From the time Billy Butler came to the big leagues, many looked at him critically for what he couldn’t do than positively for what he could do. I think it was pretty obvious from the first time we saw Butler roam left field that his long-term position was designated hitter. Yes, he masqueraded as a first baseman who wasn’t horrible for awhile, but he also wasn’t good enough defensively to be there for the long haul. Once he moved to the DH role full-time, the expectations rose along with his salary over the next few seasons. The knock on Butler was really two-fold. The first is that he simply didn’t hit for enough home run power while the other is that he is and was a plodder on the base paths. The latter isn’t going to change, but in 2012 the former did.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The home run power actually started coming in mid-July of 2011. On July 16, 2011, Billy Butler’s slugging percentage dropped to a low water mark of .406. Even as an ardent Billy Butler supporter, I was getting pretty frustrated with him at that point. While I was someone who defended his lack of home runs by citing his doubles, a designated hitter who can’t run needs to slug higher than he was slugging at the time. He was getting on base at an impressive clip, but for a player like him, simply being on first doesn’t have nearly the benefit as someone like Jarrod Dyson being on first. From about that point forward, Butler’s approach changed.
From July 17 through the end of the year, Butler hit .298/.337/.526 with 23 doubles and 13 home runs in 272 at bats. You’ll notice a dip in the on base percentage from where we’re used to Butler, but that was in exchange for some power that he was able to get while increasing his aggressiveness. What I think happened was that Butler was working the count so much that he was missing out on pitches early in the at bat that he was able to drive. So he basically exchanged a few walks for some extra base hits. As someone who is usually such a proponent of on base percentage, my loving this might confuse you, but as I said before, I’d rather have some pop from a guy like Billy Butler than him getting on base. That’s, of course, if I had to choose. My obvious preference would be the best of both worlds.
Last year, of course, it all came together with Butler hitting .313/.373/.510. The walks were still a little bit down, but the power was still there and he achieved his career high in home runs with 29. He only hit 32 doubles last season, which was a little bit odd considering the pace he had at the end of 2011, but his 62 extra base hits were right around where he was in 2010 and 2011 just with some doubles traded for homers. And that’s a trade that I would make every single day of the week. He grew into a legitimate number four hitter last season and even won the designated hitter of the year award.
So how does Billy Butler follow up his breakout power campaign of 2012? One of the great things about the Royals and Billy Butler is that he is the only hitter in the lineup who we pretty much know will show up season after season and put up good numbers. There’s a difference, though, between what he did in 2011 and what he did in 2012. If he can take one more step forward power wise, along with Alex Gordon hitting leadoff, the Royals offense could be a force.
Based on what we saw from Billy Butler as we’ve watched him transform as a hitter over the last few seasons, I think we’re going to see more of the same from what he did in 2012. I know a lot of people are expecting another step forward in the home run department, but playing half his games in Kauffman Stadium doesn’t lend itself to a ton of improvement in that department. What I saw was a hitter who grew into his power and already was an absolutely fantastic hitter who has actually gotten better. I think what we’ll see in 2013 is a few more walks, maybe a few more doubles and another season around 30 home runs. I’m very hopeful that he’ll add another ten home runs because that would be huge for the team, but I could see him getting to that 70 extra base hit level with something like 31 or 32 homers and 38 or 39 doubles.
One of Billy Butler’s most similar hitters through the age of 26 is Kent Hrbek of Minnesota Twins fame. Through age 26 in 761 games, Hrbek hit .289/.362/.480 with 117 homers and 156 doubles with a 127 OPS+. Through age 26 in 853 for Butler, he has hit .300/.262/.468 with 103 homers and 217 doubles with a 123 OPS+. The homers and doubles are a little different, but the batting lines are very close and Hrbek also notched his career high in homers in age 26 season. They aren’t a perfect match, but I’ve often thought of them as pretty similar players. Over the next three seasons Hrbek turned into a beast hitting .291/.380/.528 with 84 homers, 68 doubles and 250 RBI. Butler probably gives you a little more average than that with hopefully the same OBP difference compared to the average.
Hrbek is just one of the players comparable to Butler who you can look at, and I admittedly cherry picked one of the good ones because I just don’t see Billy Butler showing down any time soon. Like I said, I’m not sure we’re going to see much of a difference in his numbers between last season and this season, but if he can do what he did in 2012, he’ll continue to be the best pure hitter in the Royals lineup. So the good news for Billy Butler is that while we obviously can’t know for sure what’s next, we do know that he’s going to hit and he’s going to hit and he’s going to hit. This is the least scientific thing I can put in this post, but I see a .315/.385/.530 type of season from Butler in 2013. I see him hitting around those 30 homers he hit last year. One thing I don’t see, though, is him tripling again. But that’s not his game. He’s just a pure hitter.
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