Great Lakes Royals

May 6, 2010 8:10 AM

Billy Butler's Power Outage

My concern about the long-term viability of the Royals isn't based around Danny Duffy's sudden departure from the minor league system, it's not really based in the progressively more clear Alex Gordon demotion, nor does it have much to do with Kila Ka'aihue or the age of the team, or even Dayton Moore's understanding of the importance of plate discipline (or lack thereof).

I'm concerned about the future of the Royals because Billy Butler isn't hitting the ball to the gap like a power hitter needs to.

Billy Butler laced 51 doubles and 21 homers last year, en route to slugging .492 on a batting average of .301, and establishing himself as the best hitter on the Royals.  As baseball purist will certainly argue, Butler is hitting .327 this year, and is developing as you would expect a young hitter to.

Problem is, after producing a batting line of 301/362/492/853 last year, Butler is producing at a clip of 327/355/442/798 this season.  It's only a month, but Butler is walking considerably less (5 times thus far, producing a drop in OBP even with a higher hit rate/batting average), and he's not getting the ball into the gaps consistently (7 doubles, 2 HRs).  His lack of power goes back to spring training, which is worrisome.

It's even more worrisome when you consider that former Royal 3B Mark Teahen once hit 290/357/517/874.  Since, Teahen has positioned himself solidly as a 400-410 slugger, almost 100 points below his age 24 season.  In fact, in the last four years, Teahen has never slugged over 410.

So naturally, Butler's current 442 figure is alarming, as is his inability to really work a walk.  The walks can be explained away (to an extent) by his approach at the plate.  Butler is putting the ball in play earlier in the count, which is leading to fewer strikeouts, and fewer walks.  But even when he's ahead in the count, his tendency to take the ball to right field for a single (or sometimes, a ground ball) can't be explained by his approach at the plate.

An analysis of hitting charts for Butler shows that 4 of his 7 doubles in 2010 have been line drives down the right field line.  Both of his homers as well as the remaining 3 doubles have been fly balls to left field.  Problem is, even Butler's fly outs aren't, by and large, pushing the gaps.  In 2009, when Butler would get a hold of a ball to his pull field, he got it over the wall nearly 100% of the time.  Last year, at the K, all of Butler's warning track flyouts went to deep center, right center, or right field.  When he got around on a ball, he either got too far under it, or it got over the head of the outfielder.  That's what made him one of the AL's most dangerous hitters.

This year, Butler already has two warning track flyouts to left center, balls that would have made it over last year.  I don't know how much you can read into that sample, but you can add to this fact that Butler isn't using the left field line at all this year.  18% of Butler's doubles at home last year went to the left field corner, but Billy hasn't so much as flied out between the line and the left fielder this year.

The troubling thing is that Butler isn't going to be able to slug anything near 500 without using the pull field both more often and more effectively.  And this is not a dissimilar problem to what derailed Mark Teahen's career as a Royal.

The bottom line is to continue to develop as one of the AL's premier young hitters, it's my conclusion that Butler has to take more walks, get around on balls when he's ahead in the count, and once again start driving the ball to the right center gap instead of just going the other way and dumping it in front of the right fielder.  Under the status quo, I believe Butler is a good enough natural hitter to maintain a .320 batting average, but the Royals cannot afford right now to have an everyday first basemen who is OPSing a mere .800.  And to get back into that dominant 850-900 range, Billy Butler needs to gap more doubles and hit more home runs to those gaps.

Right now, this is merely something that bears watching.  But you know as well as I do that a first basemen who slugs 440 and doesn't walk is hardly an everyday player, much less an adequate third hitter.  Butler is still the best pure hitter on the Royals, and I'm not trying to take that away from him, but the Royals have to expect to get more value with the bat out of their best hitter, and Butler is right now best classified as a singles hitter -- a very, very good singles hitter.

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