Over the course of the first 30 games of the 2014 season, the Kansas City Royals have struggled to get production from both their designated hitter position and their cleanup spot in the lineup. The bad news is that it’s all one player, Billy Butler. The good news is that it’s all one player, Billy Butler. I now what you’re thinking, and yes, it’s possible that both pieces of information that are identical to each other can be both good news and bad news. It’s bad news because of the way he’s played to start the year. It hasn’t been pretty at times and at other times, it’s been downright unwatchable. It’s good news, though, for two reasons. First, it’s easier to fix one player than two, so it being just one player is beneficial to the Royals. Second, it’s Billy Butler who has a track record of being a fantastic hitter. I’ve used some form of this sentence a lot over the last seven or eight months, but even in one of the worst years of his career, he was still about 17% above average. That’s pretty good.
Are you ready for more good news? I thought you might be. Here it is. Billy Butler looks like he’s just about back to being Billy Butler.Â In watching the games, it’s pretty clear that Butler has looked much better over the last couple weeks, but I wasn’t sure if the numbers showed it as well, so I decided to take a look at his batted ball numbers from Fangraphs. Sure enough, they showed it. In his first 13 games, Butler’s line was ugly.
Compare that with his yearly career numbers, heading into the 2014 season.
This trend was more than alarming. There are many who have always had issues with Butler’s game, and I think a lot of that comes from his body type. If he looked like Eric Hosmer but had the season he did last year, I’d bet most people wouldn’t have said much, but because he appears to be pretty husky on the field, people didn’t like his production. I would also assume most of those people would deny that to be the case, but we can argue that another day. The scary thing, though, is that, to put it in the words of Moneyball, Billy Butler wasn’t exactly selling jeans with his physique and guys like him often don’t age very well. When looking at the career numbers combined with last season’s numbers, there was a sinking fear in the hearts of many Billy Butler supporters that he might simply be declining. While I think that’s true, there’s still some gas left in his tank, it appears.
Since being dropped from the cleanup spot by Yost for just a few games, Billy Butler has started to look like his old self. His swing appears to be back to where it has been over most of the course of his excellent career and he just seems to be more comfortable in the batter’s box again. For a long time there, he was looking like there were about 28 places he’d rather be (insert obligatory Golden Corral joke here). Now he looks far more locked in and, like I said, like himself again. He doesn’t seem to be late on fastballs and early on changeups anymore. A great stat was presented by Clint Scoles a couple weeks ago and it was that since 2007, no hitter has gotten more hits on 96 MPH or better fastballs than Billy Butler and it wasn’t especially close. For him to have just lost the ability to hit a fastball would have been weird and it looks like he hasn’t lost it just yet.
Looking at his batted ball numbers over his last 17 games, things look far more in line with his career and like he’s getting back on track and doing Billy Butler things again.
Does this mean that we can stop worrying about Billy Butler? I don’t thin that’s necessarily the conclusion I’d come to, but I do think there’s reason to breathe a little easier based on what he’s done over the last three weeks or so. Typical aging curves indicate that Billy Butler should be in the prime of his career and putting up the best numbers he’ll ever put up, but his 2013 and the start to 2014 is showing that maybe he won’t be aging traditionally. That’s likely a problem moving forward. My guess is that when 2014 is all said and done, Billy Butler will have put up some solid numbers, but it probably won’t be good enough for many of his detractors.
To those people, though, I have good news! I find it hard to believe that Billy Butler will be back with the Royals next season. He’s owed $12.5 million in his option, and the amount to buy that out is just $1 million. Unless Butler picks up the pace and ends up with a final five months similar to his 2012 season, I just can’t see the Royals picking up that option. Now, there are other options for Butler’s future. The Royals could do some renegotiating and give him what amounts to basically a two year deal that keeps him in Kansas City through 2016. I imagine they’d drop next year’s salary to something like he’s making this year and make the option similar to the current 2015 one. Even if that happens, I’d say they still might trade him as they seemed primed to do this past off-season. More likely, though, the Royals pay the buyout and Butler becomes a free agent. And before you ask, no, he won’t get a qualifying offer. That will likely be for more than $15 million and Butler would likely accept it, which means they may as well as just pick up the option for $12.5 million.
To sum it up, Butler’s been really bad this season, but the bulk of that stems from a horrendous first two weeks of the year that he seems to be bouncing back from. Since and including his first game (of just three) hitting in the sixth spot, Butler has hit .308/.352/.431, but has been even better in his last nine games, hitting .343/.368/.514. You can see him getting back to being himself in the batter’s box and the numbers are beginning to show that. Now, of course, the Royals go to San Diego, so they’re faced with a decision. The easy answer to let Butler sit because of his overall numbers, but with a couple lefties going in San Diego, I could see at least one game of a Hosmer in right field and Butler at first base lineup. Hopefully he can keep up what he’s been doing and get his numbers back to where we’ve gotten used to them being.
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