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Billy Butler's Present and Future

He's been a driving force of the recent success. Does that mean the Royals should retain his services?

Butler needs no vision for high fives.
Butler needs no vision for high fives.
Jamie Squire

For just, I don't know, 37 seconds, depending on your reading speed (NERD!), take your attention away from the playoff hunt. Or don't, but read this anyway. This is partially related to that.

In the 2nd half of the season, using the handy splits function at FanGraphs, Billy Butler has hit .286/.318/.512, good for a 131 wRC+ in 88 PA. While not getting on base quite as much as usual, the slugging aspect is a nice reminder that 2012 happened. After a terrible start, Butler is slowly lifting himself out of the doldrums of negative value. I'm not sure he'll get to positive value, but he's picked a wonderful time to stop being not-Billy Butler and to start being Billy Butler, designated hitter who hits. Butler's resurgence is definitely part of the reason the Royals find themselves duck hunting. I would say tiger hunting, but I'm about 75% sure that's illegal.

What's Billy doing differently? There are a couple things. First, his batted ball distribution. Observe the following table comparing his batted ball distribution from the second half to the first half of the season.

1st 23.8% 51.8% 24.5% 4.3% 4.3%
2nd 18.7% 45.3% 36.0% 0.0% 14.8%

Billy's GB% has gone down, and his FB% has gone way up. More of his fly balls have turned into home runs as well. For all the underperformance that was occurring earlier in the season, it looks like there has been an equal overperformance around the mean. Butler in the 2nd half is hitting fewer ground balls and a bit more fly balls than his career average, and the trend is the same when comparing his 2nd half numbers to his 2014 season overall.

Great! Butler is hitting fewer ground balls and more fly balls, where he can take better advantage of his power, which has returned to levels between 2012 and 2013 (by HR/FB). There are other, different things going on with his plate discipline. Observe a 2nd table.

Half O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
1st half 32.0% 64.2% 46.8% 72.0% 90.4% 83.5% 45.8% 60.2% 7.4%
2nd half 38.2% 69.9% 54.3% 70.0% 89.5% 82.8% 50.9% 63.6% 9.6%

Butler is swinging more and making slightly less contact, but he's being thrown more strikes. His swinging strike rate is also up. This sounds a whole lot like a Billy Butler that's more aggressive at the plate and swinging harder.

Baseball is a game of adjustments. There were rumblings that Butler was being thrown strikes more often, and perhaps the 2nd half is his adjustment to that adjustment. Butler is walking less and striking out less in the second half. Of course, this is a pretty small sample; maybe it's just random variation. Or, maybe it's real, and pitchers will adjust down the stretch. This aggressive version of Butler is definitely outside the norm for him, though.

So, that's his present. He's being more aggressive, and he's doing more with what he's hit. But what about the future? If you're unfamiliar with Butler's contract situation, here it is. Butler is scheduled to be paid $12.5M for his services in 2015 with a $1M buyout. It's almost a guarantee that the Royals won't pick up that option, but Butler has stated that he would be willing to rework his contract to stay in Kansas City. How does he fit? Cue the jokes.

Unfortunately, Butler is a bat-only guy. He can stand near 1st base with a glove, but so could I. He hasn't been a full-time first baseman since 2010 really; Hosmer was called up in early 2011 and has played a jillion innings since then. Defensive metrics are not kind to him. He does not run the bases very well. Luckily, he is still not very old; he turns 29 in April 2015. The Oliver projection system sees him as worth 1.1 fWAR in 2015 and 0.9 fWAR in 2016, for a total of 2 fWAR. If the poor performance earlier this year is behind him as a blip, Butler has a good shot at reaching those projections. Historically, Butler is still one of the best hitters on the team.

If the Royals are truly interested in bringing him back, and he's willing to take a discount, I would suggest spreading that $12.5M out over the next 2 years instead of only next year. However, that's the maximum. I would prefer something closer to 2/$10M or even 1/$6M. I dread the Dayton Moore treatment, the mutual option, for no good reason.

While Butler may be worth that, the Royals will be under the gun for payroll next year. They really won't have much more than $10M to play with, and Butler would grab at least half that under some sort of restructure. There are also whispers that the Royals would like to avoid having a full-time DH player taking up that slot in order to maintain roster flexibility. I am in favor of this action. I'm all about dat A's and their flexible DH/depth model. I'm really not sure that Dayton and Ned could construct and use a roster well without a full-time DH, but I think I'd like them to try. This means kicking Butler out the door with a $1M buyout.

Then again, Butler's probably all about dat A's, too.