Billy Butler headed into the 2012 season as a first baseman with moderate power whose greatest fantasy contributions came from his strong batting average and position in the middle of a Major League lineup that would lead to a solid runs batted in total. Butler then finished the 2012 season having enjoyed a breakout year and now suddenly looking like a power hitter reaching his prime years. Unfortunately, Butler failed to follow up his breakout season with a performance that satisfies like a good country breakfast should.
Back in 2012, Butler set a career high in home runs and RBI. Fantasy owners and Royals fan had long been awaiting the power surge as the 240-pound Butler certainly appeared capable of more than middling power output from a corner infielder. His doubles turned into homers and his HR/FB rate nearly doubled from his 2011 mark, driving his home run total to nearly 30. Supporting some of that power spike was his average batted ball distance that jumped from 291 feet in 2011 to 297 feet in 2012. While the jump was a positive sign, six feet isn’t all that significant and fails to fully explain the skyrocketing HR/FB rate.
The one glimmer of hope behind Butler’s quest to sustain the home run increase can be found in his batted ball distribution. While the fact that his fly ball rate dipped below the 30% mark for the first time in his career can be taken as an ominous sign, one could also spin it around as a source of upside the following year. Given his history, one would expect that fly ball rate to rebound some, offsetting some of the expected HR/FB rate decline.
But in 2013, the double whammy hit — not only did his HR/FB ratio drop as predicted, but his fly ball rate fell even further to a new career low of just 26%. You know who else hits fly balls at such a low rate? Speedy slap hitters with limited power such as Ichiro Suzuki, Erick Aybar and Eric Young. Billy Butler has no business hitting over half of his balls on the ground.
If you look at his batted ball distance, you might come away thinking that he was actually hit by a triple whammy. From 297 feet in 2012, his distance collapsed to just 276 feet this season. That would mark a career low for distance in a single season for him. With that distance in mind, it then comes as no surprise that his ISO tied a career low at just .124, as his doubles rate fell off as well.
This sounds like a perfect chance to speculate about a hidden injury, but a quick search finds only neck stiffness at the end of July as an ailment Butler dealt with. At age 27, it’s hard to figure out what exactly went wrong this year, assuming of course there’s more to the story than just a random down season. But, that’s all it could be, as players don’t just trend in a straight line upward toward their peak and then gradually regress from there.
Though he did generate positive value from his batting average, Butler’s lack of power and run production led to disappointing fantasy value. He was just the 22nd most valuable first baseman this season, barely earning above replacement level value. Given his strong contact skills and low HR/FB rate baseline, there is still ultimate upside of a repeat of his 2012 season. But the better bet is to pay for 15-20 home runs and a good batting average and cross your fingers that your country breakfast is doused with lots of syrup and gravy.
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