Should We Start Worrying About Billy Butler?

Earwigs are weird little bugs. They’re long, they have pincers on their butts and they have these weird little membranous wings they rarely use. Some species of earwigs have been traced back to the Jurassic Era, and they live on pretty much every continent. You know where they don’t live? Anyone’s ears. The term earwig is a bit of a misnomer as, at least according to the infallible Wikipedia, one would rarely find them in a human ear.

The term has also migrated to mean something that is found in the human ear, at least sort of. Songs, tunes and melodies can also be termed earwigs — referring to a tune that gets stuck in one’s head. I’d list some popular choices, but I don’t consider myself to be that mean of a person and I shudder at the comments if I were responsible for the quickening of some readers’ descents into madness. I do have to mention one, though, or this won’t have anything to do with baseball.

My recent earwig came when I read Mike Petriello’s piece on Adrian Gonzalez from Monday. That post referenced an older work by Russell Carleton that we re-ran on this very site. The title of that article references a song from the musical Rent, a musical I don’t particularly care for and haven’t heard in many years. Yet, the reference to the song Seasons of Love caused that tune to be stuck in my head. To be honest, just the “cuuuuups of coffee” part was stuck there, since these are the only lyrics I remember. So as I roamed the house softly singing “cuuuuups of coffee, cuuuuups of coffee” I started thinking more about Carleton’s piece. There’s a bunch of great stuff in there, but something about ground ball rate stabilization piqued my interest. It did so because between whole stanzas of “cuuuuups of coffee,” I also had Billy Butler running around in my head. Not literally of course, that would be impossible. He could only jog around in my head at best. That seemed unfair, in retrospect.

Billy Butler hasn’t been doing much as of yet. He hasn’t been getting on base, he hasn’t recorded any extra base hits, and he only has six singles to his name. He does happen to be walking at his normal rate, but when he’s swinging, not much good is happening. Much of it could be nothing to worry about, really. But something about Butler’s early season could be seen as disconcerting for the Royals.

Carleton’s work shows us that ground ball rates for batters start to stabilize quite early in the season — at around 40 plate appearances. Butler has logged 49 plate appearances as of this writing. His ground ball rate as of this writing is 72%. Carleton makes a caveat which I’m pasting here in case you are too lazy to read the whole thing:

… The minima listed below do not mean that the statistic in question stabilizes at ___ PA for an individual player, but that it stabilizes in a sample which includes all players with___ PA and above.

I’m pointing this out so no one thinks that now that Butler has crossed the 40 PA line, his ground ball rate is stuck where it is. It almost certainly isn’t, and you shouldn’t take the word “stabilize” to mean that it requires no regression. Carleton’s numbers are the points at which you “only” regress a player’s in-season performance 50% of the way back to the mean; that still means you’re expecting it to regress by a good amount. I’m not saying the sky is falling. However, I am saying the plaster on the ceiling might be flaking onto Butler’s shoulder a bit.

Ground balls have always been a part of Butler’s game. Basically half of all the balls he’s put it play over his career have been grounders. But he saw a six percent jump in grounders from 2012 to 2013, and early indications are perhaps he might stick above the 50% threshold. High ground ball rates aren’t great in any situation, but especially for a player with below-average speed like Butler.

Player Year GB%
Derek Jeter 2010 65.70%
Ichiro Suzuki 2004 63.68%
Luis Castillo 2002 63.60%
Derek Jeter 2012 62.46%
Elvis Andrus 2010 61.15%
Norichika Aoki 2013 60.41%
Derek Jeter 2005 60.00%
Ichiro Suzuki 2011 59.87%
Derek Jeter 2006 59.42%
Juan Pierre 2010 58.83%
Derek Jeter 2008 58.28%
Juan Pierre 2003 58.11%
Michael Bourn 2009 57.80%
Luis Castillo 2003 57.63%
Ichiro Suzuki 2008 57.49%
Ichiro Suzuki 2010 57.36%
Elvis Andrus 2012 57.12%
Derek Jeter 2009 57.01%
Ryan Theriot 2008 56.61%
Ichiro Suzuki 2007 56.32%

These are the top 20 players with at least 660 PA in any given season over the past 10 years (Butler had 668 in 2013, hence the cutoff). While it’s true that Jeter and Ichiro have lost a step or three, they are still speedier than Butler. The only way to make these high ground ball totals work is if you can beat some out for hits. Or, you could be the un-benchable face of the franchise, I suppose. Anyway, back to Butler.

This is him doubling in 2012:

butlerdouble2012

This is him grounding out earlier this year:

butlergroundout

I am not a swing coach, not would I ever claim to be. And maybe it’s the different camera angles, or maybe it’s the different locations of the pitches, but there does seem to be a little difference. Here are stills of the same videos:

butlerdoublestill

butlergroundoutstill

In the first photo, his arms appear to be coming in at a bit of a lower angle, where his hands seem higher in the second photo. Again, these are just two examples, and could be attributed to many things, but if Butler is coming at the ball from a higher angle, it could partly explain his recent penchant for driving the ball into the ground.

2012

butlergroundball2012

2014

butlergroundball2014

It could also explain these zone maps. These were taken from baseballsavant.com, and show where Butler’s groundouts were located in the strike zone. The first is from 2012, the second is from this year. The first shows a lot of groundouts coming from the middle and bottom of the zone, which is to be expected, pretty much. The second is sparse due to the newness of the season, but the top right corner is something to look at. These are pitches that are high and away to Butler (the map is from the catcher’s point of view). It’s been only a couple weeks, but Butler has already managed to swing over three pitches high and outside — half the total of his entire 2012 season. This could be noise, and he hasn’t grounded any pitches high and inside yet, but he’s on pace to pound a lot of high and away pitches into the ground right now, which could also point to him swinging over many pitches coming his way.

Again, Carleton’s words are to be taken seriously here. Forty plate appearances is not a magic “this is the type of hitter you are” number. Butler could certainly tweak something in his swing or just get a little luckier on balls in play and this could all be moot. But ground ball rate — a rate that saw a fairly big jump last year — is a thing that doesn’t take as large a sample to denote a real change, and so Butler’s sample isn’t as small as if we were discussing something like batting average. That said, it’s extremely unlikely it will stay at 72%. It’s not something to panic about, but it is something to observe for the next few weeks. If Butler has gotten into a groove of swinging over pitches, he could be creeping toward a ground ball rate in the high 50s. This is the realm of speedier guys, not plodding first baseman. It may be nothing, but for the next few weeks it will on my mind every time I fill a new cuuuuup of coffee. Oh man. I may need help.



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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.


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BH
Guest
BH
2 years 4 months ago

How about a comparison that includes Butlers 2013? Just to give us an idea on similarities between a so-called Butler down year and his 2014 start. Just to see how far his lousy habits go and if it started when Ned decided that Billy should be a home run hitter (ignoring that his 2012 HR total was a fluke, check the HR/FB%)

All of Butlers hitting problems start with more ground balls. It’s the same thing that seems to be very true for a guy like Allen Craig (who went from playoff hero to guy playing like he won’t be a starter soon over the small sample size of 2 weeks). Craig will bounce back. Butler will bounce back. As to the final results for either. Who knows.

NBH
Guest
NBH
2 years 4 months ago

You could write a similar article about Allen Craig and his 76% GB%. Two of 2014’s worst players thus far.

Grimace
Guest
Grimace
2 years 4 months ago

And both on my fantasy team.

FANTASY GURU
Guest
FANTASY GURU
2 years 4 months ago

PLEASE GO ON!

Hamburglar
Guest
Hamburglar
2 years 4 months ago

Hey Grimace – look over there!

(hoists hamburger)

Replacement-Level Infielder with Below-Average Throwing Arm
Guest
Replacement-Level Infielder with Below-Average Throwing Arm
2 years 4 months ago

Nope, nothing to worry about here.

JMo37
Member
JMo37
2 years 4 months ago

This is a bold statement, “But… What is wrong with KC Hitting in general? Their Home Ball Park zps power, but the team in general seems to suffer yearly”. They cant pay Brett enough to help these kids out?

PeteRock
Guest
PeteRock
2 years 4 months ago

“What is wrong with KC Hitting in general?” <– They are KC.

Garrett's Mom
Guest
Garrett's Mom
2 years 4 months ago

He’s pretty much doing exactly what I expected: giving nothing in almost every category, with the possibility of contributions in batting AVG.

Ben
Guest
Ben
2 years 4 months ago

I think you might mean earworm?

That’s the extent of my contribution.

Pitnick
Guest
Pitnick
2 years 4 months ago

And a fine one at that.

An earwig is not the same as an earworm.

Ben
Guest
Ben
2 years 4 months ago

Nope! The former is an insect, the latter is an infectious melody/song/tune, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Bikup
Guest
Bikup
2 years 4 months ago

If a catchy tune is called an “earworm”, what would an “earwig” actually be slang for? Here, let me look it up on urban dictionary… zeesh, never mind.

Big Mike
Guest
Big Mike
2 years 4 months ago

I don’t know that I’d give those two GIF’s much comparison value. The first appears to be a fastball boring in, and the second appears to be a slider falling away and down. That’s why in the first GIF he appears to be digging down to get under it and accomplishing the task, while in the second, he’s trying the same thing, but also reaching out, and therefore, not getting under it. If there were two GIFs showing him offering differently at the same pitch, I’d give it more credence.

Nick
Guest
Nick
2 years 4 months ago

@ big mike – completely agree. He is reaching to make contact on the second pitch which completely throws his weight off etc.

Wobatus
Guest
Wobatus
2 years 4 months ago

This reminds me of the article where Eno tried to talk to Billy Butler about ground ball rates and Hosmer and some others made fun of him. Seems like the Royals should have been paying attention.

Stan Gable
Guest
Stan Gable
2 years 4 months ago

Eric ‘Ogre’ Hosmer.

‘NERDS!!!’

Also, if somehow it were Brian Eno that were being mentioned it would be even more fitting.

Dudley Dawson
Guest
Dudley Dawson
2 years 4 months ago

Nice references! I think I’ll go spotify that sex girls song from the party with the mud and fire up a wonder joint.

Lewis Skolnick
Guest
Lewis Skolnick
2 years 4 months ago

Mus

Stan Gable
Guest
Stan Gable
2 years 4 months ago

The funny thing is that ‘Stan Gable’ is my username of choice to begin with, ell oh ell. Sometimes something this organic just finds you.

&, yes, “Are You Ready for the Sex Girls” is a classic up there with Visions of Johanna and Yesterday to be sure.

wobatus
Guest
wobatus
2 years 4 months ago

Also comes with a pretty “ironic” do-it-yourself quality music video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ku5sdcnQO4I&list=RDKu5sdcnQO4I

Stan Gable
Guest
Stan Gable
2 years 4 months ago

Utterly fantastic.

JimNYC
Guest
JimNYC
2 years 4 months ago

Hm. Kind of wondering at that “unbenchable face of the franchise” comment. In the years Jeter and Ichiro appear on the list there, they had the following BABIP’s:

Jeter:
2005: .351
2006: .391
2008: .333
2009: .368
2010: .307
2012: .347

Ichiro:
2004: .399
2007: .389
2008: .334
2010: .353
2011: .295

In those eleven seasons, they combined for a grand total of 2 seasons with less than a 100 WRC+ (Jeter 2010; Ichiro 2011). And only one season worth less than 2.5 WAR (Ichiro 2011). Among players with 5,000 career plate appearances, Jeter and Ichiro rank 9th and 22nd all time, respectively, in BABIP. Ground ball rates were hardly a reason to ever bench either of them (except possibly Ichiro in 2011, but it’s not like the Mariners had anybody better to replace him with).

Just seemed like a particularly odd comment.

munchtime
Guest
munchtime
2 years 4 months ago

It probably seems “like a particularly odd comment” because nether are “plodding first baseman”. Rather, they are “speedier guys”.

Big Fly
Guest
Big Fly
2 years 4 months ago

Butler looks like a turd out there. It’s almost as if he is intentionally hitting grounders to SS – he hits at least two balls to short each game.

Stan Gable
Guest
Stan Gable
2 years 4 months ago

Grounding out to SS might be the new OBP/platoon craze. Billy might be something of a clandestine trailblazer.

Ted McGinley
Guest
Ted McGinley
2 years 4 months ago

Maybe the shift is getting in his head.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 4 months ago

If Yuniesky Betancourt was still around, this might be a viable strategy.

Aduhey
Guest
Aduhey
2 years 4 months ago

There were many phone calls on KCSP after this past Sunday’s game saying how Butler is not good anymore. I do not think they were looking at any of these metrics.

Coop!
Guest
Coop!
2 years 4 months ago

Looks like a lot of IFFB in addition to GB. BABIP is way beow career numbers.

NAte g
Guest
NAte g
2 years 4 months ago

Guy looks better on double than weak grounder. Shocking stuff. Seriously though.

RevWillieG
Guest
RevWillieG
2 years 4 months ago

I have watched nearly every Royals game for the past 5 years and don’t need graphs or fancy Sabremetrics to tell me Butler has regressed from 2012 to now. The two videos pretty much sum up how he’s gone from a doubles machine; hitting to the right side and elevating a ball when it’s in his spot. The second one is him rolling over and weakly grounding to the left

El Carteluo 46
Guest
El Carteluo 46
2 years 4 months ago

First swing was a middle-in fastball, second swing was a low and away breaking ball. He was fooled but was still able to put the ball in play, albeit not forcefully. It would be like hitting the lottery for all of you reading this to accomplish as much. This game can not be analyzed strictly by looking at stats. Saber metridiots

chrisb
Member
Member
chrisb
2 years 3 months ago

Late to this discussion, but after twice as many plate appearances, Butler’s ground ball rate is still deep into the 60s. That’s interesting, but it seems all kinds of confusing when coupled with a sizable jump in his pop-up rate.

If these stats point to a swing issue, could it be that he has lost bat control generally (instead of swinging over the top of pitches)?

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