Saturday, June 21, 2014

Butler Bouncing Back

Butler's been on a tear lately but still isn't hitting for power (RoyalsHOF)
The Kansas City Royals lost their second game in a row last night, falling 7-5 to the Seattle Mariners and dropping out of first place with Detroit's win over Cleveland. On a positive note for the Royals, their offense remained red-hot, collecting 14 hits off Hisashi Iwakuma and six Mariners relievers. Three of those base knocks came off the bat of Billy Butler, who raised his batting line to .281/.333/.365 with his 3-for-4 performance.

Butler, along with the rest of his teammates, has been swinging a hot bat lately. He's hit safely in 10 straight games and 15 of his last 16. It's been quite the turnaround for Butler, who as late as May 28th was hitting a lowly .235/.294/.299, well below his career batting line of .298/.364/.459 coming into the season.

It was strange to see Butler so lost at the plate for two full months. Over the last five seasons, he's been one of the most consistent hitters in the game, a perennial threat to bat .300 with 15-20 homers, twice as many doubles and 90 or so RBI.

Butler has always hit, and that's what made his ice-cold start so perplexing. In the wake of his power drop-off last year, there was talk that the 28 year-old DH had begun to suffer a premature decline. That he was done. He sure looked the part.

It was a rough first ten weeks of the season for Butler. Halfway through April, Country Breakfast was hitting .143. It took him 16 games to get his first extra base hit, 28 to sock his first homer (and another 39 to blast his second), and 43 to enjoy his first three-hit game. Kansas City's team-wide offensive woes were not the fault of any one man in particular, but Butler was perhaps most responsible. Batting third or fourth most nights, he's expected to be a run-producer and one of the team's top hitters. Through May 28th, he had just one home run, 20 RBI and a sub-.600 OPS. As a designated hitter his sole job is to hit, and he wasn't doing his job. Worse, he was a black hole in the heart of KC's order when they desperately needed somebody to pick up the slack, or even just live up to expectations.

It was during a three game series in Toronto at the end of May that Butler finally awoke from his slumber. He cracked two hits in the series opener, three hits in the middle game and two more in the finale. It was the first time all season that he'd strung together three consecutive multi-hit games. Over the past three weeks he's batted close to .400, raising his batting average nearly 50 points in the process. His OPS has climbed more than 100 points, from .593 to .698.

While it's encouraging to see Butler hitting again, it's still worrisome that he's struggling to drive the ball with authority. He's still searching for his third home run of the year and the power stroke that has more or less abandoned him since 2012, when he set career highs with 29 home runs, 107 RBI, 313 total bases, and a .510 slugging percentage/.197 ISo. He does have 16 doubles so far, which puts him on pace to end up with around 35, but he needs to start clearing the fences more regularly. Otherwise, Ned Yost is going to have to move him down in the order, because guys that can't even manage double digit home run totals have no business batting third or fourth (I doubt Yost will do this, however, considering that Butler has played every game so far in spite of his prolonged slump).

Will Butler's power return? It seems unlikely as long he continues to pound more than half of his batted balls into the ground, a bad strategy for someone widely regarded as the slowest player in the game. His HR/FB rate, currently below four percent, has never been under eight percent for an entire season and should come up. That's not going to make much of a difference, however, when 75 percent of the balls he puts into play aren't fly balls. Kauffman Stadium is also a notoriously difficult place to hit one out, so it doesn't help that he plays half his games there.

That said, as the weather warms and his home rate stabilizes, Butler should start hitting a few more balls out of the park. I'd be surprised if he doesn't reach 10 home runs for the seventh straight season, but not shocked. He's not the power-hitter he used to be, and he was never a great slugger to begin with. His days of challenging 20 homers are likely over, and barring a summer power binge he'll probably fall short of 15 dingers for the first time since 2008, when he was a 22 year-old sophomore.

Of course, Butler will still have value if he can continue to bat close to .300 with 30-40 doubles, good OBPs and strong RBI totals. But a decline in power is typically consistent with an erosion of other skills, batting or otherwise, so I'd expect him to start falling off as a hitter over the next few years as he gets into his 30s. Big players like him (think Boog Powell, Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder, Ryan Howard) rarely age well and Butler, a bat-only player, will be no different.

The Royals have a team option on him next year, and after that's up they'd be wise to let him go. Then again, we're talking about the Royals here, an organization that traded Wil Myers for James Shields and gave nearly 1,500 plate appearances to Jeff Francoeur. Never known for having much sense or smart decision-making skills, they'll probably give him a five-year extension.

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