The 2009 Kansas City Royals were an offensive disaster. Collectively, K.C. batters compiled -66.2 Park-Adjusted Batting Runs, worst in the American League. The Royals continued to hack wildly at the dish, with the second-lowest walk rate in the Junior Circuit. Not coincidentally, the club posted the second-highest outside-swing percentage in the A.L.
There’s plenty of disappointment to go around. Curious trade acquisition Mike Jacobs was sub-replacement-level for the second consecutive season. Jose Guillen made $12M while being a full two wins below replacement-level. Would-be savior Alex Gordon was derailed by hip surgery.
Not all was lost, however. While many of his teammates were making outs at a dizzying pace, Billy Butler took steps toward becoming an All-Star-caliber hitter.
We chronicled Butler’s career last offseason, noting his stratospheric .336/.416/.561 minor league line. Kansas City’s 2004 first-round draft pick had a mild age-22 season in 2008 (.275/.324/.400, .318 wOBA), due mostly to a tepid performance against right-handers and a high groundball rate for a 6-2, 240 pound guy with minimal speed.
The future looked extremely bright for Butler, though, given his superb minor league track record. And in 2009, he began to show to strong secondary skills which made him a top prospect.
In 2008, Butler appeared to take a contact-oriented approach at the plate. He put the bat on the ball 93.3% of the time on pitches within the strike zone, well above the 88 percent MLB average. That led to a very low punch out rate (12.9 K%), but the contact might have come at the expense of some power. Butler posted a middle infielder-like .124 ISO, while going yard on just 8.2% of his fly balls hit.
In 2009, by contrast, Butler waited for his pitch more often. His P/PA increased from 3.6 to 3.9, with his first-pitch strike percentage dipping from 58.6% in ’08 (right around the MLB average) to 53.6% in ’09. Butler didn’t make as much contact within the strike zone (88.6 percent), which led to a higher K rate (16.9 percent). However, the 23 year-old did far more damage when he did connect.
Butler’s ISO jumped to .191, with his HR/FB rate climbing to 11.9 percent. He slugged .776 on fly balls (.603 A.L. average). Billy still hit more grounders than one would like to see (47.3 percent), but there are plenty of positives here.
Kansas City’s first baseman continued to annihilate lefties, with a 150 sOPS+ (sOPS+ compares a batter’s performance in a given spit to the league average; 100 is average for a hitter, below 100 is below-average and above 100 is above-average). But he was no slouch against right-handers either, with a 121 sOPS+. In other words, Butler was 50 percent better than the league average vs. southpaws, and 21 percent above the norm against righties.
His more restrained plate approach also led to more free passes. Butler increased his walk rate from 6.9 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent this past year. That’s more in line with what we saw in the minors, when he drew a free pass in 11.5 percent of his PA.
Overall, Butler improved his wOBA to .369, while posting a .301/.362/.492 line. He’s not an elite option at first base (not when the MLB average at the position was .277/.362/.483 in 2009, but he could yet become an offensive force. Butler turns just 24 in April.
Target Butler on draft day. He could provide the punch of some more well-known first basemen, but at a lower price tag.
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