Choosing More Than Just Home Runs


Let’s play a game.

For this exercise, you get to play General Manager.  Your task: take a young team and build a contender.  You’re located in the fine baseball town of Kansas City where fans have seen loser after loser and are yearning for a reason to hope.

You’re basically starting from the ground up but you see players with talent and have more on the way.

One problem.  One of your hitters at a power-hitting position doesn’t seem to hit a lot of homers.

What to do?

It’s not that this guy is a bad hitter.  In fact, for his age, he’s got an uncanny ability to put the bat on the ball and to hit it hard.  He doesn’t strike out often, has a good eye and is willing to take a walk.  He’s a doubles machine.

He’s just lacking in the home run department, with only 42 in his first 603 games.

Maybe it’s not that important that he doesn’t hit a lot of homers, since he can do so much else with the bat.  By any account, he’s becoming one of the more productive players in the game.  Shaky on defense, sure, but he’s young.

After drafting this player out of high school, he rose up the ranks quickly, making his major league debut within just a couple of years.  Since, all he’s done is hit.

The problem is where to put him in the lineup.  The solid single up the middle or the other way, or the double in the gap is nice, but sometimes your offense just needs the bomb.  I mean, when you hit a home run, you’re guaranteed to get a run.  That’s just obvious.  If this guy is going to be a force in the middle of the lineup, he’s got to put it over the wall more often, I don’t care how big the stadium is.

So you have this guy who you’d probably want to bat third in the lineup, but who may not turn out to be the run producer you’d prefer.

Don’t get me wrong.  This kid can hit.  But can he slug?

Then there’s the glove.  Sure, he played a more athletic position in high school he was drafted to play it, but it’s been clear for a while that he can’t make the plays necessary for the spot.  If he can be just average in the field after switching positions, it’s a victory.  More than likely, he’s going to see his fair share of boots at the corner, though.

Nonetheless, it’s clear he has a spot on this team and a significant one at that.  But fans are impatient.  They get frustrated.  Maybe the power never comes and after you commit, he is little more than a glorified singles hitter.  How long do you stick with him?  Do you ask him to change his approach?  It’s worked so far, but it can work better, right?

Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

So what you might do is ask him to try to pull the ball more.  Swing for the fences.  You may get more power out of him, but if he’s overswinging, he ends up more prone to strikeouts, his average is sure to drop, and doesn’t that pretty much negate the whole adjustment?  Hitters who drive 25 or more out of the park are scarce, but only the best can keep their averages near .300.  Sure, a .270/25/90 split is pretty good, but as he ages, that average may drop and there may not be as much of a spike in power to justify the changes.

You certainly don’t want to ruin the guy’s swing.  He’s worked on his approach for a while and combined with his natural ability, he can become The Guy to lead your team year in and year out.

You have to remember that he’s just a young guy and power can develop later.

But will it?

That’s your decision.  He may be at his offensive peak right now.  Perhaps you can sell high and get a big arm for your rotation.  If, in two or three years, he’s still hitting .300 but it’s mostly singles, that might not be that productive.  At that point, you can’t sit him, but you can’t really trade him for what you should get.

You just have to face the facts.  While he plays a position with an expectation of power numbers, you also have to accept that he has a line drive swing and that’s just going to be more conducive to doubles and singles. There will be occasional homers, and he’s hit 20 in a season once, so he can do it again in any given season.

You just can’t expect it.

Thankfully, the Royals of the mid-70s never tried to tinker with George Brett’s swing.*

*At least once Charlie Lau was done getting it in line.

He wasn’t the masher that Lee Mayberry was in those years, but he brought more than just homers to the party – a high contact rate, scores of hard-hit drives into a gap, the ability to get on base.  In his early years, Brett was among the leaders in hits, doubles, extra base hits and became a rising star.

Cue Billy Butler.

Drafted out of high school, Butler, like Brett, debuted within three years of being  a top 40 selection.  Brett was a shortstop but shortly after moved to third base.  Butler, somehow, was drafted as a third baseman, though first base seemed his destiny.

Neither showed much home run power as they advanced through the minor leagues.  Brett hit just 25 in three-plus seasons before he reached the big leagues.  Butler hit 73 in 397 games, though the one time he hit more than 20 in a season was when he spent most of the year in the Caifornia League with High Desert.  He hit 25 at that level, but never more than 15 in any other stop.

Brett and Butler share a lot of characteristics.  Butler strikes out more often than Brett, but he’s still better than league average at getting the ball in play.  Both are gap-to-gap hitters and have swings that produce a lot of doubles.  Both walk a lot, both due to a good eye and pitchers avoiding giving them good pitches.  Despite that, they still end up towards the top of the league in hits.

Their numbers through their first five big league seasons are remarkably similar.

Tale of the Tape (Years 1-5)

 George Brett Billy Butler
Total Bases10601042

I’m not going to suggest that in Billy Butler the Royals have another Hall of Famer in their midst (or am I?), but there has been a large amount of discussion about Billy Butler ranging from complaints about his speed (valid – a refrigerator has more quickness), to complaining because he walks too much. Or singles too much.  Or doesn’t hit homers.  Or can’t play first.

Some of those criticisms are fair.  Butler will never been a nimble first baseman.  His best hope is to become average, and that’s a stretch, especially with Eric Hosmer at first for the next seven years (at least).

But Butler can hit and nobody can deny that.

I’ve said it multiple times, on here and on Twitter, as well as on The Royalman Report: Billy Butler is not a home run hitter.  He’s never been a home run hitter.  His approach is one that doesn’t lend itself to home run hitting.  He’s comfortable going the other way and shooting for the right field gap.

And why shouldn’t he?  He’s gotten to the big leagues and hit at a high level since he’s been a full time player.  It’s gotten him this far, so why change?

At only 25 years old, Butler still has time to add power.  It’s generally concluded that a player’s power peak comes around age 27-30.  Butler has room to grow into a slugger.  In the meantime, he’s going to hit the ball.  He’s going to hit the ball hard.  He’ll hit doubles.  He’ll take walks.  He’ll clog bases – but he’ll be on more often than anyone else on the Royals (until Hosmer fully adjusts to this level).

But nobody can expect him to be Ryan Braun or Jose Bautista.  That’s not who he is.

If George Brett were playing today on this Royals team, what would people say?  Would they say the same things – that he can’t hit for power, that he can’t drive in runs like so many others?  He seemed to do alright power-wise as he got older.  The batting average and doubles stayed around, while homers increased here and there.  Brett never tried to hit homers.  His approach was to drive the ball, and if it cleared the fence, all the better.

Butler’s the same way, and if fans can just exhibit a little bit of patience and appreciate what he does well, they’ll be much happier.

George Brett’s not walking through that door.

More required reading about Billy Butler on Kings of Kauffman

A discussion on The Royalman Report about Butler with Kevin Scobee.