Saturday, March 22, 2008

Reason #7: The Hitter.

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.

14 comments:

Jeff said...

Great post Rany.

Keith Law said...

The Royals actually cut a deal with Butler and signed him for around $400K below slot. Unless Philip Hughes becomes a significantly better player than Butler, the Royals got the best value of the round.

Chris C said...

I am really enjoying the blog. I was upset that Rob and you ended the other one. However, the regular postings by you are carrying the torch and have exceeded all expectations. Keep up the great work. It is refreshing that Rob isn't around to rain on every ounce of hope.

Nathan W said...

Maybe when Gathright said he wanted to be like Juan Pierre he meant he wanted to be grossly overpaid, too??

Old Man Duggan said...

It is really hard not to love Young William. I hope he is the second coming of Chr--I mean, Brett.

Shelby said...

Can't stay away from your fantastic blog Rany. Does Rob ever post here?

I love your optimism for Billy B. And I'd love even more to share it. Color me blue with Royal skepticism, but I think it's still too early to count him as a guy who's going to approach a .900 - 1.000 OBPS every year (which is where I think his potential lies--.320, 28 HR, 95 RBI....somewhere in there). He's pretty patient at the plate, but how do we know he isn't going to show frustration and impatience if/when the league's pitchers discover a weakness in his strikezone?

Also, your suggestion that he'll bat 3rd is, I think, contested by Hillman, who is apparently batting Gordon in the number 3 slot. I think that's probably for the best at this moment. I would prefer to have Butler at no. 5 and Gordon at no. 3 with Guillen at cleanup. Hopefully Butler's performance will require that he and Guillen switch those spots sometime in July. I think a Grud, Gordon, Butler, Guillen 2-3-4-5 MIGHT put is in a more offensively competitive situation.

Shelby said...

One other thing Billy has going for him: he looks like a 21-year-old Theodore Cleaver.

Hey, does Mr. Butler need a nickname?

The Beav, anyone?

Isaac said...

Butler is the best pure hitter the Royals have had since Brett. As far as what he is going to do when they discover his weaknesses, I think he'll be alright since he doesn't have any.

As far as him in the field goes, I saw him out there last year and didn't think he was that bad. He didn't seem to look stupid at any time. I thought he might have been at 1B coming out of ST but I guess not. I still think he's got a shot at the position. I think he's got the potential for being average.

Adam said...

Dare I ask why it would be a bad thing for Joey Gathright to be like Juan Pierre? (besides the obvious fact that he is excessively overpaid)

Antonio said...

Pierre shows no patience and for a guy with no power, patience is a very key thing. He also doesn't really swipe that successfully, which is a key thing for a base-stealer. It might not be a good point to bring up considering we can only dream about the day that gathright improves enough to steal as ineffectively as Pierre.

Isaac said...

Pierre, as far as I know, has an OBP somewhere in the lofty area of Berroa's or Pena's. The exact opposite of what you want from a leadoff hitter.

JayhawkOwensJunior said...

Juan Pierre finished third, first, second, second and first in outs the last five years. And he'd had two particularly atrocious years before getting the contract, so it's not like the Dodgers were taken off guard. And all indications are that he's going to start the season instead of Ethier.

It's strange; I went to Dodgers games when I was still in the womb, and didn't start following the Royals until I moved to Kansas in 1991. (So I've been here for, you know, the glory years). But for the first time I can remember, I just can't get excited for the Dodgers this year...but I am so stoked about this Royals team.

Kirk Gibson hitting that shot as a nine year old living in Alaska, staying up past my bedtime, launching myself off the hearth of the fireplace, dancing around the room with my parents--still my number one sports memory of all time. But I think, after all these years, the table has finally turned.

Adam said...

I'm certainly not defending Pierre, but the comparisons to Berroa and Pena couldn't be more wrong.

Pena's OBP has never gone above .284, Pierre's OBP has never gone below .326. Berroa's best OBP is .338, just a bit above Pierre's worst season. Pierre's best OBP, however, is .378.

Pierre had pretty decent numbers in 2001, 2003 and 2004. (100+ RS, 200+ H, more BB than K -- and very few K in relation to AB, at that -- OBP in the .361 - .378 range, ect.) And quite frankly, I'd be thrilled to see Gathright put together that kind of production. Especially when he's only making a few 100k a year, and while Howell continues to do very little in Tampa.

And from what I've read/heard, Gathright is walking much more and learning to steal at a much higher success rate.

david said...

Unrelated to your post, but worth watching in '08 is the defense. I've read how the fundamentals have improved, but in the spring training games I attended this year, the defense is dreadful. What's worse are the balls which are misplayed. These don't show up in the box score, but there are a lot of catchable balls the "fall in." You've been warned.