Lutz Blog

Bob Lutz: Billy Butler and his double-play grounders head to Oakland

Billy Butler, whose rise to the Kansas City Royals took him through Wichita in 2005 and 2006 with the Double-A Wranglers, has signed a free-agent contract with the Oakland A’s.
Billy Butler, whose rise to the Kansas City Royals took him through Wichita in 2005 and 2006 with the Double-A Wranglers, has signed a free-agent contract with the Oakland A’s.

Billy Butler is no longer a Kansas City Royal. And love him, hate him or feel somewhere in between, that’s strange.

Butler is a home-grown Royal and one of the best hitters the organization has developed. From 2009-12, he was a DH-ing monster with OPS’s of .853, .857, .822 and .882 during his All-Star season of 2012, when he mashed 29 homers, drove in 107 runs and batted .313.

Those are the kind of numbers that get a hitter a much bigger contract than the three-year, $30 million Butler signed with the Oakland A’s on Tuesday.

Still only 28, Butler has not been able to come close to duplicating his 2012 numbers in either 2013 or 2014. And last season he batted only .271 with nine homers and 66 RBIs.

The Royals, obviously, believe Butler is in decline. The A’s apparently believe he can once again become a force in the middle of a lineup – theirs.

We’ll see.

Butler has always struggled to maintain conditioning. He’s pulling a plow on the base paths and has grounded into 168 double plays in his career.

Butler hits a lot of balls on the ground. Too many balls on the ground. And when runners are on base and he does that, it’s an easy twin killing.

Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium was the second toughest home-run park in baseball in 2014. Kauffman gave up just 102 homers in 81 games, one more than San Diego’s Petco Park. Kauffman is where fly-ball hitters go to die, so Butler’s line-drive approach was a great fit. And, as his 29 homers just two seasons ago suggest, he has some pop.

But where did that pop go?

To go from 29 homers to just nine in two years is alarming. It certainly gave the Royals second thoughts about trying to keep him. Kansas City made it to the postseason for the first time in 29 years and reached the World Series before losing in seven games to the San Francisco Giants.

Butler did have a nice World Series, batting .333. But he failed to hit a home run in 49 postseason plate appearances. And if a DH isn’t hitting some home runs, why is he a DH?

Butler can play first base, but not particularly well. And he was due to make $12.5 million for Kansas City if the Royals had picked up his 2015 option.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore chose to get out from under that contract. It was a good decision, given Butler’s lack of power last season and his overall declining numbers.

Butler could benefit from a change of scenery. He’s joining an Oakland team that is a consistent over-achiever, but one that will have to scramble to remain in contention in the American League West against the Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners.

Oakland’s Coliseum is a so-so hitter’s park, having given up 139 homers last season, tied for eighth in the American League. I’m sure the A’s would welcome the hitter who averaged 46 doubles from 2009-11 or the one who averaged 184 hits from 2009-12. Double-play grounders don’t sting quite as much when you’re that kind of threat to do damage at the plate.

The A’s are banking on Butler being more like that guy. And it’s not a terrible gamble, given Butler should be in his prime years as a hitter.

But his numbers the past couple of seasons indicate he reached his prime early and is on the downside of his career. Those numbers belie his age. If Butler is to prove he’s still the lethal hitter he was a couple of years ago, he’ll do so in somebody else’s uniform.