You would think that hitting ability and fielding ability would correlate with each other. Both activities require tremendous hand-eye coordination, after all. And by and large, they do. Even the worst defender in the major leagues would play shortstop in your local beer league, and even the worst hitter in the majors would be the most fearsome slugger in any amateur competition.
Still, every now and then you get a guy like Billy Butler, who holds a bat in his hands like it’s an extension of his body, and wears a glove like he’s never seen one before.
The Royals got a guy like Butler with one of their shrewdest draft picks of the decade. The team had the #14 pick in 2004, still the latest they’ve waited to draft since 1996. The 2004 draft was not particularly strong; I mean, Matt Bush was the #1 overall pick, and Bush’s career as a shortstop progressed so nicely that he’s now a pitcher (and a pitcher who just had Tommy John surgery at that.)
It was weaker still if you wanted to avoid the money and acrimony that would inevitably follow Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew. Every team drafting in the top 10 did, and aside from Justin Verlander at #2, not one player taken in the top 10 looks like a sure thing today. (The Rice trio of Philip Humber, Wade Townsend were all taken in the top 8, and now they look like the second coming of the Mets’ “Generation K.”) The second-best player taken in the top 10 was probably Homer Bailey. The third-best was…uh…Jeremy Sowers?
There were rumors before the draft that the Royals would select Boston College pitcher Christopher Lambert. Lambert would make it to #19, where he was popped by the Cardinals. His stock has since dropped to the point where last summer the Cardinals traded him to the New York Highlanders…er…the Detroit Tigers for Mike Maroth.
As Scouting Director Deric Ladnier would later admit, in their war room the Royals were sure about only two things in that draft: 1) there were no sure things, and 2) if there was a sure thing, it was that Billy Butler could hit. And boy, has he. He hit .373/.486/.596 in his pro debut, topping the collegiate-dominated Pioneer League in both batting average and OBP as an 18-year-old. (It was a good summer for Billy; he also met his future wife there.) It takes a pretty awesome performance in rookie ball to get labeled a “steal” three months after you were drafted, especially when you were taken in the first round, but it was pretty clear that Butler had a chance to be special early on.
You don’t want to get too excited too quickly, though – hitters put up spectacular performances in rookie ball all the time, and many fizzle out quickly. The greatest rookie-ball Royals prospect I’ve ever seen was Sergio Nunez, who in 1994, as a 19-year-old second baseman just off the plane from the Dominican Republic, hit .397 in the Gulf Coast League (no desert thin air to boost his numbers), walked 32 times against just 17 strikeouts, and stole 37 bases in 59 games. (I believe his batting average is the highest by a Royals player, at any level, in their history.) For one season, he looked like the second coming of Joe Morgan. The next year he jumped to high A-ball and hit .237; he topped out in Double-A.
Butler jumped to high-A ball the next year, and he was no Sergio Nunez. He hit .348/.419/.646, finishing in the top 3 in all three rate categories, before he moved up to Double-A at year’s end and hit .313/.353/.527. In 2006 he spent the whole year in Double-A and hit .331/.388/.499, winning another batting title.
He failed to hit .300 in 2007, but his secondary skills bounced back, and he hit .291/.412/.542 in Triple-A for two months and drew more walks than strikeouts for the first time. He spent the rest of the year with Kansas City, hitting .292/.347/.447. He will still be 21 when this season begins.
The Royals simply haven’t had a hitter as precocious as Butler in 30 years, and quite possibly, ever. Butler was an everyday player in their lineup at the age of 21, and in franchise history the only two guys who can say that are George Brett and Clint Hurdle. Brett famously never hit .300 in the minors, whereas Butler almost never hit less than .300, and his career line in the minors is a rather ridiculous .336/.416/.561.
I don’t have access to Hurdle’s complete minor league numbers, but he’s the only Royal ever to crack the starting lineup at age 20, and thirty years ago this month he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (the headline was “This Year’s Phenom”,) so you have to figure he was pretty well regarded at one point. Actually, thanks to SI’s recent and greatly-appreciated decision to open up their vault, I can now link to the article from that issue. It looks like Hurdle hit .328 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs in Triple-A in 1976, at the age of 19. Yeah, I think that qualifies as a phenom. (By the way, that’s a great article to read, if only to contrast the cocky wild-eyed 20-year-old Hurdle and the guy who manages the Rockies today. And there’s a Rubin “Hurricane” Carter reference!)
You’d like to know with certainty that his career won’t disappoint like Hurdle’s did, and in your favor is the fact that Butler’s numbers as a rookie, .292/.347/.447, are almost identical to Hurdle’s best season, 1980, when he hit .294/.349/.458. On the other hand, offensive levels are much higher today than they were 30 years ago. Butler’s OPS+ last year was 105; not only was Hurdle’s OPS+ much higher at 120, but Hurdle’s OPS+ as a rookie (when he hit .264/.348/.398) was higher as well, at 108.
But hey, there’s a lot of space between Brett’s career and Hurdle’s. Butler’s not likely to end up like either player – for the simple reason that he can’t handle a defensive position. And it’s hard not to root for him. For one thing, his fielding skills are really the stuff of legend. He spent less than a year at third base, where one scout called him “the worst defensive player I’ve ever seen, at any position.” He then moved to the outfield…and as the story goes, in spring training two years ago, Butler was in the outfield and they were hitting fungoes out to him. It wasn’t going well – he was having all sorts of problems tracking fly balls. Suddenly he bolts in from the outfield and runs up to the coach hitting the fungoes to offer some advice. “You’re hitting the balls too high!”
How can you not love him after hearing that? Especially when you know that his defensive woes are not the product of a lack of effort. The man clearly loves everything about the game – he still has the boyhood innocence about him, the joy of playing a game and calling it work. He gets ribbed mercilessly in the clubhouse for being such a redneck rube, and I get the impression that all that ribbing – and the good-natured way he accepts all the abuse – is really a sign of how much the other players love him. He’s not Mark Quinn, in other words.
The main reason to love him is that, as clueless as he is in the field, he’s incredibly intelligent and intuitive at the plate. I think the best comparison for him is Edgar Martinez, a professional and cerebral hitter with great strike zone command and the ability to spray the ball all over the park.
Whether Butler makes it at first base or not is almost irrelevant; if he’s not DHing this year, he will be as soon as the Royals can find a real first baseman who can hit better than Ross Gload. His position may not be “3” on the field for long, but in the lineup, he’s the prototypical 3 hitter. Mike Sweeney is gone, but his replacement is not only on hand, it might be an upgrade.