I'm sure you've heard it before.
"Billy Butler's up to bat? Ugh, he never does anything."
"Butler is just the WORST."
"Another double play, huh? Thanks, Billy."
"He's so fat, no wonder why he's a bad player."
"The Royals just need to get rid of Billy."
Listen to those around you who are less obsessed with the Royals than you at home or at the ballpark (but especially in the digital land of Facebook and Twitter). Comments about Billy Butler and disappointment about his performance are all over the place. It's pervasive and uncannily similar in its tone. It's everywhere. For years and years, that talk was just the absurd, unfiltered thoughts of those who didn't know how baseball worked. Now, their apparent prophecies have come to light, to the detriment of all in Royalsland.
Billy Butler is the single biggest problem on the 2014 Kansas City Royals team, and Billy Butler's failure to produce this year, and by extension his whole career, is a microcosm of Dayton Moore's Royals and their failure to become something great.
Butler debuted in 2007, Dayton Moore's first year as General Manager. A highly regarded prospect, he immediately began producing at the Major League level. His rookie year, Butler hit .292 with 8 HR in 2/3 of a season; this was good for a wRC+ of 105. Butler's star was bright--not quite as bright as Alex Gordon, who debuted the same year, but bright nonetheless.
In 2008, Butler faltered in a sophomore slump. Every aspect of his game suffered, and after hitting a mere .263/.330/.339 after two months, he was sent down to AAA. He hit better after coming back, though not by a terribly large amount, and ended up with a wRC+ of 90 for the year. Granted, he was only 22, and a strong rookie showing at age 21 usually suggests future success.
And so it went--2009 was a very nice bounceback year for Butler. He hit 22% above league average, hitting for a nice combination of average and power, showing advanced plate discipline as well. He hit 21 home runs, a great number for the 23 year old. His 2010 was even better, and is a very underrated year. Though Butler hit for less power, he hit for a career high .318 and exhibited fantastic plate discipline, which led to a career high .388 OBP. It combined to be 33% above league average; Butler was developing a reputation as a very good hitter. Butler cultivated this reputation through his exemplary consistency, and from 2009-2013, over 3370 plate appearances, Butler hit .302/.372/.469, varying from 17% to 39% above league average.
Yet, all was not well with Country Breakfast.
In hindsight, 2011 showed the first cracks that would develop in the first baseman and designated hitter. That was the year that Eric Hosmer debuted, who slid into the first base position full-time. Though Billy had played DH often in his career, he had always been a first baseman, well, first. There were whispers that Butler was unhappy with his changed role, but regardless, the season was a step back. Butler's body type suggested that he would be a slugger--David Ortiz, Prince Fielder, and the like were good comps--somebody who hit for lots of power and home runs. In 2010, Butler had taken a step forward, hitting for a high average and walking consistently. As hitters generally hit their peak in their mid to late 20s, it was often posited that Butler would evolve into a high-power slugger at a similar point in his career, and it was logical to assume that Butler would keep getting better. 2010 proved otherwise. Not only did Butler fail to take 'the next step', but the rest of his game deteriorated; he hit less often, he walked less often, he struck out more. His ISO and HR tally went up slightly, but it was not a spike like everybody hoped, instead being more of a simple variance in performance.
It was a mere blip on the radar, or so it seemed the next season. 2012 was a memorable year for Butler, as, out of nowhere, he became the guy that was desired of him. He hit for average (.313), he walked (BB% of 8.0), he hit for power (.197 ISO and 29 HR). Overall, he hit 39% above league average, won the Silver Slugger award for DH, was elected to the All-Star team in Kansas City, and legitimately snubbed by Robinson Cano for the Home Run Derby. For one magical season, everything was coming up Butler. Just once, though. 2013 was like 2011 again, only worse, and Butler's stark decline has barreled forward, as Butler is hitting 11% below league average so far this year and only has 5 HR. It is now August.
Fan expectations and perspective are everything. For a team which isn't supposed to do anything, such as the 2003 Royals, a playoff chase is a welcome surprise, magical even. For a team which is supposed to make the playoffs, such as the 2014 Royals, a similar finish is a terrible result (or at least should be).
Butler was supposed to be The Guy, the one whom opposing pitchers feared, the one who would break Balboni's meager record of 36 HR in a season. Nobody expected him to be a good defender. They expected him to hit. And though Butler hit well, he did not hit well enough, nor in the style of what he was 'supposed' to hit.
Billy's game was frustrating, and still is. He's an awfully slow baserunner, but he hits most balls on the ground, 48.4% of them for his career in fact. This leads to two things: 1) singles but not home runs and 2) double plays. Starved for power, fans wanted Butler to, you know, hit for power, and 29 HR doesn't cut it. Then there were the double plays, which Butler is great at, unfortunately. He's hit into 164 of them for his career, which is not good in the least bit. One of his main skills, walking, is not recognized by the average fan, and so many view Butler in a poorer light than they should. For years, fans' anger at Butler was extremely misplaced. To be mad about Butler when Jonathan Sanchez is still making starts with a 6+ ERA is silly at best. Now, however--not so much.
Royals fans desperately wanted, and still want, a great hitter. Butler is tantalizingly close but just isn't. He never was, even in his best years. That is totally understandable, even if the wrath for Butler is misplaced.
Unfortunately, Butler's two-year fall from grace has been horrible, awful, mostly unforseeable, and very Royal. More than anyone, Billy Butler is the biggest problem with this team. He's making $8 million this year--not huge, but sizeable for a small market team--and he's been horrible. Hitting 11% below league average, Butler has been 'worth' -0.8 fWAR, or the exact same worth Jeff Francoeur provided to the 2013 team. For a team that can't score runs, having a severely slumping and/or awful DH is inexcusable. Though he's hit somewhat close to league average, he's been way below his own career numbers, being 28% below his career average.
I think Billy Butler's performance this year hurts more than anything else that has happened in years, whether we want to admit it or not. For year after year, Butler hit well. Maybe not as well as we wanted him to hit, but well. He was the model of consistency, and you always knew he would give a good at-bat.
This year is 'all-in' mode, even if Moore is too incompetent or stubborn to think so, as this year is all the Royals get of James Shields. And, in the most important year in Royals history since God knows when, what does Billy Butler, homegrown hitter, reliable ballplayer, do for the Royals? What has he done when the pressure rises and we needed him most?
Fail. That's what he's done. Fail. Out of nowhere. Brutal. Shocking. Complete. At an age, 28, where he should be in his prime.
We should be used to this, I suppose. But it's yet another reason why this team is a hopeless cause, year after year.