I'm going to let you in on a secret, but I want to ask that you keep it just between us. I feel good about the fact that the internet seems like a small and trustworthy place. The fact is, I have not generally been overly enamored with Billy Butler, perhaps not his biggest supporter one might argue. Again, let's keep this between you, me, and thousands of strangers on the internet.
There is precedent for a defensively irrelevant, base-clogging sloth contributing positively, even mightily, to the A's success. Frank Thomas led the 2006 A's to the ALCS, but he also launched 35 HRs and homeruns have a way of neutralizing a lack of speed something fierce, just as a .381 OBP will make even a full-time DH quite the valuable commodity.
Billy Butler is not going to hit 35 HRs in 2006, nor is he going to post an OBP north of .380. Sadly, a so-so season of .260/.330/.400, with no defensive value and less speed on the bases, would represent an improvement over the latest in a steady decline that has been Butler's late 20s.
Today I am not going to focus on slash lines, but rather on approach. Butler does have some things going for him, including a quick bat through the zone that can drive balls hard to both alleys. At his best he reminds one a bit of Edgar Martinez; it's just that at his worst he reminds one of having physical relations with Phyllis Diller while listening to Nick Jonas abuse the concept of music.
What aggravated me most about watching Butler in 2015 was the pure stupidity of his approach. He would come up in DP situations and seemingly wait for sinker or slider that started at the knees, then be surprised that these are the pitches which sink below the knees and are commonly rolled to the shortstop.
Hitting in general, and gauging pitches in particular, is really easy -- I've done it in my living room for years. OK fine, it's apparently quite a bit harder from a major league batter's box. I get that. But for over 100 years, pitches that start low tend only to get lower, and since the dawn of breakfast ground balls have not been Butler's friend.
I see one avenue to a true "bounce back season" for Butler and that is a disciplined approach to wait for, and attack, pitches that he can drive in the air: pitches that are up, be they high fastballs, hanging sliders, changeups not buried, or just first pitch "get me over strikes". Ideally, in true Edgar Martinez fashion you'll see a lot of line drives, plenty of gappers, and his fair share of HRs."Doubles machines" can slug awfully well, too -- for his career Martinez averaged 19 HRs per season, yet he slugged a robust .515.
For Butler, ground balls are a poison not just because of the dreaded DP but also because infields can play him deep and infielders have ample time to convert any ball they can get to into an out. Fly balls tend to come with lower BABIPs and higher SLG % than their ground ball counter parts, but in the case of Butler, both carry low BABIPs while fly balls still provide the chance for Butler to slug well if he is hitting the ball hard to all fields.
Note that from 2008-2011, Butler's "fly ball %" held steady at, respectively, 34.6%, 34.6%, 34.0%, 35.8%. Since then? 28.8%, 26.4%, 28.4%, and last year 31.5% (but with a whopping 9.4% of those being infield pop ups). Trending upwards again, perhaps, but let's get back to around 35%, shall we?
With a disciplined, intelligent approach designed to keep the ball flying from line to line and alley to alley, I think Butler is still capable of putting up a slash line of around .270/.340/.420 and while the base clogging is always going to be an issue, a "doubles machine" is going to drive in a lot of runs and also will clog the bases less than a guy whose positive contributions include a lot of walks and singles.
Conditioning and weight may be a factor, but to me intelligence -- specifically the lack of it in his batting approach -- has been Butler's biggest enemy. (I have arguably been his second biggest enemy.) At least that's how it looks from my living room, where hitting is easy and critiquing it even more so.
Happy New Year, everyone. It's no longer the 2015 season!!!!!!