Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
Since the position battles in spring training don’t appear to be all that exciting, I’m going through the Royals’ lineup to get an idea of how opposing pitchers will look to attack each player this season. I use data from Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, and Fangraphs to figure out what pitches each hitter loves to see, and what pitches give them nightmares. So far, I’ve gone over the profiles for Norichika Aoki, Omar Infante, and Eric Hosmer. Today, I get to talk about the best pure hitter on the roster, and one of the best hitters in Royals’ history. Billy Butler gets talked about quite a bit around the internet, so let’s continue that trend here.
If there’s one thing we know about Butler, it’s that he destroys fastballs. Since 2008, he has slugged .530 against hard stuff, and he also has a .325 average against fastballs. His success peaked in 2012, when he hit .361 with a .644 slugging percentage against all fastballs, including a .728 SLG against fourseamers that year. Of Butler’s 29 home runs in 2012, only 2 came against non-fastballs. We saw a similar trend last season, as Butler hit 13 of his 15 home runs against fastballs. We all know that Butler’s production declined in 2013, and his performance against fastballs was no different. His average facing hard stuff was .314, and his slugging percentage was .483. If you’re familiar with baseball, you know those numbers are good. But because fans have come to expect an even higher level of excellence from Butler, those numbers seem disappointing. I think it’s always a good thing to keep some perspective in mind when discussing any player. Even when Butler has a down year, he’s still a great hitter.
Where Butler struggled last year, and where Butler has struggled throughout his career, is against breaking balls. Since 2008, he’s hit just .237 against sliders and .264 against curveballs. In that timeframe, Butler has just 7 home runs on breaking balls, compared to 94 against fastballs. His 2013 season was even worse, in which Butler hit .225 with a .246 slugging percentage against breaking balls. That paltry .021 ISO comes from Butler hitting only three extra-base hits off of those kinds of pitches last season. Even in his breakout 2012 year, he hit just .239 with a .282 slugging percentage against breaking balls. Basically, all of Butler’s success comes from his ability to crush fastballs.
Why, then, would pitchers give him any fastballs to hit?
The answer comes from Butler’s terrific approach and plate discipline. He’s not going to chase pitches out of the zone, which means opposing pitchers are forced to throw strikes. If they fall behind in the count early, they leave themselves in a spot in which they’ll need to give him fastballs, which obviously isn’t the best strategy for getting Butler out. Simply put, Butler’s approach makes things very difficult for pitchers to attack him.
It seems that most pitchers dealt with Butler in similar fashion in both 2012 and 2013, with a couple of exceptions I found interesting. When left-handed pitchers got ahead of Butler in 2012, they threw breaking balls 30% of the time, and offspeed pitches 12% of the time. Last season, however, lefties in those counts threw both categories of pitches about 20% of the time. One would expect opposite-handed pitchers to use changeups more frequently, so 2012 may have been an insignificant outlier, while 2013 was correcting the trend. Nonetheless, I did find that tidbit fascinating.
The only other main difference for Butler between 2012 and 2013 was where pitchers attacked him. As you can see from this link, Butler saw more pitches on the inner half of the plate in 2012, than he did in 2013. It’s not a huge difference, but it is clear that pitchers didn’t want to give Butler as many good strikes to see. Overall, Butler saw balls in the zone 48.5% of the time last year, compared to 49.3% in 2012. However, he swung at pitches at nearly identical rates in both years, and actually made more contact on all pitches in 2013. The only problem with that was most of the contact Butler made led to too many ground balls. A player like Butler isn’t going to succeed while hitting the ball on the ground on over half of his balls in play.
We see that pitchers were a bit more careful with Butler last season, but they didn’t drastically alter their plans from the previous season. The pitch variety wasn’t all that different, and other than some slight location changes, Butler was attacked in similar ways. Despite similar approaches from pitchers, Butler’s results obviously declined. The upshot here is that it seems that most of Butler’s issues last year should be correctable mechanical adjustments. He’ll continue to be a patient hitter at the plate, and he’ll continue to force pitchers to throw him fastballs so they don’t give away free bases. If he can slightly tweak whatever issues were causing him to hit the ball into the ground so frequently, the Royals may see another excellent season from their excellent designated hitter.