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March 11, 2011
Billy Butler, Speed Demon
Spring Training is always good for a few canned stories. I don’t know about you, but I have lost count of how many guys are in the best shape of their lives as well as how many guys are just working on things to get ready for the season. It may take the players a few weeks to get game ready, but their clichés are in mid-season form right out of the gate. So, when a manager comes out and says that his hefty first baseman has a chance of stealing ten bases in 2011, you take notice.
In 2010, just 108 stolen bases were accumulated by all first basemen in the major leagues. Joey Votto accounted for 15 percent of those, with Albert Pujols taking up 13 percent. James Loney was the only other first baseman to reach the double-digit stolen base total last season and just 22 first baseman had at least one stolen base last season. Billy Butler was not in that group of 22, but Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard were (go figure). Unless you are drafting one of those three guys that may run, stolen bases from your first baseman are a complete afterthought. After all, only 62 times has a player that played at least 100 games at first base in a single season stolen as many as ten bases (Gregg Jefferies' 46 steals in 1993 top that list).
Butler shows up on the Player Forecast Manager as the 15th highest ranked first baseman, but he jumps to 13th when you consider nobody is drafting Mike Napoli and Buster Posey to play first base on their roster. Butler is projected to hit .294 with 16 home runs, 84 runs scored, and 80 RBI while stealing just one base. That one stolen base would match his professional stolen base total in 1978 at-bats. It came against the Indians in 2009 while David DeJesus occupied third base with only one out when Butler was clearly trying to draw a throw from the catcher. Maybe these are the types of situations that Yost envisions happening more often for the Royals in 2011.
Through the multitude of managers that Butler has played for in his minor and major league career—a list that most recently includes Ned Yost—Butler has attempted nine stolen bases in 3510 at-bats. The good news is that he has an 89 percent success rate–a total Yost hinted that Butler could equal in 2011 in less than 20 percent of his career at-bat total.
The obvious question—besides if Yost has been drinking too much Tiger Blood—is "can big men run?" Butler is, to put it kindly, beefy. The Royals official website lists him at 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds. Thanks to the wonders of the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, we can look up exactly how many players of that height and weight have stolen 10 or more bases in a single season and we find just one very infamous person–Elijah Dukes. With the Nationals in 2008, Dukes was 250 pounds of muscle, and stole 13 bases in one of the only seasons he was able to stay in the news because of his actions on the field rather than off of it. The next player on that list is former Royal Bob Hamelin, who stole four bases in 312 at-bats in 1994 and five bases in 239 at-bats in 1996. In all, just seven players with those dimensions have stolen at least one base since 1901: Dukes, Hamelin, Josh Fields, Rod Barajas, Corky Miller, Shanty Morgan, and, of course, Butler himself.
Keep in mind that three of those seven players are catchers—that says something about Butler's build. If we remove the height requirements and just look at steals from anyone weighing at least 240 pounds that played at least 100 games in a season over the past 30 years, we find 24 instances of players with ten more steals in a season. The names in that group include: Derrek Lee, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Lee, Adam Dunn (who used to be in much better shape thanks to his football background), Scott Rolen, Jason Heyward, Marlon Byrd, and Troy Glaus. The first Lee, Cruz, Rolen, Heyward, and Byrd are known for their athleticism but it's hard to picture El Caballo, present-day Dunn or Glaus stealing that many bases in a season.
When looking at stolen bases, three metrics I find helpful are Bill James’ Speed Score (SS), Stolen Base Attempt Percentage (SBA%) and Stolen Base Opportunity Average (SBO%). SBA% represents the percentage of times a runner will attempt to steal second base while SBO% shows the percentage that runner has the opportunity to execute that stolen base attempt. The table below represents those data points for Dunn, Glaus, and Carlos Lee for two different seasons:
Despite below-average speed scores, each of these big guys was able to steal ten or more bases because of their attempts and/or opportunities. Now, let’s take a look at how Butler stacked up last season compared to the American League averages:
Butler did not even make an attempt to steal a base last season under either Trey Hillman or Ned Yost and that Speed Score is a big part of the puzzle. Butler’s Speed Score as a major league player is just 1.9 (on a scale to 10) but as a minor leaguer, he was up to 4.6 which compares to Troy Glaus in the two seasons he stole ten bases. In 2010, the only regular player with a Speed Score below Butler’s was Adrian Gonzalez and those two players share the same stolen base total for their respective careers—Gonzalez will also be the first person to tell you that he is physically incapable of running fast.
Fantasy players have to take note when Yost says he wants to run because he is one of the more aggressive managers on the basepaths baseball. Jeff Zimmerman of Royals Review recently broke down Yost’s tendencies both in 2010 with the Royals as well as his time in Milwaukee. In both cases, Yost sent his players more than the league average and continued to do so in Kansas City despite less than desirable results. The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball by Tango, Lichtman, and Dolphin states in Table 137 (page 336 for those playing along at home) that the break-even point for a stolen base to be worth the risk is 69 percent. That factor varies depending on how far a team is up or down in a game and at what time the attempt is made in the game. The Royals under Yost’s control were successful just 68 percent of the time last season.
A prime example of his stubbornness would be Alex Gordon. Despite just a 2.8 Speed Score in 2010, Yost put Gordon in motion six times last season and he was successful just one time. Gordon’s SBA% and SBO% were at league average, but his results were well below league average and detrimental to the offense as Yost gave the opposition five free outs.
Despite Yost’s aggressive nature on the basepaths and bluster on the microphone yesterday, the odds of Billy Butler stealing ten bases are equal to the Royals’ chances of winning the American League Central. In the end, I’m guessing he and the staff had a big a laugh at this statement as most of us did yesterday when we first heard of it. A lot of things would have to go right for either rather unlikely scenario to happen regarding double steals, catchers losing the ball, and strong gusts of wind that blow behind Butler as he makes his way toward second base. Maybe Chris Gimenez can get some company in the misery of being the only catcher in the major leagues to permit Butler to steal a base.
The silver lining in this for fantasy leaguers is that if Yost is willing to consider giving Billy Butler at least ten chances to steal, imagine what he will do when speedsters such as Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain—freed from the polar opposite of Yost, Ken Macha—are on first base with the next base unoccupied.