Can Billy Butler Change? Should He?

“What?” you might ask.  Why does a kid who’s been among the league leaders in base hits need to change?  Butler could hit .300 every year for the next 15 years if he wanted to (or at least I think so).  Why does a kid like that need to change?

He doesn’t, really.  He’s been a fine performer since making it up full time with the Royals.  Among players under age 26, he ranks fifth in the majors in OPS (behind Carlos Gonzalez, Troy Tulowitzki, Evan Longoria and Colby Rasmus).  He was tied for third in the AL in base hits last year and among esteemed company like Ichiro Suzuki, Robinson Cano and Carl Crawford.

It’s not that anyone’s dissatisfied with Butler’s production thus far in his young career.  Far from it.  The Royals were convinced and gave him an extension that will keep him in Kansas City for a long time.

It comes down to expectations about a player like Billy.  He’s a big kid and a first baseman.  People expect him to club 30 homers with ease and yet, that’s not who he is.  He hits a lot of balls on the ground, notably turning many of them into double play balls.  The idea has been that if he can get a bit more loft in his swing, he can be more of the prolific power hitter you’d expect from a first baseman.  More loft means more line drives and fly balls, and more chances to get the ball out.

I got curious about this last week after Robert Ford mentioned something while observing spring training:

I went through the play by play for each game this spring to see how Butler’s at bats ended.  My goal was to get a look at his splits when putting the ball in play.

Disclaimer: there are two things I should point out that make this a crude study.  First, it’s a small sample size.  I get 75 at bats with 11 strikeouts leaving 64 times where Butler’s final act was getting the ball into the field (or out of it – I’m counting homers as “in play” for this exercise).  Second, it depends on who’s stringing the information through the gamecast.  I didn’t have a chance to see spring training games so I couldn’t make my own judgments.  This is going off the play by play alone.  One man’s fly ball can sometimes be another man’s line drive.  Mostly, I just wanted a slice to see if Ford’s observation was true or not relative to Butler’s career numbers.

Drumroll?

To that point, Butler had 47 balls in play:

  • 16 fly balls (34%)
  • 8 line drives (17%)
  • 23 ground balls (49%)

Butler’s career splits go 34.1/18.2/47.7, so he was pretty much the same hitter.  Spring training hadn’t finished yet, so here’s the complete breakdown:

  • 64 instances
  • 21 fly balls (32.8%)
  • 12 line drives (18.75%)
  • 31 ground balls (48.4%)

So technically, Ford was right.  Butler had more line drives than his career numbers, but it’s not significant to say he’s changed anything in his approach or swing.  His rate of ground balls hit increased compared to his career average.  It’s still pretty much the same.

Further, Butler grounded into a double play 7 times this spring.  That’s after leading the majors with 32 GIDP last season.  Fluke stolen bases or not, Butler’s not a speedy guy, and it might behoove him to put the ball in the air more to avoid that problem.

I say might because I’m not convinced.

Butler’s a contact hitter.  He’s not even 25 years old yet, and his strikeout rate has never climbed higher than 16.9% in a season as a big leaguer.  With the league average usually around 20%, that’s pretty good.  Even more scary is that he’s improving his plate vision.  Through his own talent and a lot of study, he’s increased his walkrate in each of the last three seasons and last year reduced his strikeout rate to 13.1%.  I’ll put it this way, he strikes out as often as he walks, which is pretty good.

When he’s not doing either, yeah, he puts the ball on the ground.  A lot of those get through for hits, though.  And in those times when he hits a line drive, it’s usually in a gap.  Over the past two seasons, nobody has more doubles than Butler’s 96.

Butler hit three homers this spring.  As a percentage of his fly balls, that’s 14.3% of his fly balls going for homers.  That’s pretty good, and when you consider his career rate is 9.5% in that category, it could be a sign of things to come.

Moreover, even if Billy’s batted balls show the same pattern they have for his career, is that a bad thing?  I’d like to see him hit 30 homers just like anybody else, but George Brett only hit that mark once.  He was pretty reliable for 30-40 doubles every year and was similarly difficult to strike out (okay, ridiculously difficult – Brett struck out in 7.8% of his plate appearances, just a shade over 900 in 21 seasons).

Not to saddle Billy with the label of “the next George Brett” but he’s plenty good now as it is.  I’ve compared him to Edgar Martinez in the past, and I think that still fits.  Edgar only hit more than 30 homers once, but he was a doubles machine for the Mariners (though to be fair, he did hit 29 a couple of times).  If it means trading doubles, walks and base hits for 10 more homers and more strikeouts, I’m going to let Butler keep the approach he’s using now.  There’s also the chance that at 24 (25 in the middle of April) Butler still has a little bit of muscle to put on.  Approach plus technique plus strength could mean a lot of power gains without having to change much of anything about his swing.

I’d love to see Butler hit more homers.  But I’ll settle for 45-50 doubles, too.  We don’t have to be greedy do we? (We can do that when Hosmer comes up…)

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Tags: AL Central Baseball Billy Butler Edgar Martinez George Brett Kansas City Royals KC MLB Royals

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