Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A's Bank On Butler Bounceback

Butler brings an above average bat to Oakland (Fox4KC)
By signing Billy Butler to a three-year, $30 million engagement, the Oakland A's made their first major tweak to the roster responsible for one of the more memorable late season collapses in recent history (largely because the team stopped hitting). In Butler, they add a righthanded, middle of the order bat to fill the hole left by Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded to Boston last summer in exchange for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes.

A lead-footed DH, Butler isn't the all-around talent that Cespedes is, but he'll at least replace Cespedes's bat. Not the power, mind you, but through a better OBP and similar run production. Check out how their numbers match up since 2012, Cespedes's rookie season:

Butler:     1,745 AB 55 HR 255 RBI.292/.358/.436 .794 OPS 117 OPS+ 36 Rbat
Cespedes: 1,616 AB 71 HR 262 RBI .263/.316/.464 .780 OPS 116 OPS+ 37 Rbat

Butler is also six months younger than Cespedes, and figures to be much cheaper over the next three years.

But since Butler adds no value whatsoever in the field or on the bases, Oakland needs him to bounce back from a dismal 2014 in which he managed only nine home runs, 66 RBI, and a .702 OPS (95 OPS+). Butler was actually below replacement level last year at -0.3 bWAR, and the cash-strapped A's can't afford to pay $10 million a year to someone with negative or zero value.

Billy Beane's betting that last year was an anomaly for Butler, who was a consistently above average hitter prior to 2014. Through his first seven seasons, he owned a .298/.364/.459 slash line (122 OPS+) while averaging 17 home runs, 35 doubles, and 80 RBI per season. That's essentially Pablo Sandoval production (better, actually) at only one-third the price.

Digging deeper, it actually makes loads of sense to forecast similar figures from Butler going forward. He's only going to be 29 next year, after all, and has been exceptionally durable, averaging 158 games per season over the past six. Furthermore, nothing alarming jumps out from Butler's batted ball data last year, though he did struggle against two seam fastballs. The best and simplest explanation I can find for Butler's down year was a slow start, as he had a sub-.600 OPS with only one home run through Memorial Day weekend. That would also explain why his walk rate plummeted, as flailing hitters tend to press at the plate and try to swing their way out of it. I suspect that's what happened to Butler, who's normally a patient hitter. Besides, he was fine from the end of May forward, batting .290/.339/.420 after May 28th. If that's what he hits next year, Oakland has to be happy with that.

The only obstacle that could thwart a return to form for Butler is his new home park, Coliseum, which has been unkind to hitters with its deep power alleys and expansive foul territory. Butler flourished in Kaufmann Stadium--which was well-suited to his gap-power--where he batted .312/.372/.477 (.849 OPS) as a member of the Royals, as opposed to .278/.341/.426 (.766 OPS) everywhere else. His numbers in his new ballpark are almost identical to his road splits, as he has a .759 OPS in 130 career plate appearances there. That said, hitters typically perform better at home regardless of where they play, and Butler's Oakland numbers are likely suppressed by the A's strong pitching staffs in recent years. He won't have to face the likes of Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija, and Scott Kazmir in 2015.

Lastly, I like this deal because I think its terms are very fair, perhaps even favorable, for Oakland, who didn't even have to sacrifice a compensatory draft pick because Kansas City failed to give Butler a qualifying offer. Three years and $30 million is a pretty safe investment for an under-30 impact bat, and there's plenty of room for value here. Butler only needs to be worth in the neighborhood of four to five wins over the next three seasons to justify his salary, and he's certainly capable of that after compiling 13 bWAR from 2009 through 2013 (an average of 2.6 per season). Even if he doesn't get all the way back to being the hitter he was two years ago, his ability to provide above average hitting over 140-150 games should be plenty valuable. His presence makes Oakland's lineup deeper and more formidable, which should go a long way towards helping the A's get back to the postseason next fall.

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