With his third major league season in the books, 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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