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Prospect Comparison: Bubba Starling vs. Byron Buxton

Craig Goldstein compares two of the top picks in recent drafts and discusses the advantages and pitfalls partial information

Jamie Squire

When our illustrious editor pro tempore Bret asked me what I thought about using Bubba Starling vs Byron Buxton in my prospect comparison for our week on outfielders, my immediate reaction was "I'm going to be using a lot of the same words". That's because I think of the two congruently in my mind. Both have stratospheric ceilings and would be among the best players in the league if they reach them. Both are impact defenders with incredible athleticism. Both project as plus power hitters, with some questions on how the future utility of their hit tool will play out. Both have a lot of rawness to them - Starling as a dual-sport athlete who was a star quarterback and turned down a scholarship to Nebraska, and Buxton as a high school product from rural Georgia who played inferior competition. Both are old for their draft classes. The list goes on and will be discussed more in detail later. What came to mind later in my discussion with Bret however, was the idea of fixating on the shiny new toy. This is not a revelation certainly, as we all enjoy new things and is probably part of why we're drawn to prospects in the first place. What I hope to wade through is why everyone seems to be so much higher on Buxton than they are on Starling at this point in time. I'm going to look at their scouting reports and see if there's a particular reason to be higher on Buxton than there is on Starling, but going into this, it is my thought that we just haven't seen Buxton struggle yet, and we've seen a few negatives from Starling (despite an overall strong stat line), but that they're overall outlook as prospects should remain relatively similar.

Let's start with their stat lines from the Appalachian League:

Starling: .275/.371/.485, 20 XBH, 10 SB, 1 CS, 12.1% BB%, 30.2% K% in 200 at-bats

Buxton: .286/.368/.429, 8 XBH, 7 SB, 0 CS, 9.2% BB%, 17.2% K% in 77 at-bats

Not so different lines. A little more average with Buxton, more OBP and SLG with Starling though. It shouldn't surprise anyone to see more counting stats for Starling as he received almost triple the at-bats at the level, and it should be noted that Buxton ran significantly more often on a rate basis. What's obviously more concerning among these numbers is Starling's 30.2% K% which is just unacceptable and would portend a massive dropoff in average if it remained. Buxton's is obviously more palatable at 17.2% but it's worth noting at the lower level Gulf Coast League, Buxton's K% clocked in at a cool 25%, so there are some potential issues there too. It's worth noting that of the two it appears that Starling has the more refined approach with, as evidenced by the higher BB%. More important than all of this is the number at the end. 200 at-bats for Starling and 77 at-bats for Buxton (he had 150 or so combined on his season). These are not large enough samples to draw conclusions on big leaguers, much less massive works in progress like Buxton and Starling. Let's break down their fantasy relevant tools and see how they compare that way.

Starling: His swing gets long at time and forces scouts to question it's future utility. Lots of swing and miss in his game right now.

Buxton: Projects to be at least above-average with some chance for more, but there is expected to be an adjustment to higher quality pitching

Starling: Huge bat speed allows for big power that plays to all fields in game action. Potential plus with some improvement.

Buxton: Also owner of good bat speed, it hasn't translated to home run power in games. Will need to learn to backspin the ball to reach full utility.

Starling: Has drawn 70 marks for his speed and projects as a future plus to plus-plus runner.

Buxton: Has posted sub 3.9 second home to first times, earning him 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

What we see here, from a fantasy perspective are two remarkable similar players, one with something to prove in the power department, the other with something to prove in terms of batting average. Both have elite defensive tools in terms of range and arm and should have no trouble staying in centerfield.

It's not difficult to understand why Buxton gets ranked ahead of Starling at this point. They performed comparably in the same league and he is a year (and a couple months) younger. However, hypothetically, if they perform similarly and move through their systems in comparable timeframes, the difference between them would grow ever smaller. I personally prefer to take players with a better hit tool as I consider them safer than those with questionable hit tools but more developed power, however the apparent perceived difference in value between these two players seems a bit much for me. My argument boils down to this - we have limited information on two very similar players both in terms of current status and future outlook. One performed solidly as an 18 year old, while the other performed solidly with some notable flaws (K rate) as a 19 year old. It's natural to prefer the younger option with less blatant issues, but the difference isn't vast and the sample size of their good and bad aspects so small that we shouldn't rush to judgement. We could be talking about Buxton and Starling as two of the biggest impact players in the game in 4 years time, or we could be talking about them like we do Carlos Gomez - huge tools, huge defense but in the end a bust as a prospect. My guess is, by that time, the difference in age won't mean much to us though.

Source Material:
Baseball America
Baseball Prospectus

You can follow me on Twitter at @cdgoldstein