Monday, May 5, 2014

Billy Butler and Future Production

As a whole,  the Royals offense is again off to an incredibly disappointing start in 2014. Of course, there are some players that deserve the blame more than others and there are some players who receive more of the blame than others. Over the past few years, no player has teetered this line more often than designated hitter Billy Butler.

A portion of the fan base complains that Butler is fat, too slow, doesn't hit for enough power, and can't deliver in clutch situations. Another portion of the fan base points out that Butler is a career .313/.394/.460 hitter with runners in scoring position and that he gets on base at a career clip of .362. It seems as though this debate has gotten so divisive that there is no grey area in regards to Billy Butler.

Obviously, there is a segment of fans that view baseball much differently than myself. They beat their chest to stats like RBI and they prefer to keep math away from their evaluation of players. Obviously, many of these individuals greatly undervalue the strengths of Butler. More surprising to me are the analytics on the other side of the fence that are unable to see flaws in Butler's game as well as some of his concerning trends.

In regards to last season, it is true that Butler was valuable to the offense. His 116 RC+  was the second best among everyday hitters in the lineup. At the same time, it is not unfair to expect more from Butler. In 2013, he was coming off a 138 RC+ and the Royals were pushing the chips into the center of the table. Despite this there were reports of him coming to camp overweight, and then in season his average flyball distance dropped from 297 to 276 feet. As a result his HR/FB% nose dived, his home run total dipped, and his slugging percentage fell all the way to .412.

Yes, if all things were created equal, Butler was not the problem with last season's offense. However, Butler wasn't expected to simply be one of the best hitters in the lineup. He was expected to be one of the best hitters in the American League. After a season which saw him bop a career high 29 home runs, Butler seemed poised to be one of the most dangerous hitters in the American League in his age 27 season.

What most of us have seemed to underestimate though is just how much more harsh the aging curve is for heavy players than it is for average sized individuals. Here is a look at the aging curves of the two body types, with Butler's OPS numbers overlayed:

As you can see, the curve of heavier players dips much earlier in the player's career than it does for average sized individuals. For Butler's own sake, I haven't even included this year's numbers in the illustration of how his own aging curve is playing out. If you are a defendant of Billy Butler and you like to cite advanced statistics to back up your argument, you have to recognize that there is an analytical reasoning behind the notion that Butler's skillset could regress much more quickly than the average player.

Butler appears to be heating up. In his last 9 games (yay! selective end points), he is hitting .343/.368/.514. However, not only has Butler's ground ball percentage increased in four consecutive seasons, but his average fly ball distance has also decreased. Even when he is getting the ball into the air he isn't driving it as far.

Do I expect Butler to finish the year with a sub .700 OPS? Absolutely not. But I also wouldn't bet on him getting back into the .850+ OPS range. Based off the aging curves of heavier players in the past, Butler should have two or three more seasons with an OPS around .800. However, after that it could be a pretty quick fall for the Royals former first round pick. Hopefully, Butler can prove me wrong and can stay hot throughout the rest of 2014. We all know the offense needs the lift.

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