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June 23, 2014

The Buyer's Guide

Billy Butler

by J.P. Breen

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A week ago, we dissected Michael Wacha’s recent drop in velocity and his dramatic decrease in swings-and-misses. The article aimed to make a larger point about small sample sizes and how fantasy owners can identify trend changes in small samples, only to subsequently track them to determine if the small sample is actually indicative of something larger and more permanent. A week later, the St. Louis Cardinals placed Wacha on the DL with shoulder issues, and it appears that small sample was hinting at something larger.

Though y’all slacked in the comments earlier in the month, the suggestions from last week were strong. I almost grabbed Garrett Richards, because he’s enjoyed such an interesting breakout this year, but I wanted to focus on a position player this week. Considering the amount of Billy Butler questions that have been flying through the Bat Signal over the past couple months, I grabbed the recommendation from BP reader D1Johnson. If you have a specific player you’d like to see in this space next week, be sure to leave your suggestions for next week in the comments, or feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

Let’s do this.

*****

Billy Butler has caused some consternation among fantasy owners the past couple years. Two seasons ago, the 28-year-old designated hitter mashed 29 home runs, drove in 107 runs, and hit .313 with an OPS pushing .900. He was entering his prime and appeared to be on the verge of becoming a perennial stud in all fantasy leagues.

Then, last year happened and worry began to seep in. He was still plenty valuable at the plate in a pure baseball sense—as he still managed a .283 TAv and was top 20 in OBP—but his stock dropped dramatically in fantasy leagues. Butler ranked outside the top 150 players and was the 23rd-ranked fantasy first baseman. Two main concerns hovered over him like a stubborn fog on a misty morning: (1) his power declined significantly, as he only hit 15 homers and his ISO dropped to a career-low .124; and (2) he lost his first-base eligibility in most leagues and would now be relegated to a UTIL role in 2014, which places immense pressure on his bat to produce at an elite level.

As fantasy owners who drafted him know quite well, Butler has fallen off a cliff. He has hit two homers in 301 plate appearances and his true average has tumbled to .249 TAv, which is straight-up unacceptable for a guy who can do nothing but clog up a utility spot in fantasy rosters. His 7.6 percent walk rate is the worst of his career since 2008, and he’s swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than he has since his rookie year in 2007.

It’s been abysmal across the board. He is currently the 265th-ranked player in ESPN leagues, and again, that’s not workable as a guy who can’t be slotted into a roster anywhere but a UTIL spot. Of course, though, this could also be an opportunity to buy-low and reap the benefits as he regains his previous form. He’s only 28 years old and doesn’t project to be a guy who suddenly has lost his ability to hit. The track record is there. Thus, the real question is whether this is the new Billy Butler, or if the Billy Butler from 2009 to 2012 can be expected to return.

I have few doubts that Country Breakfast can still scramble together a solid batting average. Unfortunately, it projects to be an empty batting average, as the power production won’t return if his current profile at the plate doesn’t change dramatically. The fly-ball rate is too low, which severely limits his opportunities to deposit the baseball over the outfield fence. Here is his groundball-to-flyball ratio in recent years.

Year

GB/FB

2010

1.40

2011

1.27

2012

1.64

2013

2.01

2014

1.98

Butler has seen his power production drop, which can be seen in his decline in ISO, because he’s hitting more ground balls and fewer fly balls. Needless to say, it’s tough to hit for prodigious power with that batted-ball profile. His average fly ball distance ranks 94th in the league (according to Baseball Heat Maps), and that’s not high enough to convince me that a significant amount of his few fly balls will leave the ballpark. Furthermore, Kauffman Stadium continues to be a tough hitting environment, which compounds the issue.

Pitchers have made overall adjustments to their approach against Butler, which seems to be the overarching reason why his power has declined and his batted-ball profile has changed. Throughout his career, we can see from where his power has come:


We know that a .200 ISO designates above-average power, and those numbers have come on the inner portion of the plate for Butler. He has also found some success with pitches up. Most of his power, though, has come from pitches on the inner half where he can turn and drive the baseball. The Achilles Heel for Butler’s power production has been pitches low-and-away, which certainly isn’t uncommon, but it’s largely because he has a 58 percent ground-ball rate on pitches in that area.

You can guess where this is going. This season, opposing pitchers have mercilessly pounded Butler on the low-outside portion of the plate, as well as frequently off the plate.


Butler is not getting anything up in the zone, and he’s rarely getting anything on the outer half. The low-outside corner is being worn out by opposing pitchers, and Butler hasn’t been able to adjust. Compare the above pitch distribution to the one from 2012:


Butler not only saw more pitches in the inner half in 2012, even off the plate on the inner half, but he also got more pitches up in the zone. In 2012, it seems opposing pitchers still tried to work in on Butler’s hands, trying to jam him, and occasionally work up in the zone to change his eye level. That approach gave Butler the chance to capitalize on mistakes in those areas. Now, though, pitchers seem to have abandoned that approach and have chosen to continuously work the baseball down-and-away.

I’m not going to include the heat maps because eventually that just bogs down the entire flow of the article (they can easily be found on Brooks Baseball), but it’s notable that lefties used to work inside to Butler and have now joined righties in pounding him low-and-away. In 2012, Butler hit .331/.417/.619 against lefties with a .288 ISO. This season, he’s hitting .273/.333/.333 with a .061 ISO. Opposing southpaws have changed their approach, and the power has subsequently disappeared.

Thus, unless something dramatic changes, I don’t see the power returning in any meaningful way for Billy Butler. He can still hit for a solid average, but without power, stolen bases, or a lofty run total, that’s largely an empty investment for fantasy owners. Not to mention the UTIL limitation is just brutal when it comes to roster construction.

Buyer’s Advice: SELL
Butler is only 28 years old and has a track record of hitting success—so it’s possible he makes unforeseen adjustments to rediscover his power—but his current profile is extremely unattractive in fantasy leagues. The BP Bat Signal has been peppered with questions asking if Butler is someone to target as a buy-low candidate or whether he’s someone to sell off. I’m not sure a significant trade market exists for the man affectionately known as Country Breakfast, but if you’re someone who owns Butler, I would suggest working the phone lines to get what value is available before his struggles are widely seen as something more permanent. If you’re someone on the flip side of the coin and receive trade offers with Butler involved, I would quickly be looking the other way.

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J.P. Breen is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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