Billy Butler is reluctant to become a full-time DH.
Honestly, who can blame him? Part of why I loved playing the game was spending time in the field. Batting was great, sure, but it just wouldn’t have been the same if I weren’t heading out to right every half inning.
So, I’m okay with Billy’s desire to play the field. From a classic baseball standpoint, that’s half the fun of the game. First base was never a favorite of mine, but if that’s your position then you want to get out there and play. It’s completely understandable. When you think of the recent increase in focus on defense, then it’s even more important. If Billy doesn’t get out and play at first on a regular basis, he could lose some of his fielding ability and whatever defensive credibility he might have left. Given that over half of all MLB teams don’t use a DH, retaining his fielding ability is important for his future.
There are a lot of reasons for wanting to both hit and field. Anyone can see that. What I want to know is whether Billy’s offensive production at each spot suggests he would be useful as a full-time DH.
The data for this is pretty straightforward. Billy’s had enough plate appearances for both positions over his career to give us a pretty good idea for how he hits. Nonetheless, even 2010 has plenty of information about his production.
Over his career, Billy has hit .312/.373/.478 as a first baseman. That’s in 1336 plate appearances.
As a DH, Billy has a line of .278/.336/.427 over 816 plate appearances.
So, there’s that. Take away most of Billy’s DH starts and it’s likely you might have gotten a great set in 2010, possibly garnering some necessary national attention. But, if you’re worried that those lines are dragged down by earlier seasons, I’ll give you the most recent information.
In 2010, Billy had a line of .323/.389/.480 in 537 plate appearances as a first baseman. American League average was .259/.345/.443 for first basemen.
Alternatively, Billy hit .298/.386/.430 in 140 plate appearances as a DH. The league average was .252/.332/.425.*
*This might not have been so low had the Mariners’ DHs hit any better than .194/.269/.340. Man, that was a terrible offense…
Billy has always had an tOPS+ (comparing to his usual output) over 100 when starting as a first baseman and never broken 100 as a DH. As an interesting aside, his BABIP is .33 higher when he’s hit as a first baseman than as a DH. Something about playing first base gives Billy a little bit of a jump over his plate appearances as a DH. Maybe it’s the comfort of playing in the field or maybe there’s just some long-term statistical slant that makes it look like he’s a better batter when playing at first. Either way, there might be something to his desire to be a first baseman. That’s not to say that his DH line is inherently bad. It definitely would be a decent line. Billy just seems to hit better when he gets a spot in the field.
So, that’s the case for Billy. The surprising separation made me wonder if this is a widespread trend in the AL. I looked at the ten “qualified” first basemen from 2010 on FanGraphs, which would be players who spent a large amount of their time at first. I disqualified Michael Cuddyer and Mike Napoli, both of whom aren’t normally first basemen. To fill their spots, I added Justin Morneau and, just for fun, Kila Ka’aihue.
This sounds like it’ll be revealing. It really does. But there aren’t that many first basemen that log substantial time at both first base and DH over the course of a season. There are just so many first basemen now that either are athletic enough to play the spot at least adequately or that play for a team with a full-time DH. The Royals’ recent situation seems to be somewhat unique. Other teams’ first basemen, however, have splits there are at either extreme or even…with the caveat that they didn’t get much time as a DH.
When you look at Billy’s ability and stats, he sort of fits this idea. Over his career, there is a big difference from being a DH to being a first basemen. When you look at only his 2010 or season-by-season splits, however, there really isn’t as much of a difference. Since most of his starts as a DH were earlier in his career before it was clear to the Royals that Jose Guillen should not play in the field, it can be said that Billy’s ability to hit was still shaping up. He wasn’t yet the hitter that he has been over the last couple of years. So, it’s unfair to completely base an analysis of his time as a DH purely on those statistics.
Of course, there are always other factors. Was he playing just one game as a DH between two games at first? Was it alternating or did he get streaks of starts at each position? Did his slotting as a DH in certain games come as a surprise or shock to him?
Those may or may not have a huge impact on the way Billy produced as a DH. Like nearly everything in baseball and, really, all sports and facets of life, there are always other factors involved. It’s hard to know exactly why the split is the way it is, but the 2010 data reveals that there is a split. Billy does hit better as a first baseman. And it’s enough of a difference that the Royals could be wary about moving him out of that spot in the future. He would still be a relatively productive DH with the line he has accumulated over his career or in 2010, but it wouldn’t be the same as his output as a first baseman.
Now, Billy, like any player, will tell us that he’s been working hard and improving his game. He says that he’s lost weight and is trying to increase his defensive acumen. Still, it becomes a Prince Fielder-type of question. Does his offensive capability at first offset the defensive loss you suffer by playing him there? That’s a question for another day.
Oh, and since you were wondering, Kila has hit .220/.293/.386 as a first baseman and .206/.333/.413 as a DH in 223 total plate appearances.