Billy Butler is, plain and simple, a great hitter. The 24-year-old Kansas City first baseman doesn’t garner a lot of national attention, but few players swing a more potent bat. Seen by many as a future batting champion, albeit defensively challenged—an area in which he has made great strides—the 2004 first-round pick hit .301/.362/.492 last season. This year he has been even better, as he came into the month of June fourth in the American League in batting and with a slash line of .348/.398/.490.
David Laurila: How do you think you’re viewed by most fans; what is your image?
Billy Butler: I don’t know if fans for every team know much about the Royals, but I want people to view me as someone who plays the game hard. I’m here every day to play; I don’t take days off—just a good baseball player.
DL: Do you think that fans know who you are off the field?
BB: It’s kind of hard for any fan to actually know who any baseball player is, so that‘s kind of a tough question. If any player was honest, he’d say that most fans don’t know anything about him, really.
DL: Is that a good thing?
BB: It’s a good privacy thing. Our lives are so public as it is. Everybody knows what you’re making; everybody knows everything about you. You can look it up and find out, so I like my own private space with my family and having that time with them.
DL: Is it sometimes hard to be yourself, given the media’s propensity to dig for dirt?
BB: I pretty much am myself. I have nothing to hide. I pretty much just say it how it is, because that’s how it is with me. I don’t pull any punches. I’m not here to lie or sugarcoat anything. That’s just who I am.
DL: I understand that you have an interest in baseball history?
BB: Yes, I know a lot about the game of baseball; I know a lot about history and where players come from. I know where players played in their career and I do a lot of research on trades and everything like that. I’m just pretty much an all-around sports fan.
DL: Do you have a favorite era?
BB: I grew up in the ‘90s and was a Braves fan, and I still am a Braves fan, although I play for the Royals, so the Royals come first. So I’d say, pretty much, the ‘90s.
DL: Which players are important to you from a historical perspective?
BB: Chipper Jones is my favorite player. He grew up in Jacksonville, Florida where I came from; he went to high school in Jacksonville. He got drafted as a third baseman and I got drafted as a third baseman. It kind of went hand in hand and when we go to Atlanta in a few weeks, I’m looking forward to meeting him.
DL: Hank Aaron is obviously a Braves icon. Do today’s players maybe not appreciate his era as much as they should?
BB: I definitely think that every player that plays this game, for the most part—if they play it the right way—respects every player that played this game, because they realize how tough it is. And I’m not speaking for everyone; I’m speaking for the vast majority of players. They respect everybody who stepped on the field.
DL: Aaron was once the all-time home-run leader, although he wasn’t known for hitting tape-measure shots.
BB: He hit 755 home runs, and in my personal opinion I still view him as the home run king. And it doesn’t matter how far you hit them, it matters where it goes. A home run is a home run, in my opinion. You don’t need… just go out there and play the game, run hard every time, and you can look yourself in the mirror.
DL: Was the game more honest in Aaron’s era?
BB: I’m not going to get into that. I’m not going to say that any era is any different than anything else. Obviously, there are boundaries there and I’m not going to cross them.
DL: Do you ever think about home runs when you’re hitting?
BB: I’m just trying to hit the ball on the line. I try to hit the ball hard every time I go up there. It doesn’t always result in hits; it doesn’t always result in home runs. I view a home run as a mistake, because if you go up there trying to hit a home run every time, you’re not going to have a very long career. I go up there trying to do the job, make the pitcher work, stay in the strike zone. I want the pitchers who face me, and have faced me for a long time, to say, “That dude is a tough out. He never gave in. That‘s a guy I don‘t want to face.” I want to be a guy who initiates fear into that pitcher every time I come up to the plate. I want them to be scared of me. That’s my goal.
DL: Is your approach to hitting the same now as it was three or four years ago; has anything changed?
BB: I never have [changed]. I mean, three, four years ago I was winning batting titles in the minor leagues. I was doing the same thing then as I am now, but just at a different level.
DL: When you were winning those minor-league batting titles, did anyone suggest adjustments you might need to make to replicate that success in the big leagues?
BB: Nope, never. I was pretty much viewed as one of those guys, when I got drafted, who was a can’t-miss hitting prospect. They didn’t know where I was going to play on the field, but if you said anything about that, I’m proving people wrong over at first base with how I’m playing and how I’m doing things the right way over there. A lot of people and a lot of teams said I would never pan out as a defensive player, so I’m pretty proud of myself for going over there and doing a good job.
DL: Are you driven by people saying you can’t do this or can’t do that?
BB: Not necessarily. I’ve got personal drive and don’t put too much into the negativity that other people say. Anyone trying to say negative stuff to you is just trying to bring you down and I don’t get caught up in that.
DL: How aware are you of your numbers—not just your batting average, but the overall picture of what you‘re doing as a hitter?
BB: I’m not. I really have no clue, because I’m more worried about going out there and winning ballgames than anything else.
DL: You’re not like Brian Bannister, who assesses his value and what he might do to increase it, via data?
BB: I look at opposition stuff; I don’t look at stuff I do personally. But the guy I’m facing each night, I pretty much try to know that pitcher—how he works—better than he does. I’m watching video all the time. I go up there with a set plan every single time. I have an idea of how he’s going to work me, just from percentages.
DL: Do you look at your own zones and your production in each?
BB: No, I don’t look at anything like that. I pretty much go up there looking for something out over the plate and if it’s not there, I don’t give in until I have to.
DL: Is there anything reporters never ask you that maybe they should?
BB: They’ve pretty much asked me everything. Like I said, I don’t really try to hide anything. I pretty much tell it how it is about the game, and tell them my thoughts.
DL: Do players look at the game much differently than do the media and fans?
BB: There’s always a way. I mean, there are the basics of baseball and everybody has their view of baseball a different way. Every player probably looks at it in a different way. The only thing you know every night is that somebody is going to come out on top of another team. That’s just how it is. Fans think that whenever you lose a game, you played bad, but that’s not always the case. This is the major leagues and we play 162 games. You’re going to lose a lot of games as well win them. Even the championship teams lose 60-70 games during the regular season, and that’s a lot of games. That’s the reason we play so many, because it takes that long to prove who is the better team.
DL: Going back to image and history, what is your opinion of players like Ty Cobb, who arguably played the game a little too hard?
BB: I don’t think that anybody can ever play the game too hard. You can’t play this game hard enough, because you don’t know when your last game is going to be. You just don’t know. You could go out tonight and it’s the last one you ever play. You might blow something out—you might get hurt—and never put the uniform on again. If that happens, you don’t want to have to look back and say, “I could have given more.” You can’t give enough for this game. It’s a great game, but the game owes you nothing. There’s a reason they call it America’s pastime.