popular to say. But that’s what it is. Once he finds an approach that works for him, I think he’s going to take off.”