With Dayton Moore and the Royals signing Alex Gordon for at least one more year, the pressure on outfielders Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling will be heightened this Spring. Initially at the end of the 2019 season, it seemed like Phillips or Starling would be starting in either left field, or even right if Gordo returned. However, with the signing of Maikel Franco to play third, and the shift of Hunter Dozier to right, it seems like Phillips and Starling will be fighting for a reserve role on Opening Day.
What is interesting about both players is that they are both out of minor league options, which means that if they don’t make the active roster on Opening Day, then they will be designated for assignment, with the Royals at risk of losing them on waivers. Considering both were once top prospects and are still relatively young, it’s highly likely that if they are DFA’d another club will claim them on waivers, which will end their tenures in Kansas City. While Fangraphs is projecting both to make the active roster, it seems unlikely that the Royals will keep two outfielders when they have a lot of questions concerning the infield at this moment, especially at the first base position (I think Ryan McBroom will make the active roster because of his ability to play first and the outfield, even though he still has a minor league option).
So who is the better option as the primary backup outfielder? Should the Royals stick with the local kid from Gardner? Or should the Royals go with the guy with the marketable laugh? Let’s take a look at both outfielders’ profiles in four different categories (hitting, fielding, baserunning, and intangibles) and how they measure up for 2020.
Both Starling and Phillips left something to be desired in 2019 at the plate. While both were far from average when it came to hitting at the Major League level last season, they still have their own individual strengths that make them interesting options in 2020 if they can turn it around.
Starling finally made it to Kansas City in 2019 after struggling with consistency and injuries in the Minor Leagues since being drafted 5th overall in the 2011 draft. The Gardner native didn’t tear it up by any means, as he posted a .215/.255/.317 slash with four home runs, 12 RBI, and two stolen bases over 56 games and 197 plate appearances. However, considering it seemed like a couple of years ago that Starling would be out of baseball altogether, the numbers were promising that Starling could continue to grow as a hitter with more plate appearances at the Major League level.
The big key for Starling this Spring and in 2020 overall will be how he will develop his hitting against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. While Starling did better than Phillips in 2019 when it came to hitting the “sweet spot” more often (his sweet spot percentage was 36.6 percent to Phillips’ 21.7 percent in 2019), Starling swung and missed way too often, especially against non-fastballs. Against fastballs, the 27-year-old outfielder posted a .290 xwOBA and only swung and missed 13.8 percent of the time, according to Statcast. However, against breaking pitches, that xwOBA fell to .174 and his whiff percentage was an astronomical 61.3 percent. While his whiff percentage was not as bad against offspeed stuff (39 percent), his xwOBA was worse at .165. With more at bats this spring against Major League pitching, it is likely he will continue to hit the fastball, as I could see his metrics improving against the pitch in 2020 this Spring Training. However, his whiff issues against secondary pitches is a problem, and he will need to make serious gains in this category to be taken serious.
Phillips on the other hand has a more patient approach than Starling, as his 43.8 percent swing percentage is almost six percentage points lower than Starling, and he chased pitches out of the zone almost 13 percent less as well. However, while Phillips displays a more disciplined approach than Kansas native, it has not necessarily produced better results. He actually posted a higher whiff percentage overall than Starling (31.2 percent to Starling’s 30 percent), and much like Starling, he struggled with contact against breaking pitches (42.9 percent) and offspeed stuff (44 percent) as well, according to Statcast. Phillips may have the more power potential of the two, for even though he doesn’t have the frame and athleticism of Starling (he’s about four inches shorter), his barrel (4.3 percent) and solid contact (6.5 percent) were much more promising than Starling in 2019 (2.3 and 4.6 percent, respectively). Furthermore, Phillips has flashed some home run power in the minors, and is more apt at taking a walk (12.7 percent walk percentage) than Starling as well (4.6 percent walk percentage).
The upside may be more on Starling’s side when it comes to his ability at the plate. Starling made some great strides from 2018 to 2019, and though he probably would max out at 10-15 home runs, Starling has the ability to be a gap hitter who could take advantage of Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield. That being said, while Starling has more upside, his free-swinging approach doesn’t help his case, and Phillips’ more disciplined batting eye makes him a safer bet at the plate for the Royals in 2020 than Starling.
Without a doubt, what makes Royals fans so bullish on Phillips is his arm and defense. According to Outs Above Average via Statcast, Phillips was one of the Royals’ most valuable outfielders, as he was worth five outs above average in 2019. This isn’t a fluke either, as Phillips was worth five outs above average in 2018 with the Royals, and six outs overall when you take into consideration his metrics from the Brewers. The combination of a rocket arm and excellent instincts make Phillips a late innings defensive replacement for the Royals at the very least.
Starling on the other hand is not a bad defender, and his scouting reports from the Minors actually characterize him as a good defender. While Starling in person looks a lot more impressive, his arm strength doesn’t quite match up to Phillips and the metrics are less impressive in comparison to Phillips as well. Starling was worth one out below average a season ago, and his struggles in left seemed to stand out as well, as that is where he struggled the most defensively, according to Statcast. While I do think Starling is not necessarily a one out below average outfielder, I am not sure if he will ever match Phillips’ consistency or ability over the long haul, which makes it tough to go with Starling over Phillips just on defense alone.
While over a bigger sample, I think Starling would be a 2-3 outs above average outfielder, I also imagine Phillips’ metrics would look even better as well over a bigger sample. While Starling could turn into a decent to good outfielder at the Major League level, Phillips could be an elite one, which would make Royals fans feel better that the outfield defensively would be in good hands whenever Alex Gordon leaves Kansas City, whether it’s this year or next.
Neither have been base stealing savants thus far at the Major League level (very few can be Terrance Gore or Jarrod Dyson), but they have the speed and potential to each be 20-25 stolen base guys over the full course of a season. Phillips stole 122 bases in the minors with a 73 percent success rate, while Starling stole 88 bases in the minors with a 81 percent success rate. Thus, both guys could also fill in as late inning base running options, though it will be interesting to see if Mike Matheny will be as willing to use pinch runners in 2020 like Ned Yost before him.
Stolen bases aside, both have exceptional sprint speed, with Starling probably the more impressive of the two. Phillips’ sprint speed of 28 ft/s puts him in the 73rd percentile of Major League players, which is pretty impressive, though a bit of a regression from a couple of years ago (he was in the 91st percentile just a season ago). Starling on the other hand ranked in the 87th percentile with a sprint speed of 28.7 ft/s. With the injuries seemingly behind him, it is possible that Starling will be even more effective on the basepaths in 2020, which could make him the Royals’ speed option off the bench and a possible 20-plus stolen base threat.
Intangibles and Summary
Starling will probably always have the advantage over Phillips when it comes to fan affinity here in Kansas City, which isn’t easy to do. Phillips seems like a genuinely good dude, and the past couple of years, he probably has been the most entertaining guy to see interact with Royals fans at Fan Fest. Phillips definitely has the bigger personality, and if Phillips turns it around, I could easily see Royals fans embracing Phillips like Moose and Hosmer and Gordo before him.
However, while Starling is the more reserved personality, Starling is a Kansas guy, and the Royals will continue to milk that for all its worth. The Royals want him to succeed because they know, in a season where they are projected to lose more than they win, they need anything to bring fans to the ballpark. Last year, attendance and interest spiked when Starling made his debut. If Starling succeeds this Spring and earns a regular role off the bench? Well, let’s just say tickets will sell a little bit more, which the Royals will take, as it seems like they are shooting out every promotional deal under the sun to get fans to sell out the K on Opening Day.
Overall, it would be nice to see both make the 26-man roster, especially since both are out of options, which I covered a little bit in my previous article regarding pitchers without options on the Royals 40-man roster. In all likelihood, whoever gets designated for assignment would most likely get claimed off of waivers, as they are both former top prospects, have some potential (at least defensively and on the basepaths), and are relatively young. It would be awful to see one get released, only to see them succeed with another club. Seeing what happened with Brian Goodwin a year ago was bad enough.
While it seems like Phillips and Starling have a friendly relationship, they undoubtedly will be battling for that reserve outfield role in 2020. And thus, whoever performs the best this Spring in Surprise most likely will be the one decked out in Royals blue and white on Opening Day, while the other will be suited up for another organization, most likely still in Triple-A.