Friday, October 14, 2011

Bubba Starling And The Importance Of Age.

I’ll get back to looking at starting pitchers soon, but first I wanted to point out a pair of articles I wrote for Baseball Prospectus, which are free and open to the public, and which you can read here and here.

If you don’t have the time to read those articles, here’s the summation in one sentence: at least when it comes to high school hitters, a player’s age on the day he is drafted has a dramatic effect on the odds that he succeeds in the major leagues. A high school hitter who is drafted when he is 17 is much, much more likely to become a star than one who is drafted when he is 18, even if both are selected at the same point in the draft.

While I was astonished to find that the effect was this strong, I have suspected that there was some sort of an effect for a long time now. The reason for my suspicion was precisely because, in the weeks leading up to a draft, I’d read dozens if not hundreds of articles talking about every potential first-round pick, his strengths and weaknesses, his signability, who’s trending up or down – but almost never would someone mention that Player X was still 17 while Player Y was almost 19. This struck me as very strange. After all, we know that with major league hitters, the difference between a 21-year-old and a 22-year-old is substantial enough to comment on. Given that teenagers are still developing physically and improving at a more rapid pace than twentysomethings, wouldn’t it matter if a high school senior was particularly young or old for his age? Turns out it does.

There are always exceptions, of course. The first time I gave this a lot of thought was back in 2007, when the Royals had the #2 pick in the draft and were all set to draft high school third baseman Josh Vitters – and then, the morning of the draft, decided that Mike Moustakas was signable and picked him instead. While Moustakas seemed to project a little better, I was concerned at the time that no one was pointing out their difference in age. Moustakas born on 9/11/88, being one of the oldest players in his high school class; Vitters was born 8/27/89, being one of the youngest players in his class. Moustakas was almost exactly one year older than Vitters, and that extra year of development might prove to be crucial.

At least so far, it hasn’t. While Vitters is not a bust yet, his development has been hampered by his ultra-aggressiveness at the plate, and he hit .283/.322/.448 for the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate this year. Moustakas, obviously, is in the majors, and a year ago – when he was the same age Vitters is now – he hit .322/.369/.630 between Double-A and Triple-A.

We have to hope that Bubba Starling is another exception. Starling was born on 8/3/1992; he had actually turned 19 years old. He was the third-oldest high school hitter drafted in the top 100 picks this year. Historically, it’s rare for a player as old as Starling was – roughly 18 years, 10 months old on Draft Day – to develop into a star. But there are certainly reasons for optimism here. Like Moustakas, who was one of the best hitters in southern California as a junior, Starling didn’t exactly come out of nowhere in his senior year. He’s an extremely athletic player who had a lot of success playing for Team USA before his senior year, the summer he turned 18. If he had been eligible for the draft as a high school junior, frankly, the Royals would probably have drafted him #4 that year instead of Christian Colon.

If you’re looking for a good comp for Starling, I would point towards Rocco Baldelli. Like Starling, Baldelli was a player who was old for his draft class – he turned 19 in September – but an extremely athletic draft pick, one of the best athletes in the draft in years. Like Starling, Baldelli played against weak high school competition – he’s from Rhode Island – and both are right-handed hitting outfielders. Baldelli was taken with the #6 pick in 2000, which is considered by many to be the weakest draft of all time.

Baldelli’s career was ultimately betrayed by his body; he was starting in the majors by 2003, when he was 21, and was a league-average hitter at age 21 and 22. He missed all of 2005 with an injury, but came back in 2006 and hit .302/.339/.533 at the age of 24. He would play in just 135 games the rest of his career, ultimately getting diagnosed with a rare genetic problem with his mitochondria that explained his inability to stay healthy.

Assuming Starling can stay healthy, a career path like Baldelli’s is certainly possible, and I still think he’s an excellent prospect. But my findings force me to downgrade him a tick, at least until we see him on the field for a full season. If time allows, I’m hoping to give you a list of the Royals’ top prospects at some point, and one of the most difficult questions to answer for that list is this: who’s the Royals’ #1 prospect? I think you can make a case for six different guys, but no one stands out as being elite. Starling could be that guy, but based on these findings I would be reluctant to rank him #1 overall until we see some results.

The decision to take Starling concerns less about Starling and more about the guy the Royals didn’t take, Francisco Lindor, especially since Lindor was taken by the in-division rival Indians with the #8 pick. Lindor doesn’t turn 18 for another month; he’s a full 16 months younger than Starling, and I believe he was the youngest player signed in the entire 2011 draft. One thing that really stood out from my study was how many star players were drafted when they were still 17. Indeed, I’ve already heard scouts raving about Lindor in instructional league, above and beyond the raves you would naturally expect from a top-10 pick.

There’s no blame to be meted out here. I would expect teams to take age into greater consideration in the draft next year, but if any teams were aware of this effect before now, they’re keeping that to themselves. It will be certainly interesting to follow Starling and Lindor going forward, and I’m certainly hoping for a replay of the Moustakas/Vitters dynamic. But at this very moment, if I could choose to have one of the two players, I’d take Lindor. Which is a strange thing to say given that we’ve barely seen either one on the field yet. But I think my findings are that significant.