Billy Butler, Deja Vu, and Biases


Apr 07, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Kansas City Royals first baseman Billy Butler (16) hits a grand slam home run during the fifth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve been down this path before.

For whatever reason, every summer, a pocket of Royals fans starts to crow about Billy Butler. I have to concede that Butler is not a perfect player, nor is he a perfect hitter. But he’s very good.

No, he won’t steal a base for you. There’s always the fear that he’ll ground into a double play because he hits the ball hard, often on the ground, and he’s slow. He’s not a good defender at first base. These are valid critiques of his play. And despite hitting 29 homers last season, he’s just not a home run hitter.

It’s that last one that has people riled up. Butler has just six homers this season through 80 Royals games. The math is easy and it puts him on a pace for 12 homers in 2013. That’s not good from your cleanup hitter. But he’s also been productive in other ways. After struggling early, he’s bringing his batting average back up and he’s walking in 14% of his plate appearances.

I’d love to see Butler hit more home runs. At times last season, it seemed as if he was going to put up a challenge to Steve Balboni‘s franchise record 36 home runs, but a month without a homer cut off the opportunity. No matter. The 29 homers were nearly a professional career high. He’d hit 30 in 2005 in the minor leagues, though 25 of them came with High Desert, and hitting there is kind of like hitting on the moon. Butler’s next highest minor league total was 15 homers. In 2009, he’d hit 21.

But while he was doing all of that, he was cranking out doubles by the truckload. Butler has two fewer doubles than former MVP Ryan Braun in the same number of years. Of the top 100 active players in doubles hit, he’s the youngest in age and one of five players to be included who haven’t completed seven full seasons. He has more doubles than Joey Votto in the same number of seasons (but I’ll concede that he does have more games played).

May 5, 2013; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals batter Billy Butler (13) reacts after driving in two runs to tie the game against the Chicago White Sox during the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

His 121 OPS+ is 23rd in the AL. His .349 wOBA ranks 25th in the AL. Billy Butler is a productive Major League hitter. Period.

But he doesn’t have the gaudy numbers. He only has 45 RBI this year, nearly half as many as MLB leader Miguel Cabrera. Completely fair fact to point out. By now, though, I think most recognize the RBI as a team-dependent statistic. If Billy Butler had hit 84 solo home runs this year, he’d still trail Cabrera in RBI. You must have runners on ahead of you to drive in runs. Butler, to his credit, has taken advantage of the opportunities he’s had. According to Baseball Musings, Butler’s driven in the 6th highest percentage of baserunners in the league. Every hitter ahead of him (Chris Davis, Allen Craig, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Cabrera) has had more runners on base, though, so of course Butler will trail them. Even so, as of game time on Wednesday night, Butler trailed Cabrera 21.91% to 21.93% – a whopping .02%.

In June 2011, Kevin Scobee wrote:

"Maybe Butler just isn’t “clutch” enough for some Royals fans, though, a .450 OBP with runners in scoring position wouldn’t seem to be a bad number. Maybe he doesn’t hit for enough “power”, which would be a fine argument I guess, if it weren’t the equivalent of complaining when someone gave you a Corvette because you didn’t like the color."

My favorite comparison for Butler has always been to Edgar Martinez. The legendary DH hit 30 homers once in his career, but nobody suggested he wasn’t productive. But like Martinez, Butler doesn’t have to just hit homers to be productive. It’s a nice byproduct. George Brett had a similar career path – lots of doubles, lots of contact, but modest home run numbers relative to others in the league.

From nearly two years ago:

"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."

I see Butler as a case study for the biases that we can have about players when we see them. Butler is a big guy – he’s listed at 6’1″ and 240 pounds. Big, barrel-chested guys usually have 30 homers and 175 strikeouts. They’re often the Rob Deer, Adam Dunn type. And that works for them. But Butler isn’t the same guy. However, just looking like one of the big guys, the expectation is that he has to be hitting 40 homers a year. That’d be great, but he’s plenty productive staying within himself. Would a repeat of 2012’s homer results disappoint anyone? Absolutely not.

Here’s a fun question: if Billy Butler looked like David Lough (5’11”, 180) or Lorenzo Cain (6’2″, 205), would anyone be taking issue with his production? If he didn’t look like the stereotypical “slugger” but was still driving 60+ extra base hits (as he’s done in each of the past four seasons), while batting .306/.371/.483, who would complain? Nobody. Frankly, are the Butler complaints just extending middle school mentality by picking on the fat kid?

Butler’s 2013 has started out quietly. But generally, that’s how his seasons start out. For his career, Butler’s first halves have resulted in a line of .290/.363/.438 with a total of 50 homers in 2098 plate appearances. In the second half, he’s hit better – a .309/.365/.496 line with 59 homers in 1764 appearances attests to that. In nearly every season, he’s seen significant improvement in his slugging numbers in the second half of a season.

SLG%1st half2nd halfISO1st half2nd half

Butler’s a smart, patient hitter. He watches more film than anyone else on the team and picks up pitchers better than anyone. There are adjustments to make – KC Kingdom pointed out a few areas where the stats show he’s struggled relative to last year – but if there’s anyone the Royals should trust to make those adjustments, it’s Billy Butler.

So what if he doesn’t look the part? There are fans complaining about a player who leads the team in OPS because it’s not as high as it’s been before. He owns a career OPS+ of 123. He’s two points below that now. Let’s all panic.

It makes no sense to me. Is Billy a victim of his own success last year? We’ve seen that he can hit nearly 30 homers, so now, he has to do that again? Is it just the expectation of what baseball tells us he should be, but isn’t?

He’s the best hitter on the team, even in a season where, so far, he hasn’t produced as well as last year. Why the outrage?