If, kind Husker fan, you are spending a lot of time looking at Bubba Starling's minor league baseball statistics, wondering whether, you know, maybe he'll play college football after all, take heed:
You could be at it for a while.
Because unless Starling decides baseball isn't for him, the Kansas City Royals are more than willing to give him every opportunity to develop into the major league player they still see him becoming.
As the summer winds down, Starling's numbers aren't earth-shattering — .237 batting average through Friday, 109 strikeouts in 111 games in low Class A ball.
For those who paid little attention to the minors before Starling turned in his scholarship to play quarterback at Nebraska and instead signed with the Royals for $7.5 million in 2011, those numbers are not cause for panic in Kansas City. They are merely a snapshot in time along a long road through the minor league system for a top-shelf but raw prospect.
“I think he's just getting settled and becoming comfortable in a professional baseball setting and finding out who he is,” said Scott Sharp, Kansas City's director of minor league operations.
Baseball, Sharp adds, “isn't 20 plays every seven days. It's every night for 140 nights.”
OK. It's true that more “can't-miss” prospects actually do miss than the ones who really succeed, but at this point, there's still no telling what Starling, who just turned 21, will become.
The Royals took the slow and cautious approach with the multi-sport star from a small high school just outside Kansas City. He hadn't played baseball full-time, and wasn't exposed much to elite-level high school talent in Kansas.
Florida, Texas or California it wasn't.
He went to instructional league after signing as the fifth overall pick in the draft, and he then stayed in extended spring training last year until being assigned to a short-season team in late June. Some waiting for Starling to fail pointed to his stay in extended training as proof that he was about to flame out, even though many of those same experts may never have heard of extended spring training before Starling played in it.
Starling eventually put together a nice season with Burlington (N.C.) of the Appalachian League, hitting .275 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 53 games, with a solid OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of .856.
But this year's statistics surely signal Starling's demise, right?
Playing for Lexington (Ky.) of the South Atlantic League, Starling is in what is considered his “age 20” season. It is his first “full” pro season. The average age of players in the league is 21.7.
Starling is batting .237 with 10 homers, 57 RBIs, 21 stolen bases and a .713 OPS. (The batting average is bad, but 21 steals, by a 6-foot-4 kid, wow!)
There are plenty of cases where numbers like that are not indicative of a player who will one day star in the major leagues, even if he's a year younger than average in his league. Plenty of players post those kinds of numbers and don't ever do much of anything in the minors.
But if they're evidence of failure, the Royals probably should have given up on their third overall pick in 2008, who hit .241 with six homers and 59 RBIs with a .695 OPS in his first full pro season (at age 19) at two Class A levels in 2009. But they didn't, and you may have noticed Eric Hosmer becoming an All-Star caliber player, homering in both ends of a doubleheader sweep of Detroit on Friday that kept the Royals in playoff contention.
They might have given up on the second overall pick of the 2007 draft after 2009, when at age 20 he hit just .250 with a .718 OPS in high Class A. But they didn't, and now they have a potential star at third base in Mike Moustakas.
And how about the third-round pick who in 2011 hit .254 with just eight homers in 99 games with a .745 OPS? (Granted, this was in Class AA at age 20.) That would be Wil Myers, your odds-on favorite for American League rookie of the year with Tampa Bay.
What did Alex Gordon do in his age 20 season? He hit .365 with 18 homers and 75 RBIs in 59 games — but that was in college at Nebraska. When he was a sophomore. And of course we all know that Gordon washed out anyway when he was sent back to Class AAA Omaha in 2010 at age 26. Well, except for the next three years when he became one of the best players in the American League.
This isn't to say that Starling will ever match those former Royals farmhands.
Most big-league stars dominated at most minor-league levels, if not every one, on their way up. And there's no ignoring what Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Manny Machado and Jose Fernandez have done in the big leagues, with all of them establishing themselves as stars at ages younger than Starling currently is.
But that doesn't mean Starling can't get there.
“Playing other sports and growing up in Kansas, he's got a lot fewer games under his belt,” Sharp said. “He doesn't have the database. He's not used to seeing a certain level of competition. He probably never saw 97 (mph) before he got into pro ball, where a guy in Florida was facing Jose Fernandez.
“But that's why baseball is so great. You get 600 chances (at-bats) a year, plus spring training and instructional league, to build up your pitch recognition and your timing. And Bubba is so talented that he's able to make adjustments easily because of his athleticism and body awareness.”
The Royals also have the aforementioned 7.5 million reasons to want Starling to succeed, to have the patience for the physical ability and potential to eventually show on the field.
They will do everything in their power to get a return on their investment. Otherwise, someone will have some explaining to do.
And a $7.5 million bonus allows you to have more .237 seasons than a $1,000 bonus would.
Starling, by the way, has hit .359 in August. He had Lasik eye surgery in mid-May. Since then his walk rate has gone up, and his strikeout rate has gone down.
Sharp says a prospect has to accumulate 1,500 career at-bats before you can really judge him. Starling has 585.
“As a high-school sign, he's made up a lot of ground in the South Atlantic League,” Sharp said. “That's not an easy league.”
For clarification, Starling's signing bonus of $7.5 million was spread over three years, which is allowed by baseball when a prospect demonstrates he is capable of earning a scholarship in another sport.
Starling didn't sign a three-year contract. He signed a minor-league contract. Minor-league contracts are for 6 ½ years, unless the team decides to release the player (which isn't happening), or if the player retires (and decides to play, say, football).
If you think the Royals might give up, maybe check back in the offseason between the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Not until then are they required to put Starling on the organization's 40-man roster to protect him from being taken by another team in the Rule 5 draft.
Once Starling goes on the 40-man roster, the Royals can still keep him in the minor leagues for three more seasons — two seasons more than his original minor-league deal — by simply optioning him to a minor league club.
The bottom line is, Harper, Trout, Machado and Fernandez are exceptions. Practically every major leaguer spends an extended time in the minor leagues, particularly when he turns pro after high school. The road may be, and usually is, jagged, but the key, Sharp said, is to keep it trending upward.
Maybe the Royals could have moved Starling faster and he would have done just fine, playing last year in Lexington instead of this year. But anyone who thought Starling should be in Class AAA by now doesn't get how the minor leagues work.
The trend line is still going up.
He's on track to reach Omaha, assuming the standard one-level-per-season advancement, in 2016. He'd play most of that season at age 23. Maybe he repeats a level or stays at a level for an extra half season and gets to Omaha at age 24. Plenty of exciting prospects get to Class AAA when they are older than that. Players typically peak at age 27 — check Alex Gordon.
In the meantime, relax.
“Twenty years ago, maybe even 15 years ago, there'd be a copy of Baseball America in the clubhouse and you'd read everyone's minor-league stats,” Sharp said. “They were already a month old — and that was cutting edge then. No one really knew how anyone was doing, and after a few years guys would be in the major leagues — but you never knew what they went through on the way up unless you dug into it.
“Now everything is so overblown because these guys are followed nightly. It's like day-trading. They're the greatest thing ever one day and the worst thing ever the next. It's such an emotional rollercoaster for fans. But the game is based on time, endurance and longevity.”
The Royals are willing to wait.