As the 2015 Oakland A's have floundered to a 37-45 record, one of the biggest disappointments of the season has been the pedestrian performance of designated hitter Billy Butler. He can't run and he can't field, so he's only being paid to hit, and he's drawing one of the highest salaries on the team to do so. But so far this season he has an OPS+ of 97 and a wRC+ of 98, two ways of saying that he's been just a shade below average at the plate; he's also slightly below replacement level on both WAR scales. And then, just as you're ready to give up on a guy, he goes 8-for-16 over five games and makes you question everything all over again.
The title of this article might have given you pause because it includes the word "again," suggesting that Butler had at some point been good before in Oakland. It's tough to remember, but he actually started the year on fire. He posted a .992 OPS during the A's first homestand and first road trip, 17 games in all. But once they returned to the Coliseum in late April, he stopped hitting entirely for well over a month. It wasn't until mid-June, when he was finally benched against a few right-handed starters (Chi Chi Gonzalez, Matt Shoemaker, Tyson Ross), that he finally came alive again. In that game against Ross' Padres, Butler poked a pinch-hit single in the eighth against reliever Cory Mazzoni, and since then he's been slamming like he was in early April.
First 17 games: .369/.423/.569, 3 HR, 6 BB, 9 Ks, .396 BABIP (71 PAs)
45-game slump: .198/.253/.254, 1 HR, 12 BB, 34 Ks, .234 BABIP (194 PAs)
Last 14 games: .349/.462/.605, 2 HR, 8 BB, 7 Ks, .382 BABIP (52 PAs)
He's been even better in the last five games, going 8-for-16 with a homer, a triple, three doubles, four walks, and only three strikeouts, good for a 1.600 OPS. And if you're not a fan of carefully cherry-picked endpoints, here are his monthly lines:
April: .287/.354/.448, .802 OPS, .314 BABIP, 8.3% BB, 14.6% Ks
May: .241/.278/.302, .580 OPS, .276 BABIP, 4.8% BB, 15.9% Ks
June: .256/.358/.415, .773 OPS, .297 BABIP, 12.6% BB, 16.8% Ks
(June includes two July games)
Either way you look at it, the story is the same. He started the year looking like his old self, with a good average, good plate discipline, and midlevel power -- in fact, his April batting line is nearly identical to his career line. Then his hits stopped falling in, he stopped drawing walks, and his power disappeared, all for at least a month. But something clicked in June and he's back to his old tricks.
We know what Butler has done, but we are left with the questions of why it happened and what we can expect form him the rest of the season. When I look at his monthly splits to see where May differs from the others, these are the main differences I see:
- Walk percentage significantly lower
- Isolated slugging down from around .160 to .060
- HR per fly ball rate plummets from double-digits to 3.4%
- Percentage of balls pulled to LF down from around 43% to 33%
You might cite his BABIP as well, but in this case I think the small decline in May was probably more a result of the above factors than a cause of them. That cold stretch was definitely not just a result of bad batted ball luck, since it included poor plate discipline and what I interpret as an inability to pull the ball with authority. I think that he really didn't hit as well in May as he did in early April, and that his recent resurgence has been marked by a return to the good tendencies he showed in those opening weeks. It hasn't just been a matter of how many ground balls sneak through holes for hits in each month. He's been a different guy each month.
The question you have to ask yourself is this. Did Butler stink in May because he was just in a funk, perhaps struggling with his timing or just "not seeing the ball well" or affected by a stubbed toe or some minor ache we didn't know about? Or was May a sign of his sudden decline, with the last two weeks just a brief positive hiccup on his steady road to bad-body baseball oblivion?
I don't think we'll really be able to answer that conundrum until we've seen where this current hot streak goes. Is it just a two-week oasis before another six-week wasteland of groundouts, or is it a sign that there's still plenty left in the tank? I tend to think that he's not as bad as we saw in May and that his season numbers will even out a bit as the sample size increases toward a full season, but that he's also not going to be as good as he was in his best years in Kansas City. But most hitters go through peaks and valleys like this during the long MLB campaign, and Butler's job now is to build his current success into a peak high enough to make up for his failings in May, both in terms of rescuing his own personal stats and also helping the A's earn enough wins to climb back into the playoff race.
There are nine games left before the break and the A's will face lefty starters in three of them (Happ, Montgomery, Sabathia), so let's see if Butler can stay on the right track and enter the second half on a positive note. This feels weird to say, but at the moment he's the hottest hitter on the team.
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