For the past few years, we’ve grown accustomed to a steady diet of high on-base, high-average, moderate power output from Billy Butler. In the early going, 2014 hasn’t been nearly as tasty.
Terrible breakfast puns aside, Butler’s numbers are down across the board, and anyone lining him up in a util slot has got to be concerned. So is Butler a buy low or a guy you should be trying to get rid of?
Let’s start at the surface – a career .297/.362/.454 hitter, good for 15-20 HR (not counting the crazy 2012 season), Butler has kicked off 2014 on pace for 5-6 HR with a .242/.295/.311 line. His .298 BABIP doesn’t scream “bad luck,” but Butler’s career BABIP is .326. His batted ball data shows an increase in line drives and a decrease in fly balls this year, which should lead to a higher, not a lower BABIP, although a big drop in HR/FB rate means that more of those fly balls are staying in play, which definitely hurts.
The thing is, even if we assume a .327 BABIP, that adds three hits. Let’s assume, just to be nice, that they are all doubles. Three more doubles and his line looks like this: .265/.319/.356. So, you know, still really bad.
Part of the problem is that Butler has been striking out far more than normal. His career rate (14.5%) is a bit lower than he has shown the last two years (16.3% in 2012, 15.3% in 2013), but so far this year he is at 20.5%, which dwarfs all his previous numbers. At the same time, his BB% (7.8%) would be his lowest since 2008. I don’t know if anyone has done any research on this, but I’d bet more Ks plus fewer BBs equals less production. Just a hunch.
The problem for Butler seems to be an odd shift in his plate discipline. He is making contact just as well as ever, both in pitches in and out of the zone, but he appears to be swinging at fewer good pitches (59.3%, compared to 62.7% for his career, and on pace to be a career low) and more bad pitches (31.3%, compared to 27.5% for his career, and on pace to be a career high). The result is two-fold.
First, the increased strike out rate is coming despite no meaningful shift in his SwStrk%, which may be partially bad luck, but is also likely due to take pitches for strikes so much more often.
Second, his IFFB% is 9.5%, more than 3x the 3.1% he posted last year, and 50% higher than his career rate of 6.3%. Butler is chasing more pitches and making contact with more bad pitches – bad contact (like, say, infield fly balls) seems like a plausible outcome.
It’s worth noting that the plate discipline numbers I am citing come from Baseball Info Solutions and that that the PitchF/x data for Butler does not show the same discrepancy compared to his career numbers, but the impact is pretty clear.
If you are a Butler owner, or considering getting into the Country Breakfast business, I’d be watching those plate discipline numbers. If Butler keeps chasing, taking strikes, hitting pop ups and striking out, the BABIP regression (and it is coming), won’t be enough to help. If the BIS data isn’t as accurate as PitchF/x, or if Butler starts to show the approach we’ve come to expect, the results should follow.
Personally, I have never felt that Butler’s actual fantasy value matched his perceived fantasy value – util-only bats without much power just aren’t my thing. The troubling approach in the early season would be enough for me to want to sell off any shares I had. I’d push the unexpectedly low BABIP, point out the steady swinging strike rate, and hope to find someone willing to buy on a bounce back.
Butler’s Yahoo Average Draft position was 106.7, near players like Sergio Romo, Brett Lawrie, and Hisashi Iwakuma. If I could turn Butler into one of those players (particularly if I needed a closer, MI if Lawrie qualifies or a SP), I would do it in a heartbeat.
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