Ever since the Kansas City Royals drafted him 14th overall in the 2004 amateur entry draft, Billy Butler has been known for his prodigious hitting skills. The 6-1, 240 pounder started off his professional career as a third baseman, but his lack of lateral agility forced a move across the diamond to first base. Even over there, Butler is a charter member of the Jason Giambi close-your-eyes-and-fall School of First Basemen. But it’s his bat that we want to focus on.
Butler has essentially made a mockery out of minor league pitching, compiling a stunning .336/.416/.561 career line in five seasons. While demonstrating ample power (.225) and patience (13.3 BB%), Butler has also managed to strike out just 17.4% of the time, an impressive number for a guy with plenty of juice in his bat.
The 22 year-old spent parts of the 2007 and 2008 seasons with the Royals, and has compiled a .282/.334/.420 line in 838 PA. He hasn’t been quite as patient in the majors to this point (7.2 BB%), but he has managed to whiff in just 12.3% of his at-bats and has made contact within the strike zone 91.7% of the time (the league average from 2005-2007 was about 88%). Butler’s .137 ISO strikes one as pretty tame considering his minor league pedigree, and combined with the very low K rate seems to point to a contact-oriented approach that is sacrificing something in the power department. To this point in his big league career, Butler has been chopping the ball into the dirt regularly:
2006: 46.7 GB%
2007: 48.8 GB%
That 2008 figure was the 10th highest groundball rate among AL batters with at least 450 PA. Putting the ball on the grass that often is an okay strategy if you have ample speed (like Carl Crawford, who ranks directly behind Butler at 48.6%), but it’s certainly not advisable for a plodding DH-type.
While Butler has already shown that he can demolish southpaws (.340/.398/.585), he’s had his fair share of issues with same-side pitching (.256/.304/.345 vs. righties). He also showed a pronounced split in the minors, but that was more the product of his cartoonishly good performance versus lefties (.403/.491/.781 in 278 AB) than any particular difficulties with right-handers (.307/.374/.493 in 992 AB). Expect his numbers versus righties to improve significantly moving forward.
While Butler’s power hasn’t quite translated to the major league level yet, it’s important to remember that he was an absolute hitting machine in the minors, with the strength to drive the ball over the fence and the pure hitting ability to spray line drives all over the field. The Bill James Handbook is a fan, as Butler’s 2009 projection comes in at .295/.357/.460. That’s pretty useful, and as a guy who will just turn 23 in April, Butler has a ton of development time ahead of him. If he sacrifices some of that contact ability in order to put more of a charge into the ball (and lower that groundball rate), Butler could emerge as an elite hitter as soon as this upcoming season.
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