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:


This is him grounding out earlier this year:


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:



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.





It could also explain these zone maps. These were taken from, 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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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.