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Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Billy Butler made big strides at the plate in 2009. It was about time as well, as the Royals placed a lot of hope in the progression of their hulking DH-first baseman. Through his first two years, the young slugger seemed to be a bit timid at the plate, falling short of the power numbers his potential and size suggested he was capable of.
Drafted 14th overall out of Wolfson (Fla.) High School in the 2004 June draft, Butler made his debut later that year in Rookie ball. It was a very good start for the 18-year-old, as he showed good power (10 HR in 260 at-bats) and a very advanced approach at the plate (57 walks against 63 strikeouts in 321 plate appearances). This all culminated in a sensational .373/.488/.596 line. With his size and polish, Butler seemed destined for stardom, ranking as Kansas City's No. 1 prospect and 75th-best in MLB. As a result, the Royals promoted their prized prospect to High-A in 2005.
Starting out in the California League for his second professional season, Butler defied even the most gaudy expectations, going on to post 25 homeruns in 379 at-bats en route to a .348/.419/.636 line. His youth showed at times, however, as his excellent strike zone control from the previous year lagged a bit, leading to a 42:80 BB:K rate at High-A. Still, his overall line was more than good enough to earn Butler a midseason promotion to Double-A Wichita, where he continued to rake. There, he posted a .313/.353/.527 line with five homers in 112 at-bats. With 30 home runs on the year in '05 as a 19-year-old, the experts fell head over heels for Butler, ranking him the 29th-best prospect in MLB, though dropping him to No. 2 in the KC system, behind the incomparable Alex Gordon.
After his stellar 2005, the Royals thought it prudent to allow him to refine his approach and gain some polish at Double-A for the 2006 season. Butler was able to make noticeable gains at the plate, improving his BB:K ratio to 41:67 in 528 plate appearances. However, his power took a considerable hit for the first time, as he was only able to launch 15 balls into the Double-A stands. This was a somewhat troubling development, as Butler's power ceiling seemed to be limitless following his 2005 season. It was particularly confusing because of Butler's advanced command of the strike zone. Often times, when young hitters have sudden drops in power, it is due to being uncomfortable at the plate against good pitchers, which often manifests itself as strikeouts. This was not the case for Butler, however, as he was still working the count well and driving the ball. Power doesn't go away—barring injury or a drastic change in a player's swing. With a .331/.388/.499 line, Butler seemed good to go, so the Royals again promoted him.
The 2007 season saw Butler begin his season at Triple-A. His 249 plate appearances saw Butler regain all of his former 2005 glory and more. He torched Triple-A pitching, showed expert control of the strike zone and the power returned. With a 43:32 BB:K ratio, 13 homers in 203 at-bats, and a .291/.412/.542 line, Butler resolidified himself as an elite minor league hitter. As a result, the Royals gave him his first taste of the big club, which was a little up and a little down. On the one hand, his plate discipline showed up relatively well for a rookie, with about a 1:2 BB:K ratio (27 walks against 55 strikeouts) and a respectable .292/.347/.447 share in 358 plate appearances. However, his power deserted him, as he mustered just eight long balls. In addition, Butler's large platoon splits surfaced in the bigs, as he hit just four bombs against righties with a .272/.323/.392 line in 232 at-bats, and four homers in 97 at-bats against lefties with a .340/.404/.577 line.
As a result of his good premier, the Royals started Butler in the majors in 2008. Butler struggled in his second showing, however, as he had .249/.310/.330 line with two homers in 233 at-bats in the first half of the year, including a demotion on May 30. He found himself again at Triple-A, slugging five homers in 101 at-bats, with a 14:7 BB:K ratio, showing that, while he was not yet ready for big time, he was too good for the minors. Brought up again on June 29, Butler made great strides in the second half, showing good power with nine homers in 210 at-bats, a 12:24 BB:K ratio and a .305/.341/.476 line. Still, Butler's struggles against righties hit a new low, with a .244/.290/.308 line with just three homers in 299 at-bats.
Coming into 2009, Butler showed plenty of potential but not enough results for fantasy owners. Still, Kansas City gave Butler another chance in the majors and deservedly so. In his third season in MLB at age 23, Butler showed some serious development as a hitter. In 672 plate appearances, Butler was able to post 21 home runs with a .301/.362/.492 line. He improved against all pitch types, regaining his prowess against fastballs (1.27 wFB/C in 2009 versus -0.65 wFB/C in 2008) and hitting curves and change-ups much better in 2009.
In addition, Butler's struggles against righties were solved to an extent, though he remains a much better hitter against lefties. This may be connected to his struggles against sliders (-0.65 wSL/C in 2009; -0.93 wSL/C in 2008; -1.94 wSL/C in 2007), as righties can attack Butler with this pitch, while lefties have a harder time doing so, due to their large platoon splits. It does not help that the book has gotten out on Butler, as well, as pitchers have gone after Butler with sliders in 2009, throwing them 16.6 percent of the down. However, his relative improvements have shown up in opponents' pitch selection, as the percentage of sliders he faced was down from 20.1 percent in 2008.
What is most exciting about Butler's 2009 performance was his overall improvement in the power game—his overarching tool. As a pure hitter, he is quite good, but his ultimate power output will determine where he goes as a hitter. Besides slugging more homers in 2009, he also saw a considerable change in the distance his balls were hit, as he had many more drives to the warning track. These will likely cross the fence with higher frequency as he develops at the plate. And, if you're a Bill James disciple, you can take comfort in knowing that Butler crossed the 50-double threshold this past year, with 51.
Still, one key factor that stands in the way of Butler achieving fantasy greatness is his ground-ball oriented swing. With a career 1.40 GB:FB ratio, Butler will have to hit more flyballs if he wants to threaten the home run leaderboards. His raw power and strength may be enough to crack 30 homers, but he won't hit rarified air without more flyballs. However, he does have lots of potential to improve the home run totals even if he does not up the fly ball totals, as his 11.9 HR/FB percentage is quite middling, especially for such a big hitter.
His strikeout rate, while it did increase this season from 12.9 percent to 16.9 percent, is still quite good and should allow him to continue to post good batting averages, despite a very high .335 BABIP in 2009. Consistent .300 averages are a possibility. If he can keep his strikeout numbers low and up his power, as he should, this will mitigate any drop in BABIP.
In the end, Butler looks like he may be on his way to a considerable breakout in 2010. He is a great hitter, uses all fields, and has excellent latent power potential. The breakout could come as early as next season, so there is good reason to reach on Butler a little bit. He likely won't be among the league best, but an average to above-average first baseman is an incredible asset at any point in the draft. League average first basemen often go in the early rounds, so he could become quite the steal. His performance against righties is his biggest hurdle to becoming a fantasy stud, so it bears watching. If he starts hot against righties, it may be a good idea to trade for him. If he is underwhelming, it may not be his year. Watch the performance against sliders as well, as this could be a leading indicator for success or lack thereof against right-handers. In addition, don't forget about the groundball-flyball ratio. If he ups the fly balls, he'll be hitting the bleachers quite often this season, with or without the righty success. For next year, draft Butler expecting slightly below-average to average production at first base, with around 25 home runs and a batting average in the .280-.290 range, with the potential to be an above-average fantasy first baseman.
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Posted by Mike Silver at 6:22am
Speed: As mentioned above, Kemp is on a path toward surpassing 35 SB this season, an extraordinary achievement for a player who is 6-foot-3 and approximately 225 pounds. Players measuring those dimensions aren’t typically speed demons and when they do surpass 30 SB, as Alex Rodriguez did in 1998, it tends to be followed by a few years of more moderate steals production. In 2006, Baseball Prospectus writer Kevin Goldstein wrote this about the then-prospect outfielder: “At 230 pounds, Kemp’s plus speed could dissipate quickly.” Reportedly, Kemp showed up to spring training this year in excellent condition, and his success rate on the base-paths this year (81%) shows no cause for concern, yet we’ve likely seen the best from Kemp in the steals department.
This theory intrigued me, and I wanted to take a deeper look into it. Is this actually the case? And if it is, what's the extent of it?
To start, let's look at an age curve for three groups of players: league average (all players), players 6-3 or taller, and players 5-10 or shorter. These groups will be known as "average," "tall," and "short," respectively, from this point forward. The stat we'll examine will be SB/SBO (steals divided by opportunities to steal), or the rate at which a player both attempts a steal and succeeds given that he reaches first base. We'll use data from 1919 to 2008. To form the graph, we'll look at year-to-year changes and display them as a percentage of Year 1 so that all three groups of players will start at the same place and will be easier to compare.
The main takeaway here is that "tall" and "average" players maintain the speed they had at age 21 longer than "short" players, who start trending downward at age 23. Tall players start that downward trend at age 24, but it's much less pronounced as they're able to keep at least 93 percent of their Year 1 speed all the way until age 28. Once those tall players start their decline, however, they face a steeper drop than the short players.
To illustrate this a bit better, here's a chart showing raw year-to-year changes as opposed to the gradual aging approach we just took. We'll also condense our age range to 24-37 to use ages with a little bit larger sample and to hone in a little bit more on what we're looking at.
In this light, we see that short and average players behave very similarly. The short players show some wider swings, but that's simply a sample size issue. The pattern is essentially the same. Tall players, however, follow a much different pattern, as we started to see in the initial age curve. Hopefully this graph makes it a little clearer. Each year from age 27 through 32, tall players unfailingly see a drop in their speed. Then there's a bit of a resurgence at age 34 (almost certainly a sample-size issue—in all likelihood, there is probably a plateau for ages 33 to 35) and then some more decline.
To circle back on the short players for a moment, there is one noticeable difference between them and average players. At age 33, notice that their line begins to slope upward. This doesn't mean that they gain speed, but rather they lose it at an increasingly smaller rate. In fact, from age 33 to 37, short players lose a total of just 6 percent of their speed. After that, of course, they decline.
Summing it all up
Essentially, short and average players see their skills decline at a pretty steady rate, short players easing up a bit from 33 to 37. They seem to lose roughly 5 percent of their speed per year until they reach 33. Tall players behave differently, seeing little overall change from 21 to 25, dropping a bit and leveling off until 27, then taking a nosedive until 33. They level off again from 33 to 35, then plummet until the end of their careers.
Application to Matt Kemp
So what can we deduce about Kemp (who turned 25 at the end of last month) going forward? Well, I think it's relatively safe to say that his speed will stay in tact, for the most part, next year. Unless he puts on some weight, he should remain in that "initial plateau" area for tall players (lasting from age 21 through 25). After 2010, these age curves tell us to expect a small dip until age 27, then a precipitous fall off.
Overall, the Kemp Speed Theory seems to hold some real credence, it's just that Kemp himself hasn't reached the point where he's likely to be affected.
Side-note on caveats and bias
You probably noticed that I didn't use weight as a parameter, as Eriq's theory suggested. While I think this would be an important variable, unfortunately the data we have available to us doesn't allow it. You see, a database doesn't seem to exist (at least publicly) that assigns a weight to a player for each individual season. Instead, we only get something like career-to-date or end-of-career weight data. This will create problems if we try to use it for age curves.
For example, when Barry Bonds was 25 years old and stealing 40 or 50 bases per year, he probably weighed around 150 pounds. At the end of his career, he weighed around 240 pounds. If we were to create a weight parameter in our age curve, Bonds would not be lumped in with the 6-2, 150-pound guys at the age when he actually was 6-2, 150 pounds. Instead, he would fall into the 6-2, 240-pound bucket at every age—even though that's not who he was at age 24. This creates lots of problems and bias.
Using only height does introduce some problems, but not nearly as many, and it's mostly just an offshoot of not having weight. For example, we have no idea which players are gaining weight and slowing as a result. If we're predicting the future for a modern-day player, we'll know that he's maintained his weight, so ideally we'd want to eliminate guys who added weight from our study, but we simply aren't able to do that. Instead, we'll have "tall players who gain weight" and "tall players who maintain weight" all lumped together, despite the fact that "tall players who gain weight" will likely be skewing our results a bit. Overall, though, using just height is much sounder than including weight.
At some point I may run these age curves again, including a weight parameter, using data from just the past four years or so to eliminate some of the issues with weight, although that might just lead to a small-sample-size issue.
There's also some selection bias inherent with age curves in general, and I've taken some precautions to avoid them, but some just can't be completely eliminated, so I wanted to make note of it.
Finally, because we're using stolen base opportunities as our denominator, our sample is much smaller than if we were using something like at-bats or plate appearances. I included 90 years worth of data to compensate, but the sample sizes are still less than ideal, especially for ages on the extremes. The general points should probably hold, though.
I'm not yet ready to say that I'm drafting Kemp in the top five, but I'm not nearly as worried about his speed as I might have been a few weeks ago.
If you guys have any questions, feel free to ask away.
Posted by Derek Carty at 5:36am
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