Less than surprising news came forth on Sunday: The Oakland A’s released DH/1B Billy Butler. This was not a shock, since Butler has struggled in his two years in Oakland and there was no way he was returning to the A’s in 2017. Butler’s numbers in Oakland were pedestrian at best: .258/.325/.394, OPS+ of 99, -0.8 bWAR with 19 homers and 96 RBI’s in 843 trips to the plate with Oakland. At the time of the signing the belief was that it seemed like a weird pairing, as Butler’s fly ball numbers had been on the decline while his ground ball ratio continued to rise. Much like Kauffman Stadium, this seemed to be a bad fit in Oakland’s large ballpark. But Oakland showed the money, so Butler jumped(which I have no issue with). Now that Butler is free to sign where he wants, the question has been ‘What is next for Billy?’ and there seems to be a variety of ways to answer that question.
Let’s start with question of his regression. The numbers on Butler speak of a player who has been on the decline since his age 28 season in Kansas City back in 2014, where most of his power numbers took a dip; extra base hits, ISO, slugging percentage and wRC+ all were down from his career year in 2012 and even his 2013 season. I mentioned the rise in ground balls which started back in 2013, and it is still very high for a guy like Butler, who has no speed and is better suited to spray the ball to the outfield or hit the ball in the air. In reality, his ground ball ratio this year is actually the lowest of his career(42.3%) but that is also with the least amount of plate appearances as well. There has also been in increase this year in his line drives (29.1%) and his hard hit percentage is back up to previous levels (up to 33.3% compared to 30.4% last year). I want to think that this increase is a sign of Butler coming back to his glory year levels, but I also realize we are dealing with a smaller sample size and he has had irregular playing time so far in 2016.
Butler also has to repair his clubhouse reputation, which took a big blow after his scuffle with teammate Danny Valencia last month. The most interesting aspect of the fight was while Valencia has always been known as a malcontent…
…Butler wasn’t always loved in Kansas City. Maybe the hardest criticism came from former Royals captain and Royals Hall of Famer Mike Sweeney:
It got worse:
“Billy is a great-hearted guy. He’s like a 31-year-old kid that can hit, that wakes up and says I’m going to go out and get two hits today. Sadly, whether we win or lose, it wasn’t at the top of the list for Billy, as far as my experiences with him. But he’s a great-hearted guy, he’s just not a team guy. I felt the same with Danny.”
The general consensus from former teammates and reporters has been that Billy cared more about his numbers than how the team did and could be very annoying in the clubhouse. I’ve never heard anyone say he was a bad guy, but it does sound like his act was harder to take when he was struggling. This does coincide with his behavior at times in Kansas City. For one, he was never a big fan of being a full-time DH and he still complained about it his last season there in 2014. He also was still taking issue with his lack of playing time, which he commented on earlier this season:
“I’ve never been in this position before. I’ve played every day of my life from when I was 7 years old, so this is something new. I don’t even know how to exactly prepare for what I’m supposed to do because I’ve never had to do it, so I just try to treat it like I’ve treated everything else, like I’m a starter. I know I can do it in this game. There’s not a lack of confidence in my abilities.”
Butler never really seemed to grasp why he had become a part-time player and that seemed to affect his performance on the field. The bottom line is that Butler has been in a free-fall for a few years now, which has dictated his playing time. For him to continue in the big leagues, that attitude has to change.
So what does Butler’s future look like? By no means does this release mean the end of his career, especially since Butler will be in his age 31 season in 2017. There is still value in Billy and his bat, but a few things have to change. For one, he needs to just be happy to have a major league job. You want a player who is confident and believes he can be a starter, but Butler is at a point in his career where he has to earn a job moving forward. Butler needs to go into Spring Training with the mentality that he will take whatever he can get, even if he feels like he deserves to start. He also needs to grasp that being a positive force in the clubhouse will get him farther and prolong his career. No team wants a bench player who is also a bad seed; that is a good way to find yourself on the unemployment line. In a few words, Butler needs to reinvent himself and I honestly believe the best place for him to be next year is in the National League. In the NL, he will see more pinch-hitting opportunities while getting the occasional start at first base. He would also possibly start at DH in interleague games and can put forth a mindset of approaching the game from a different angle. It’s hard to tell whether or not he would do this, but there is still value in Billy Butler; he just needs to work on being better, both as a hitter and a teammate. He is at a crossroads of his career where his decision this offseason might be the biggest of his life. He needs to decide how important playing professional baseball is to him. I’m still rooting for him to succeed, but he is going to have to be better or his career could be close to wrapping up.