Will the Real Billy Butler Please Stand Up?

I feel like we’ve been down this road before.

After 47 Royals games this year, Billy Butler has three homers and 18 RBI.  Considering that he’s batted cleanup most of the year and is coming off of a long-term extension signed in the offseason, the Royals and fans expected a lot more.

This was expected to be a breakout season where Butler, now 25 years old, would start turning homers into doubles and jump towards All-Star levels among AL first basemen.

Now, for anyone who’s are starting to warm up the Clint Robinson bandwagon and question Butler’s value, let’s look at everything (and not just batting average).

After two straight seasons of a .300 batting average, Butler’s .284 entering Tuesday looks pedestrian.

In 2009, he drove in 93 runs.

It looks like he’s having a disappointing season, but looks can be deceiving.

True, the batting average is down and he hasn’t driven in a lot of runs, but he’s done plenty to be productive.  In every year as a big leaguer, Butler’s walkrate has improved on the last.  That’s no different this year, as he’s walked in 14.6% of his plate appearances, well above his 9% career average and last year’s (then) high of 10.2%.  He’s done this while also keeping his strikeouts low.

In fact, he’s walked more this year than he’s struck out, and has nearly maintained that trend over his career (or he’s at least closing the gap).  Walks aren’t glamorous, and in the Moneyball era, they induce some eye-rolling from old school commentators, but a walk is better than an out, and it puts a runner on base while running up pitch counts.

In that light, Butler’s been better at getting on base than in any other season.  Going into Tuesday, he had a .391 on base percentage, just a bit better than last year’s .388.  Despite a batting average that’s .034 lower than 2010’s finish, he’s making less outs as a percentage of plate appearances in 2011 (which is all OBP is measuring anyway).

True, his slugging is down – the low home run total hurts that measurement, but he hasn’t been bad either.  His isolaTed Power is .142 (slugging percentage minus batting average, or total bases minus singles divided by at bats, if you prefer).  That’s respectable although it’s lower than last year (.151) and his career mark (.157).

That leaves a few questions as to a) what’s different this year and b) what can we expect.

First, Butler’s been a bit unlucky, at least relative to his past performances.  Part of the reason he gets a lot of hits is that he puts the ball in play a lot.  He makes contact consistently and many of those balls get through as hits.  For his career, he has a batting average on balls in play of .324.  The general average is around .300 so that seems high, but for some players (and I’d include Butler in this group), their contact numbers and their ability to hit the ball hard helps more balls get through as hits rather than get snagged by infielders.  His BABIP covers his career of nearly 2500 plate appearances.

His BABIP is lower this year than his career BABIP.  It’s not by much, but his .309 BABIP could normalize to get closer to his career number.  That means more balls getting through for hits.  He’s been good for at least one sharp line drive at an infielder that gets caught.  Some of those should start finding holes or getting over their heads.

Butler’s hit more line drives this year and less ground balls than in the past.  Last year, he hit a line drive in 18.3% of plate appearances, very close to his 18.4% career rate.  His ground ball rate was very close to his career number as well (47.7% in 2010 compared to 47.4% for his career).  In 2011, so far, he’s lowered his ground ball percentage to 43.7%.  Line drives are more likely to become hits than any other batted ball, so if he keeps hitting them at a similar rate, the BABIP should level out towards his career rate, which means more hits and a higher average.

If there’s one batted ball number that jumps out as a warning sign, it’s Butler’s rate of fly balls hit on the infield.  For his career, he’s hit a pop up in the infield 8.1% of the time, but last year limited it to 4.5%.  This year, he’s doing so at a 14% clip.  He’s hitting fly balls more often than in past years (just barely), but more of them, this season, are staying in the infield.  It could be a statistical correction from last year’s strong number.  By the end of the year, I doubt that’ll be a worry.

Here’s the catch.

Billy Butler isn’t a home run hitter.  He never really was.  Granted, his 21 in 2009 was a good sign of things to come (potentially), but he homered on just 9.2% of his fly balls.  It’s not bad, but it’s not getting close to power hitter levels.  Many of those go for doubles (partly due to Kauffman Stadium’s deep power alleys).  Last year, his HR/FB rate dipped to 8.4% when he hit 15 all year.  His three through Tuesday have him at a homer in 6% of his fly balls hit.

As a professional, Butler’s high in homers is 30, achieved in 2005.  Most of those came in the thin air of the California League in High A High Desert, and when he jumped up to Double A, he hit just five more in Wichita.  Otherwise, his minor league high in home runs was 15 in Wichita in 2006.

It’s almost time to accept Butler for what he is – a high-contact doubles hitter.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  Edgar Martinez was that kind of hitter for years and eclipsed 30 homers only once (though he did get close a couple of times).  Butler’s only 25 and could develop that power later, but his profile as a hitter seems to give him a ceiling of 30 homers that he might reach once in his career.

He’ll still be a productive hitter.  In 2011, he’s not far off from where he finished 2010 when comparing his OPS+.  Last year he finished with an OPS+ of 134; in 2010, it’s 132.  Over the last two years, Butler’s been about a third more productive than the average player would be in similar settings.  Relative to the rest of the league, he’s still performing well at the plate.

As the year goes on and through the life of Butler’s extension, I forsee him becoming a patient, productive hitter who gets on base, hits the ball into the gaps, and fit’s in well as a DH every day.  Is he going to hit 30-40 homers every year?  No way, but if he’s finding gaps and working walks, he won’t have to.

If nothing else, he’s only on pace for about nine GIDPs.  Bet you didn’t expect that after his major league leading 32 in 2010.

(The following is a table  of Butler’s offensive attributes for his career, 2010 and this season.  The info is draw from both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com and represents numbers going into Tuesday’s game.)

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Billy Butler Career 2010 2011

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BA 0.298 0.318 0.284

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OBP 0.362 0.388 0.391

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SLG 0.454 0.469 0.426

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OPS 0.816 0.857 0.817

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OPS+ 119 134 132

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wOBA 0.357 0.372 0.355

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ISO 157 151 142

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BB% 9 10.2 14.6

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K% 14.7 13.1 13

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LD% 18.4 18.3 21.1

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GB% 47.4 47.7 43.7

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GB/FB ratio 1.39 1.4 1.24

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IF FB 8.1 4.5 14

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HR/FB 9.2 8.4 6

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Swings out of zone 25.3 27.1 23.5

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Swings in zone 63.2 61.7 55.7

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Contact rate 83.6 84.6 85.1

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Swinging strike 6.9 6.3 5.6

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BABIP 0.324 0.341 0.309

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

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