The Oakland Athletics have signed Billy Butler, and that was probably not a name you were expecting to discuss this winter. They signed him for three years and $30 million, which might seem a like a lot coming from the A's, and Butler doesn't immediately appear to fit in with the defense-and-versatility theme on Oakland's roster. Therefore, it's possible that you might be underwhelmed by this signing, questioning Billy Beane's decision after watching a year's worth of questionable decisions. Beane used to generally get the benefit of the doubt on things, and if he made an odd move then people mostly sat on the edges of their seats waiting to find out why it was brilliant. That reputation took a hit in 2014, but that doesn't mean the GM has run out of tricks.
Here are three reasons to be excited about Billy Butler coming to Oakland.
1. The A's needed help against lefties
Here is the list of A's hitters who were better than average against left-handed pitching in 2014:
That doesn't seem so bad. But wait. Blanks and Freiman are mutually exclusive options, as they both serve as platoon first basemen and you really only need one guy to fill that half of the role. Cespedes is gone, of course, and at the moment Soto is not under contract either (and probably won't be now, I'd imagine). Moss is a surprising entry on that list; he actually hit better against lefties than righties last year, but that's more likely a fluke given that in each of the two previous years his OPS against righties was 250 points higher than against southpaws. It's probably not best to go into 2015 expecting Moss to be a top weapon against lefties, and then just enjoy the bonus production if it happens.
So that leaves Norris and Donaldson. The A's have two hitters who are good against lefties, three if you count Freiman/Blanks, and they can expect to see at least 50 lefty starters and a bevy of southpaw relief specialists throughout the year. It was a weakness of the team last year, and it was only looking to be worse without Cespedes. Craig Gentry is the only other player on the roster who is even a decent bet to join that list next year, after his off-year in 2014.
How big of a problem was this weakness last year? First, consider that in 2013 the A's posted these splits, with the number in parenthesis being an OPS+ weighted to the league's averages in the same split:
2013 A's vs. RHP: .252/.324/.414, .738 OPS (106 sOPS+)
2013 A's vs. LHP: .258/.332/.428, .760 OPS (114 sOPS+)
Not only were the A's better against lefties that year, they had the third-best OPS and second-best wRC+ against them in the entire Majors and were within sniffing distance of first. They hit lefties literally as well as or better than any other team in the game. And last year?
2014 A's vs. RHP: .246/.322/.386, .708 OPS (103 sOPS+)
2014 A's vs. LHP: .239/.313/.368, .681 OPS (93 sOPS+)
It's important to remember that offense was down across the Majors last year, so the raw numbers aren't enough by which to judge this. But those OPS+ marks show that they were not lapping the league anymore, and were in fact below-average against lefties; in terms of rank, they dropped to 23rd in OPS and 20th in wRC+. Wow, that is indeed rank.
So, hitting lefties had become a problem for the A's. Here are Butler's splits:
Butler vs. RHP, career: .288/.347/.424, .771 OPS (91 sOPS+)
Butler vs. LHP, career: .314/.393/.519, .912 OPS (125 sOPS+)
Butler vs. RHP, 2014: .255/.301/.352, .653 (88 sOPS+)
Butler vs. LHP, 2014: .321/.387/.460, .847 (140 sOPS+)
Even in Butler's off-year last year, he still pounded lefties. In fact, if you once again account for the league-wide drop in hitting, he was actually better than his career line against southpaws. The power wasn't there, but we'll get to that later. You can't tell from those batting lines, but his plate discipline also tightens up against lefties; his strikeouts stay similar, but his walks shoot up.
The A's needed a right-handed bat, specifically one who could mash lefties. They've got it, and this time they didn't skimp on an under-the-radar nobody and pray for the best. They paid for a name-brand hitter. Butler will immediately help one of the biggest shortcomings of Oakland's lineup.
2. The A's needed a DH
Oakland has rolled without a full-time designated hitter for the last few years, and nobody has seemed to mind. Bob Melvin has been able to use it creatively, as a place to give players a half-day off or ease them back from injuries. Here's the thing, though:
A's DHs, 2013: .230/.309/.389, .698 (93 sOPS+)
A's DHs, 2014: .215/.294/.343, .637 (75 sOPS+)
The A's have gotten absolutely no offense out of the spot in the lineup dedicated solely to offense. It got so bad last year that they battled for the weakest DH production in the entire AL. There are many potential reasons why that may have happened, including but not limited to the school of thought that some hitters just aren't comfortable as DHs and don't perform as well in that role, but the important thing is that it happened and it appears to be a consistent trend rather than a statistical blip.
So who was actually doing the DHing last year, and doing it so poorly? The leaders by game:
Alberto Callaspo (39 games)
John Jaso (35)
Adam Dunn (20)
Yoenis Cespedes (16)
Brandon Moss (12)
Coco Crisp (12)
Derek Norris (10)
Jonny Gomes (9)
... and some others (24)
Let's take one more moment to appreciate the fact that Callaspo started as the designated freaking hitter more times than anyone else on the roster last year. Sure would have been cool if he hadn't needed to do that, since he can't hit. Team probably would have done way better.
Furthermore, Callaspo, Dunn, Cespedes, and Gomes are all gone. That's 84 games worth of starts right there. Jaso's 35 obviously came against right-handers, if not exclusively than close to it, and he can likely still get some reps there if he is still on the team and needs a spot in the lineup. But the DH spot is wide open and in dire need of improvement, and while the mix-and-match game is fun for our rosterbation purposes it might not be the best thing in actual reality. Now there is a strong hitter to pencil in there mostly every day, and apparently that isn't going to cost anyone on the current roster more than a dozen games. I'd rather see Jaso learn to play first base anyway, considering that he's posted a sub-.600 OPS in each of the last two years as a DH. He might be one of those guys who needs to play the field to be at his best at the plate.
Note that Butler's career OPS as a first baseman is a bit better than as a DH (.843 to .787), but the difference isn't big and he seems to alternate each year between hitting better at one spot or the other. That looks like normal statistical variation to me, and although 2014 was one of the years in which he was better when he played the field, Butler seems like a guy whose bat doesn't disappear when he's limited to playing only on the offensive side of the ball. He'll almost certainly get some starts at first base, too, so it's not like the DH spot is locked down for 162 games. There's just a primary option there who doesn't double as a light-hitting middle infielder.
3. Butler could bounce back with a change of scenery
If you're not sold on Butler, one reason might be that he's what we in the business call a "bad-body player." That's a euphemism for chubby and unathletic. That's not meant to be mean, but rather alludes to the cruel reality that unathletic players tend to age poorly and begin their declines much earlier than their leaner counterparts. Once they hit their early-30s, watch out. Be comfortable in the knowledge that Butler will only be 29 next season, so even given his shape he's not likely to fall to pieces just yet.
Unless, of course, you put a lot of stock in his 2014 line: .271/.323/.379, .702 OPS (95 OPS+). He was below-average overall. You might see that as the beginning of his decline. Beane sees it as buying low. Butler's OPS+ marks for the last several years, with 100 being average and 120 being 20 percent above average:
If we were talking about a player's progress through his 30s, that would be a cause for concern. But come on, Athletics Nation, we know that this is exactly the kind of player that Beane loves to target and often succeeds with. That's five big years in six tries, and the player is still in his 20s. The smart money says it was an off-year.
But wait, there's more! Remember that Butler played for the 2014 Royals. Yes, they succeeded, and they took us to school with their pesky speed in the Wild Card game. But that doesn't change the fact that their offensive strategy -- put the ball in play, eschew walks and strikeouts and homers in order to hit lots of singles -- is just plain dumb on the larger scale. If your comeback is to remind me that they rode that strategy all the way to the World Series, my response is that no, they didn't. In the playoffs they suddenly started walking and hitting homers, two things they were terrible at during the regular season. So, their stupid all-singles offense (plus a lights-out pitching staff) got them to 89 wins in a weak division and a Wild Card berth, and they did well in the postseason only because they completely reversed that offensive approach. For more on this, here is Joe Posnanski with a June 2014 article which, while now dripping with cruel irony, still gives you a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.
All reports suggest that, not only were the Royals employing this strategy of swinging early and often and valuing contact over good contact, they were/are actively trying to mold their hitters into that image. It doesn't matter if the player is better suited as a slugger, or counts patience and discipline among his strengths. The Royals want him to swing and hit singles. It's not a coincidence that every Royals player -- Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Butler himself -- has stopped hitting for power. It seems that they've stopped because the Royals told them to stop.
Butler averaged 20 homers per season from 2009-2013, but he hit only nine last year. Want to know where his power went? There's a good chance that the team told him to stop it. "There's just no reward (here at spacious Kauffman Stadium) for us to try and hit home runs," one of their hitting coaches literally said. (It was Jack Maloof, which rhymes with "doof.") And while the rest of the team could slap the ball around and beat out infield singles, Butler runs like the diamond is flooded with maple syrup.
One consequence of taking on an aggressive approach is that you are likely to fall behind in the count more. Last year, pitchers scored a first-pitch strike against Butler 62.4 percent of the time, which is an absurdly high number; in all of his other full seasons, he sat in the 52-56 percent range. I have to assume that's because he was swinging on the first pitch more often in 2014, rather than taking it and working the count. As a result, he was behind in the count more often. For his career, he is ahead in the count substantially more often than he is behind (36% to 31%), and his OPS while ahead is more than 400 points better (1.037 to .619). In 2014, he was behind far more than he was ahead (28% to 38%) and his OPS was still more than 300 points better while ahead (.919 to .592).
This line of thought is speculation, but it's also based on great evidence. Butler has never had a problem getting ahead in the count. Suddenly, after five straight years of being an excellent, patient hitter, he started falling behind and stopped hitting, and that happened right as his team was adamantly stressing an over-aggressive approach that didn't match his skill set. It's possible that Butler just hit the wall at age 28 and we're watching his early decline. It seems way more likely to me that the Royals were misusing a talented player and asking him to be something he's not, and that his numbers suffered. He was the round block, and the Royals were trying to cram him into the square hole.
This was not the player I was expecting to get, and honestly this was not the player I wanted. But now that he's here, I'm already starting to see the logic behind it. Whenever Beane makes a move that seems odd at first glance, it's best to exercise patience and give it some time. His moves often look better in hindsight -- not always, but often.
Butler hits a lot of grounders and bounces into a lot of double plays and can't run or play defense, but no player is perfect. He brings to the table a couple things that Oakland sorely needed, and 3/$30M is not the monster contract that it used to be. Heck, I hear there are relief pitchers who get $10 million per year these days. Oh, and he's never been on the DL in his entire career.
So lay out your dishes and get ready for a hearty Country Breakfast. Billy Butler is in town, and it's time to get excited about him. Odds are that you're going to like him when all is said and done.