I have a statement to make, and it might come as a surprise: Billy Butler is having a decent year for the Oakland A’s.
It doesn’t even take any squinting to see it. If you like to keep it simple, he’s batting .292/.342/.431. If you want to know more, he’s got a 113 OPS+, a 110 wRC+, and his lowest strikeout rate since 2011. He’s valued at 0.3 bWAR, which is the first time since 2013 that either WAR scale has given him a positive value.
He’s still no star and he provides nothing outside of the batter’s box, but for the first time during his three-year contract he actually kind of has something to offer. He’s in the lineup today, and I’m totally okay with that. And that leads me to wonder if another team might finally be willing to take him off the A’s hands sometime between now and next spring.
We’re in Year 2-of-3 on Butler’s contract, which means that after the season it’ll functionally be a one-year deal. As bad as the first year was, his late-season garbage-time surge at least brought his batting line close to average (98 OPS+, 99 wRC+). If he follows that up with a bounce-back campaign, I’ll bet some team could find a use for him. But first, is there any reason to believe he can keep hitting well?
My assumption to this point has been that Butler’s numbers look decent because he’s being platooned, allowing him to pad his stats in his most favorable matchups. That hasn’t been the case, though:
Butler, RHP: .297/.345/.450, 3 HR, 8 BB, 19 Ks (119 PAs)
Butler, LHP: .286/.340/.407, 1 HR, 8 BB, 13 Ks (100 PAs)
He is indeed getting an inordinate amount of time against lefties, and there’s no question that he’s generally better against them. But so far in this season, a big platoon split isn’t the reason for his improved numbers. He’s just hitting decently well, in general, against everyone.
Oh, and he’s also red-hot since the All-Star break, going 21-for-52 in 16 games (56 PAs):
Butler, 2nd half: .404/.446/.577, 2 HR, 4 BB, 7 Ks
Too small a sample for you? Here he is since June 1:
Since June 1 (139 PAs): .336/.396/.496, 3 HR, 13 BB, 20 Ks
So where is all this coming from? His splits offer two key suggestions. First, his groundball rate has plummeted, dropping consistently since June. Second, he’s pulling the ball less and using the whole field more, mostly in the last couple weeks. Think of the result you least want to see from Butler -- yanking a grounder to the left side, where the SS or 3B gobbles it up for an easy out or even a GIDP. He is currently spraying liners and flies around the field instead, which is basically the opposite of that worst-case result.
This is a big deal to me because it’s the first time we’ve seen any change from Butler. In every month of 2015, whether the good (April/Sept) or the bad (the rest), he was a pull-happy grounder machine -- it just works out now and then because BABIP. Even in his career year of 2012, his GB% was over 45% and his pull rate over 30% in every single month. That’s the hitter he used to be, to good effect, but it stopped working after a while and now it appears he might finally be trying (successfully) to do something different.
Of course these changes have come in an almost meaninglessly small sample, and the point isn’t to suggest that he’s suddenly a new hitter. The point is that his current hot streak lines up with a drastic change in his batted ball profile, and that’s the kind of thing that makes me stop and watch to see if it continues. Has Butler finally adjusted his game in some way that will make him a factor at the plate again? The fact that we can even ask that question is a step in the right direction.
If the A’s were to put Butler through trade waivers he would surely clear, since I doubt anyone would claim his contract and risk absorbing it. If he could stay hot for another week and bump his wRC+ up toward 120, would it be so hard to imagine some offense-starved contender making a desperation move to acquire a bench bat? And if that’s too far-fetched, then would some team be willing to take him during the offseason as a platoon 1B if the A’s pitched in a few bucks?
We’ve known for a while that the Butler contract was something between a mistake and a disaster. Even if he were to bounce back into a solid hitter, I wouldn’t want to keep him as part of a potentially good 2017 lineup — the A’s have so many corner infield prospects to sort through that I’d prefer to parlay any production from him into salary relief and 2017 playing time for someone like Renato Nunez or Brett Eibner (or the return of Mark Canha). And now, for the first time in his Oakland tenure, Butler has reached a point where his on-field performance might make his remaining salary tenable on the trade market. Just keep not hitting grounders to short.
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