Bam Bam: Billy Butler and Power


One of the struggles the Royals have run into on offense is a noted lack of power. Coming into today’s games, they rank 11th in the American League in homeruns. They’re 22nd in homers when compared to the rest of the Major League teams.

Jose Guillen leads the team with 11 homers, but when he’s slumping, like he has been over his last nine games (5-32), the homers become scarce. Alberto Callaspo has been a welcome surprised in the power department, as he’s hit 7 homeruns, but he hasn’t hit a homerun since May 20. A surprising third on the team in homers is Billy Butler, who has only 5 on the year. It’s surprising because he’s hitting .342 on the season, so he’s obviously seeing the ball well. Beyond those three, where will the power come from? Whenever Rick Ankiel comes back, he’ll be a source of power, but he’s been out for more than a month and was slumping before that. Mike Aviles and David DeJesus have some pop, but nobody would expect them to contribute more than 10-15 dingers in a season. The rest of the team has no track record or scouting expectation of power.

It comes down to Butler. The hitting is great, but when’s the power going to come around?

When you look at Butler, he looks like the type of country-strong slugger out of the 1920’s. At 6’1″, 240 lbs, he’s built like a linebacker, but has the bat control to slap the ball through the hole at second.

And none of this is to say that he’s not the player we expected him to be. His 2009 season exceeded expectations, as he joined rare company in hitting more than 50 doubles at age 23 or younger (a list including names like Albert Pujols, Hank Greenberg, Stan Musial, Alex Rodriguez – not bad company by any stretch).  So he’s going to hit.

At just a shade over 24 years old, he still has some growing to do as a hitter (which is scary if you’re an American League pitcher) so one would hope he could develop like this fellow first baseman:


That production belongs to three time all-star Paul Konerko.
And here’s Butler’s career, statistically:


Comparing the two, Butler’s .301/.362/.492/.853 is pretty darn close at age 23 to Konerko’s .298/.363/.481/.844 at 24  years old.  Konerko’s peak years at age 28 and 29 give us an idea of Butler’s ceiling.  I’d even argue that Butler has a lot more upside, being more of a natural contact hitter.  Butler turns 28 in April 2014.  Unfortunately 2013 is his walk year, as he’ll be outside of team control at that point.

Needless to say, the contract extension negotiations should be going on immediately if not sooner.

In those peak seasons, Konerko hit line drives 18.2% of the time, grounders 41.4% of the time and flyballs 40.3% of the time.  Butler (so far) for his career hits significantly less flyballs (34.0%) and more groundballs (47.6%).  When he does hit a flyball,  9.8% of the time, it’s a homerun.  Konerko’s lowest mark (since 2002) was 12.2% HR/FB in 2003 when he hit only 18 homers in 495 plate appearances.

So maybe we can’t expect Butler to progress to be the same kind of power hitter that Konerko has been in the past.  Is that a bad thing?

Not necessarily. This guy never really hit homers like Konerko did but he did alright I’d say:


You can probably guess that this table represents the career batting statistics of DH extraordinaire Edgar Martinez.

Martinez was more of a late bloomer, but the doubles power was always there.  In 1995 at the age of 32, Martinez had a career year.  It took him six years of full-time at bats to develop to that point.  Billy Butler‘s sixth full season will be his last (as it stands now) as a Royal in 2013.  But even in his career year, Martinez only (pssh, only) hit 29 homers.  He also led the league in hitting and doubles with 52.  Sound familar?  Would anyone be surprised if Butler’s 2010 matched Martinez’s .343/18/73 season with 46 doubles at age 29?  I’d expect more RBI, but currently, about a third through the year, Butler’s on pace for a .342 batting average, 46 doubles, 15 homeruns and 86 RBI.

Eerie, huh?

Unfortunately, there aren’t as many batted ball statistics from the 1990s on FanGraphs, but from 2002 to 2004, his last three in the majors, Martinez hit a flyball 36.7% of the time and a grounder 42% of the time.  He homered on 13.1% of flyballs.  By that point, Martinez was walking a lot more, but still mashed – he put up an OPS of .888, .895 and .727 in those last three years.  That’s still plenty productive for someone in their 20s but especially for a 40 year old.

So ignoring the age difference, as Butler’s been a more advanced hitting prospect since the day he was drafted, the two hitting profiles are comparable.  Butler may not walk as much as Martinez, or as his power develops, he may walk more as teams pitch around him more frequently.  Would I be surprised to see Butler putting up five seasons above 1.000 OPS?  Not really.  He’ll just need to walk more.

There’s one more player I want to look at in relation to Butler, and you might know this guy pretty well:


Unfortunately for Mike Sweeney, back injuries sapped a lot of his production. Like Edgar Martinez, Sweeney’s batted ball statistics (again since 2002) aren’t too far off from Butler’s either. Sweeney’s 24 homers and .979 OPS in 2002 (at age 28) corresponded to a LD/GB/FB of 21.8/40.0/38.2 and he hit a homer on 14.5% of his flyballs.

Provided he doesn’t sustain any debilitating back injuries and can increase his flyballs, Butler could easily match the development of any of these three sluggers.  He’s not without his warts, as he grounds into double plays with regularity – especially in 2010 as he leads the league with 13 already.  He hits a lot of groundballs of course and many of them make their way through the infield both through placement and sheer force (nobody can deny that Butler hits the ball HARD).  What if some of the grounders get more lift and become line drives and some of the line drives become flyballs and more of those flyballs leave the yard?

If that happens, we’ll have a bonafide monster on our hands.  And it may not be too far away.  One trend to notice – Butler was younger during his first big year than any of these players.

Be afraid, pitchers.  Be very afraid.

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