The signing of Billy Butler elicited a wide variety of reactions. Some thought it was a foolish long-term deal for a declining, bad-body, no-defense player. Others praised it as a buy-low move for an undervalued hitter coming off of an off-year, in the same winter that fellow DH Victor Martinez got nearly twice as much annual money on his deal. You could have had almost any opinion on Butler and still backed it up with a valid, logical argument. Unfortunately, the naysayers look to be the ones who called this one correctly, at least so far.
I was optimistic about the signing, as I tend to be when it comes to the A's. I still think Butler has good things to offer. But he's getting shut down right now, with a season line of .253/.301/.354, and I fear the problem may be systemic. Butler just isn't pulling the ball as well as he used to, and that seems like a bad sign for any hitter for all kinds of reasons. To illustrate the problem, here is Butler's spray chart from 2013, courtesy of Fangraphs (I picked '13 as a midpoint between his career-best '12 and his weak '14):
He hit the ball all over the place. He pulled the ball on the ground a lot, but he also drove it to left, with a bunch of homers and plenty more liners/flies. He also hit to the opposite field quite well. Compare that with 2015.
Almost everything he pulls is on the ground. I'm sure defensive shifts take away from a lot of guys, but if you want to get a good head start against Butler then shift your infield to the left ... and while you're at it, move your outfielders to the right, cause you won't need them in left field.
But maybe I'm looking at those spray charts and seeing what I want to see, like a baseball Rorschach Test. What do the numbers say? Fangraphs offers splits on the location of each batted ball -- Pull, Center, or Opposite -- and I tallied up his career marks, as well as each individual season from 2012-2015. He's pulling the ball nearly exactly as much as he always has, and though a handful of his up-the-middle hits have shifted to right over the last two years, overall there isn't much difference. Ah, but that's just a tally of his total hits of all type to each field. What types of hits have gone to each field? Here are three tables:
(Context reminder: In 2012 Butler was great, in '13 good, in '14 meh, and this year so far he's been bad. Key numbers bolded for emphasis.)
Whoa, those grounders are way up. Of course, small-sample caveats apply, as we're only talking about 190 total batted balls in 2015 (as opposed to ~500 in a full Butler season, from 2012-14) and 71 total to the pull side (~180 for a full season). That adds up to 58 grounders to the left side, whereas 49 grounders would have given him his normal rate of around 69.5%. That's a difference of nine grounders over two months.
Perhaps that's just a fluke, but in this case the resulting lack of balls in the air is so severe that it does leave me worried. We're not talking about just a reduction in flies, but rather almost a complete elimination. Despite puling the ball precisely as often as normal, he's only elevated three balls high enough to left field to classify as flies, and one of those was an infield popup. Whereas normally I'd like to see liners more than flies, for a guy with some power I'd like to see him elevate it to his pull side so that it can clear the fence sometimes. For his career, Butler has homered on 35% of the fly balls he's pulled to left (that counts flies + liners). Although he's at 33% this year, that's only made up of 1-for-3, compared with the 31 homers he pulled to left field the last three years combined.
There is a decline in grounders here, but not as big of one as the increase we just saw in the last section. I'm more interested in the sharp decline in line drives up the middle. I know this is the opposite of the complaint I just made, but that's because it's much harder to homer to center field and frankly Butler isn't going to muscle it out that way very often (he's around his career rate of HR/FB to center in 2015). While I want him to lift it to left, I'd rather see him spraying liners when he goes up the middle, or even hitting it sharply on the ground (infield defenders may shift him up the middle, but we'll get to that in a moment). On one hand, the distinction between liners and flies isn't always a hugely meaningful one, so this could just be noise, but on the other hand it's also one more small piece of potentially bad news to add to the ledger.
Butler was a monster to the opposite field in 2012, but the following two years are a better idea of what his true talent was. His groundball rate has been going up every year, but infielders can cheat up the middle because all a second baseman has to do is knock down the ball and he'll always be able to recover in time to throw out the molasses-footed Butler. He's also not hitting to right with authority anymore; after shooting seven homers that direction in 2012-13 combined, he hit only one last year and doesn't have any this year (though there's one black dot in right-center on that spray chart above that must have just missed the cutoff).
Add it all up, and what do we have? Butler this year has been a hitter who can't pull the ball in the air, doesn't have enough power to hit it out to the opposite field, and is turning too many of his liners up the middle into lazy flies that are more easily tracked down by outfielders. Do the numbers bear out that summary?
|Year||Pull LF||Center CF||Oppo RF|
|Career||.336 / .558||.350 / .505||.366 / .521|
|2012||.359 / .679||.394 / .596||.397 / .579|
|2013||.319 / .492||.328 / .443||.438 / .607|
|2014||.308 / .503||.314 / .359||.374 / .519|
|2015||.239 / .324||.387 / .531||.296 / .389|
Pretty much. His isolated power to his pull side is usually .200 or more, but it's down below .100 this year -- that'll happen when you only hit grounders. He's usually dynamite to the opposite field, but his hits aren't falling and the ones that are tend to be the singles and not the extra-basers. His only normal-looking split is the up-the-middle one.
One last table.
|Career||.238 / .255||.277 / .724||.745 / .909|
|2012||.233 / .242||.368 / 1.097||.697 / .815|
|2013||.218 / .233||.296 / .768||.765 / .857|
|2014||.224 / .232||.234 / .563||.701 / .856|
|2015||.277 / .287||.185 / .500||.594 / .750|
This one kind of ties it all together. Butler is hitting the ball on the ground more than ever -- 53.2%, up five percentage points from his career mark. Those grounders are actually finding holes slightly more than normal, which kind of hurts my argument that it's easy to shift against him. Yay! That good news is fleeting, though, because his fly balls aren't going anywhere (since none are to his slug-happy pull side) and his liners are finding gloves.
I don't know how much of this is real and how much of it is a fluke. I do know that it matches my eyeball test, as Butler often seems to hit the ball hard but can't ever seem to elevate it, especially to pull. The low average on liners looks flukey, but then when I think back to the games I've watched I remember a lot of outfielders not moving very much to catch them because the fielders were so well-positioned, like they knew where the ball was going to go before he hit it. Is any of this going to change over time? Is this just a normal slump that Butler will break out of with a hailstorm of hard-hit flies to LF as the summer wears on? Or is this the next stage in the early decline of a once-strong hitter? This seems like as good a time as any to mention that his walk rate is also at a career-low after dropping for the second straight year, though at least his low strikeout rate has stayed steady.
Whatever the answers to those questions might prove to be, I will say one thing for sure: Butler is miscast as an everyday cleanup hitter right now. In his current form, I think he's a singles hitter who should be batting no higher than 6th, even against a lefty. He could still be a good singles hitter with only a small resurgence, but I don't think he's ever going to be someone who makes sense in the middle of a juicy rally, in between lefties Vogt and Reddick. For that, you want a righty with some pop, like Brett Lawrie (.331/.357/.489 since April 26) or even Mark Canha, who is outpacing Butler in homers, OBP, and slugging percentage. And hey, if one of those guys hits a grounder with the bases loaded, they each at least have a chance of beating out the relay throw to avoid a double play; Butler is tied for 3rd in MLB with 10 GIDPs.
Furthermore, both Lawrie (.717 OPS) and Canha (.901) have demonstrated that they can hit right-handers, who make up about two-thirds of starting pitchers, so there's no reason to live with Butler's .614 platoon split in the heart of the order. I would advocate hitting Butler 7th-8th against RHP and 5th-6th against lefties (.828 OPS vs. LHP). And furthermore, with backup catcher Josh Phegley on an absolute tear that has raised him to .313/.365/.463 for the season, I would even sit Butler against some tough righties and let Vogt play a less-demanding day at first base a bit more often. Phegley is hot at the plate and talented in the field, so there's no reason not to let him play more right now given that Vogt has some versatility and Butler isn't the best current option.
Billy Butler is having a terrible season, and I'm not particularly optimistic that it's going to get better. It's time to change his role from being the everyday cleanup hitter to a guy who bats 6th-8th and sits against tough righties.
Note: Stats in this post do not include the game from Sunday, June 8.