After a .318/.388/.469/.857 season in 2010, Billy Butler earned the Les Milgram Award as Kansas City’s best player. He was the 2009 recipient as well*, becoming the first back-to-back winner since George Brett won in 1979 and 1980.
*The Milgram Award goes to position players, not pitchers, as Zack Greinke would have been the best overall player last season, of course. The best Royals pitcher each season is awarded the Bruce Rice Award, won by Joakim Soria in 2010.
Some may point to his reduced extra base hits and his grounding into a league-leading 32 double plays and question the award but there are a lot of reasons why, despite a few raw statistical drops, 2010 is evidence of Billy Butler progressing as a hitter.
At just 24 years old, Butler has hit .300 twice in his career, slugged 45 or more doubles twice in his career and has missed just seven games in the past two seasons. He may never generate enough fly balls to be an elite home run hitter, but a healthy Butler should be near the leaders in doubles every season.
Beyond the raw numbers, though, Butler’s consistent month-to-month.
Butler’s 2009 monthly splits look solid. While there are some months where he walked less and some where he hit less extra base hits, overall his production stayed fairly steady (that June was a little rough but isn’t too bad relative to an average player). His second half in particular looks great and gave fans hope that he’d be a monster in 2010.
His hot second half of 2009 looks to have carried over nicely to 2010. If you could combine his April-June of 2010 with his July-October of 2009, he’d have turned in a line of .318/.375/.511/.886 with 22 homers, 101 RBI and 55 doubles. Sure, it’s not possible to do that, and I’m not sure it’s all that statistically relevant, but Butler started to groove the ball late in 2009 and continued to do so to start off 2010. We’re getting into spooky immeasurables but I’d credit improved maturity as a hitter and focus at the plate for that.
Butler’s raw numbers don’t look great in 2010 when you compare them to 2009 mosty due to the slugging numbers, and 15 home runs is low for a franchise first baseman, there’s no denying that. Going into 2011, though, Butler is a more polished hitter. My evidence for that claim comes from what happens when he doesn’t put the ball in play.
In 2009, Butler struck out 103 times in 672 plate appearances. In 2010, he only struck out 78 times in 678 appearances. That’s a reduction in strikeouts by about 25%.
In 2009, Butler walked 58 times in those same 672 appearances, but bumped it up to 69 walks in 678 appearances in 2010. It’s a less dramatic increase, but it’s still significant. Butler went from a season where he joined elite company with 50+ doubles at the age of 23 years old and followed it up by posting a better OPS (.853 vs. .857) by reducing his strikeouts and increasing his walkrate. That’s a very good sign.
Now, the double plays, they’re not good, but consider it this way: for a batter to hit into a double play, they must have runners on in front of them (not under Butler’s control). Also, Butler puts the ball into play more than 85% of the time and still swings as hard as anybody. I’d rather he make contact at a high rate like that because a lot of those balls find a hole, hit a gap or at least force the defense to make a play. A strikeout is just a strikeout. Yes, it’s frustrating to see Butler come up and make two outs with one swing, but Albert Pujols lead the league in GIDP in 2007 and nobody’s complaining about that. Evan Longoria lead the American League with 27 GIDP in 2009. That’s the curse of the #3 hitter. The lineup is created with the goal to get a runner on base with the third hitter up, and sometimes, they’ll put it in play and the defense will turn two.
In my opinion, Billy Butler will win a batting title one day. He makes contact and hits consistently all year long – his lowest batting average for a single month is .262 in April 2009 as a 23 year old regular. We could do a lot worse (and have). A lot was made of his streak of collecting hits in consecutive series by the Royals PR department, and on the face of it, the streak didn’t seem to signify much, but as I noted back in September, the most impressive part of the streak is that Butler hasn’t gone three games in a row without a hit since the first series of 2009.
That kind of consistency is worth talking about.