ON THE CLUBHOUSE wall in Wilmington, the Kansas City Royals’ developmental philosophy is laid out in great detail.
Listed within an outline of the team’s trademark crown logo and labeled “Royals Championship Player” are nine tent poles spread out like a starting defensive lineup.
All nine one-word attributes begin with the letter “C” with their meaning laid out in bullet points. They are: Comprehension, Concentration, Clutch, Commitment, Confidence, Composure, Coach, Competitor and Character.
On Saturday night as the Blue Rocks celebrated their sixth win in seven games – an 8-4 verdict against Frederick – it became clear the parent club’s philosophies were taking root.
“It’s just fun to be around those guys. This whole team is filled with prospects and the guys who aren’t prospects should be prospects,” Blue Rocks third baseman Hunter Dozier said recently.
Dozier is the anchor of the Blue Rocks’ potent and highly paid 1-2-3 hitters. Raul Mondesi, Bubba Starling and Dozier represent $11.7 million in signing bonuses. Combine that with the $3.88 million the Royals handed starting pitcher Sean Manaea and you have the makings of the Carolina League version of the New York Yankees.
The roster’s talent was undeniable. Beyond those four bonus babies were two of the franchise’s top catching prospects in Cam Gallagher and Zane Evans and pitchers Miguel Almonte and Christian Binford.
As the 2014 season began, ESPN baseball analyst Keith Law wrote Wilmington may well be the most talented team in the minor leagues.
Wilmington won its first two games then dropped five in a row. There would be an additional four-game losing streak before the end of April. The powerful pitching staff was erratic. All those mighty bats had holes in them.
No one’s bat contained more Swiss cheese than Starling’s. The 2011 first-round draft pick found himself owner of a .127 batting average on May 1.
“There was a lot of pressure,” Starling said of his poor start. “I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m a first-rounder, got x-amount of money, I’m going to have to work really hard and fly through the system. It was the complete opposite. I tried doing that and I was putting too much pressure on myself.”
Starling’s character was being tested. Chief among the various “character” attributes necessary to be a “Royals Championship Player” is:
— Applying moral principles in life
— Learn from mistakes
— Accept responsibility
After a brief uptick to begin the month of May, Starling fell back down the rabbit hole and on May 9 as Starling’s struggles showed no sign of abatement, Law tweeted, I didn’t think it was possible, but Bubba Starling looks even more lost at the plate now than he did a month ago.
For the most part of his professional career, Royals hitting instructors had been working to change Starling’s swing. It led to a rollercoaster of brief surges followed by deep slumps. His raw tools were obvious, but the Royals struggled to find a swing that harnessed that potential.
“A lot of people tried to work on this or that with me,” Starling said. “Change my hands, put them in a different spot, or change my feet or whatever it is. In the end, I’ve got to do what is comfortable for myself.”
In order to do that, the former four-star quarterback prospect who had turned down a scholarship to play at Nebraska called for a Hail Mary. With the Royals’ blessing and the support of hitting coach Milt Thompson, Starling began to reintegrate the stance and approach that put him on the baseball radar in the first place.
Returning to the basics he had learned at Gardner Edgerton High calmed Starling’s fraying nerves and paid immediate dividends. On May 12, with a single in his first at-bat, Starling embarked on a 15-game hitting streak that returned his batting average to .200. While that doesn’t sound like much, the .316 mark he carried through the streak was a tantalizing glimpse at what Starling might be capable of as his confidence grows.
“Up at the plate, I kind of had a different stance and stuff. Now, I am just in a comfortable spot for me and kind of going back to what I did in high school,” Starling said. “I just really feel comfortable. Milt does a great job of not putting too much stuff in my head.
LIVING UP TO THEIR POTENTIAL
Indeed, as Starling became a living, breathing example of the “confidence” tenet, so, too, did the Blue Rocks:
— Players who believe they will always outperform their opponent
— View themselves as winners
— Accept constructive criticism
— Try something new
— Fear no one
— Attitude, arrogance, intimidation
As Starling’s streak took root, the entire Blue Rocks lineup seemed to come alive, no one more so than Dozier. On Tuesday as Starling’s streak came to an end, Dozier stayed red hot, going 2-for-4 in Wilmington’s 6-0 win against Carolina. Dozier is batting .448 over his past 10 games and has raised his season average to .268.
“I’m just trying to stay relaxed; I don’t put too much pressure on myself and just mainly relax and see my pitch,” Dozier said after mashing a game-winning grand slam against Salem earlier this month. “Swing at the right pitches. I was getting myself out a lot toward the beginning of the year. Slowly, I’m starting to see more pitches and get more comfortable in the box.”
Everyone has come up big for the Blue Rocks this month as they surged into first place in the Carolina League Northern division. Shortstop Jack Lopez smacked a walk-off home run on May 12 and followed it with a clutch RBI the following night.
Kenny Diekroeger and Terrance Gore, the Blue Rocks’ Nos. 8 and 9 hitters, keyed the team’s 3-2 win against Frederick this past Friday. On Saturday, the hero was Cody Stubbs, who missed hitting for the cycle by a double.
“I think we’re starting to realize our potential,” Diekroeger said. “We’re a really talented team. We’ve known that since Day One. We struggled a little bit, especially the first month but, shoot, we’re a great bunch of guys, we love being together, we love showing up to the field every day and it’s a lot of fun to go out there and play games.”
And it’s not just the hitters who are riding high. Four of Wilmington’s five starting pitchers rank among the league’s top seven in strikeouts. Manaea, despite a late start that has limited him to just more than 35 innings, is second in the league to Binford with 53 strikeouts. Binford, at 63 punchouts, is poised to run away with the league’s strikeout crown.
THE MOST IMPORTANT ‘C’
More than any other sport, it’s the players on the field who have the most control over the outcome of a baseball game. But that doesn’t mean a manager is of any less value. In fact, at the minor league level, a manager’s steady hand can do as much to unlock potential as any of the “Royals Championship Player” tenets.
Blue Rocks manager Darryl Kennedy is a living, breathing embodiment of the Royals’ “coaching” tenet:
— Understand the game
— Plays the game right—hustle, alert, evaluate the opposition
The Carolina League can be devastating on position players. Known as an extreme pitching league, the parks are huge and the summers are steamy. And with just eight teams, the 140-game schedule means seeing the same teams so often that no secrets remain.
Pitchers learn to solve hitters. Hitters must learn to adjust, then adjust again. It’s a proving ground like no other. Succeed at the plate in this league, and you have a future in this game.
Very necessarily, one must go beyond the box score and the first layer of statistics to discern whether a player is making those strides. To do this, Kennedy and his staff eschew such numbers as batting average in favor of what they call “quality plate appearances.”
“We keep a chart of what we call quality plate appearances and it’s not necessarily a hit,” Kennedy said. “It can be a hard-hit ball. It could be working the count. I could be a (strikeout) after an 11-pitch at-bat.
“We go by that a lot,” he continued. “We’re the second-youngest team in the league. We know they’re going to struggle but our philosophy is to push them and help them get through the growing period a little sooner and get going.”
Mission accomplished? That’s hard to say, but after going 8-2 in their last 10 games and taking the division lead with less than three weeks remaining in the season’s first half, Wilmington (26-24) looks much more like the team the Royals expected to achieve the most important ‘C’ of all – a championship.
“It’s baseball,” Stubbs said. “It can be difficult when you’re struggling at times, but it’s a long, long season. Things will turn around and it did.
“There’s quite a bit of meat left on the bone, so we need to just keep pushing.”