Brian Butterfield knows defense. Currently Cito Gaston‘s bench coach in Toronto, Butterfield is widely regarded as one of the best infield instructors in the game, with players such as Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill having credited him for helping them develop into Gold Glove-quality defenders. A native of Bangor, Maine, Butterfield began his coaching career in 1984 and has since served as a roving infield instructor, minor league manager, and coach at both the minor league and big league levels for the Yankees, Diamondbacks, and Blue Jays. Butterfield has been with the Toronto organization since 2002.
David Laurila: You have a reputation of being an outstanding infield instructor. How did you come about that?
Brian Butterfield: Well, I was lucky growing up, because I was in a baseball family. My father was a coach for a long time, and he was a good teacher. A lot of the players that he coached, I was able to work with as a really little guy. And since I’ve been in professional baseball, even college baseball, I’ve had a lot of good teachers. So, I’ve been around it, and I have a passion for it. I think you’re a product of your environment, and I’ve been lucky enough to have been around good people, so I’ve tried to take things that I’ve learned and impart them with young players, which I think is fun.
DL: How would you describe your teaching style?
BB: I think you’d maybe have to ask somebody else if I have a specific style, but I know that I like being out there, and I like breaking things down with infielders. It doesn’t matter which position, I think that it all starts with the way you practice. If you practice game-speed, that’s going to help you once you get into a game situation. And defense is played with your feet. You’ve got to move your feet on a daily basis in order to reinforce good habits and become a quality defender. So, I like to see the practice and the preparation that goes in before the game even starts.
DL: According to Aaron Hill, you’re very demanding when it comes to detail and doing things the right way. Is that accurate?
BB: Well, I’m glad he said that. That’s a compliment, coming from a guy that works as hard as he does, it pleases me. He’s a guy that I think is very detail-oriented. If you just look at the way he keeps his locker and the way he lives his life, he’s detailed and prepared. He wants to be an outstanding player, and he works very hard on a daily basis. Guys like him and Johnny McDonald are very easy to work with because they prepare like champions, so they’re going to keep getting better, regardless of their age.
DL: When Hill moved from shortstop to second base, did you work with him any differently than you typically do with players making that same transition?
BB: Great question. There are certain… what’s the word I’m looking for? There are certain musts; there are certain absolutes that you must do when you’re playing defense. But also, whenever you’re teaching, regardless of what phase of the game you’re talking about, in baseball, you have to adjust to the athlete a little bit. But like I said, there are certain absolutes. When you’re turning a double play over the base and receiving the ball and throwing it to first base, there are certain absolutes that every second baseman must follow. But there are also other things that he does that another second baseman-without [Hill’s] arm strength and his ability to play low to the ground-couldn’t do, so I wouldn’t demand that of another player. So, there are a lot of absolutes, but by the same token, you also need to adjust to the player a little bit.
DL: How did Orlando Hudson’s move to the right side of the infield compare to Hill’s?
BB: One of the things with Orlando is that he was more of a two-handed guy. I firmly believe that at second base, in order to be a good pivot man-with your back turned to the runner on a double-play pivot-you’ve got to be able to play with two hands. And I think that it’s always been difficult for guys who have been predominantly one-handed for most of their lives to make that switch and go on the other side of the base and play two-handed. So, that’s been Aaron’s biggest challenge, to play two-handed. He’s been a one-handed guy, because he’s been on the left side of the diamond for a lot of his life. Orlando was more two-handed to begin with, so it was an easier transition in making the double-play pivot. It’s been a little bit longer transition for Aaron, but he’s coming on like gangbusters now. His hands keep getting closer and closer together, and that’s going to help.
DL: When you look at a young Aaron Hill or a young Orlando Hudson, can you normally say, “His future is as a second baseman,” or “He should stay at shortstop”?
BB: That is never an easy decision, but I think the way the organization tries to look at it is, where is he going to lend the most value, and where is he going to have the most productive career? Shortstop is one of the most demanding positions on the field, but there are certain phases of playing second base that make it even more difficult than shortstop. Both positions have their difficulties, so I think that you look at the guy, like you do with all kids, and you say, “How is this guy going to have the most productive career, and how is he going to help our organization?”
DL: According to The Fielding Bible, which emphasizes defensive metrics, Hill should have won a Gold Glove in 2007, and Hudson should have won one in 2003, 2004, and 2005. In each instance, they did not. What is your opinion of Gold Glove voting?
BB: That’s awesome that they think that way, with their data. Here’s how I feel about it: I’m not a big a awards guy, but I know a good defender when I see one, and I can tell you that Orlando Hudson and Aaron Hill are both above-average defenders. Now, unfortunately, they don’t have much control over the voting process, and I think that sometimes, with the voting process for the Gold Glove, there’s a possibility that some coaches don’t spend enough time on it. They don’t get a close enough look. You have to look at statistics, but that’s not the sole factor in determining who should get a Gold Glove at each position. I don’t put much stock in it, but I know that it’s important to the players. I’ve been very pleased with both guys defensively, whether they win an award or if they never win an award, or even if they win 10. It doesn’t matter to me. I just know when they’re productive and when they’re helping us.
DL: Do you ever look at defensive metrics to see if they match what your eyes tell you?
BB: A little bit, I suppose, but that’s a little advanced for me, because I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed. It’s something I need to learn more about, really.
BB: I looked at them as both being above-average defenders; they are both outstanding. Again, sometimes you have to deal with the comfort of the athlete. I’m sure that they probably spoke to both of them, and maybe one was a little more receptive to moving to another position than the other, and as things have transpired, Jeter has stayed at shortstop, obviously, and Alex has improved by leaps and bounds at third base from when he first went over there. It was a different position for him, and he fought through that, which is a great testament to Alex Rodriguez, to make that move and become as good as he’s become through the years, playing third base.
DL: How good of a defender is Marco Scutaro?
BB: It’s been an absolutely fantastic year for him, and I really feel that he should be the Gold Glove winner. For me, he’s the Gold Glove shortstop. He’s caught everything, he has no panic in his hands, and his work ethic has come in leaps and bounds. He’s got great feet, great hands-great hands-and he understands what we’re trying to do as a team, as far as positioning ourselves with how we’re pitching guys. He’s simply played above and beyond.
DL: When he replaced David Eckstein as the Blue Jays’ shortstop, what changed?
BB: Well, Eck didn’t have an opportunity to play throughout the whole year, and Eck did gel as far as… he’s a tremendous student of the game, and I still consider him an underrated defender. A lot of times, people look at him throw across and they see a below-average arm, but Eck knows what to do with the ball and how to get it across. He was very good in his time here. But I think that if you looked at the numbers, and what Scutaro has done since, I think he’s had more success. Of course, he’s had the opportunity to be that guy every day, and that helps a lot. When you come to the park knowing that you’re going to see your name on the lineup card, it helps you to get into a rhythm and play with confidence. You don’t need to be looking over your shoulder to see if somebody else may be playing that day.
DL: Is defense at first base equally as meaningful for all teams, or do some teams need a better first sacker than others?
BB: That’s another great question. Through the years in the minor leagues, when you evaluate first basemen, a lot of times you look for power and an offensive guy. At the corners, you look for power and production. But for me, personally, I really value a guy who can catch the ball over there and can throw at first base. That’s because he’s handling the ball so much, and if you have a guy who can pick throws and handle himself around the base, and handle all kind of throws from his infielders, they’re going to have a lot more confidence throwing it across to him. So, I want a guy who is offensive, but I also want a guy who can lay the leather a little a bit and dig balls out of the dirt. And for me, what separates the good first baseman from the great one is the guy who can throw, and throw fearlessly in a big situation, to get the lead out, late in the game, to keep the double play intact.
DL: Is it safe to say that a team with more erratic throwers in the infield relies more heavily on a good defensive first baseman?
BB: Without a doubt. Throughout the years, with the guys I’ve talked to that are above-average defenders, they’ve even told me that they’ve thrown the ball loose, with a lot more conviction, and a lot more confidence, when they’ve known they have had a guy over there who can handle the glove. When they’ve had a guy who doesn’t handle the glove as well, sometimes the throwers from the left side of the diamond become a little bit tentative. Confidence is an important part of playing defense.
DL: You obviously take a lot of pride in the good defensive play that your infielders have exhibited.
BB: Honestly, I think that you’re a product of your environment, and we’ve got good players. We started the year with Scott Rolen at third base, and he’s the best third baseman I’ve ever watched. Scutaro came on like gangbusters, and Aaron Hill has just been on a steady upward climb since he first came into the league. And [Lyle] Overbay, for me, is the most underrated first baseman in baseball. There’s a guy who, when you’re talking about picking throws out of the dirt, he’s been phenomenal in taking throws. I can only think of three or four balls in the last two or three years that he’s not picked, so all of our infielders have had a lot of confidence throwing the ball across the diamond to him. You feel good when guys are having success, because that’s the thing that you’re working on. But it would be foolish of me to think that… you know, if we had a bunch of stiffs out there who, no matter how much time you put in, couldn’t play defense, that would be one thing. But these guys are good defenders who want to be better, and they’re athletic, and I’ve been lucky to be around them.