Eddie Butler made his Spring Training debut yesterday against the Royals, and, for the most part, it went pretty well.
He did allow a home run and even plunked Jorge Soler, but those were the only two base runners in his 2.0 inning outing.
And, as we discussed in the Spring Training Miscellany yesterday, his four grounders, one pop-up and one strikeout were really “great” outs, so to speak.
In short, his plan yesterday was to pound the strike zone and get early contact, and he executed to perfection: 18 of his 21 pitches were strikes and 5 of his 6 outs were on balls in play.
Butler, as we know, is a particularly interesting change-of-scenery guy, because his impressive pedigree (former top prospect with electric stuff) and reported issues (a too-often-tinkered-with delivery and pitch mix) appear to be very similar to the things Jake Arrieta faced when he first came to the Cubs.
But instead of taking a look at what might change in 2017 due to different coaches and a new organization, I thought we could take a look and what probably should have gone better last season, regardless of the other stuff.
At FanGraphs, Tony Blengino has an ongoing study, researching starting pitcher contact management, and Butler’s numbers are pretty interesting. I’ll warn you up front, it’s not all a pretty picture, but there are things to be learned.
To start, in 2016, Butler simply allowed far too much hard contact. Be it fly balls, line drives, ground balls, or overall velocity, Butler allowed harder contact than the Major League average across the board. When you’re pitching at Coors Field, that’s not going to play. And herein lies the difficulty (or rather, the nuance) in this discussion. It’s objectively bad that Butler allowed such hard contact while pitching at Coors (particularly with fly balls), but it does bode well given a new, more forgiving home ball park.
Turning to the batted balls, while Butler allowed too much hard contact in 2016, he did manage to stay average on ground balls while also allowing fewer fly balls than the average Major League pitcher (that’s a good thing). At the same time, though, he got fewer infield flies (which are very valuable) and allowed slightly more line drives than average. At best, his batted ball profile is a wash.
When you take a look at the 146 ERA- Butler recorded last season, things look pretty bad. That figure indicates that Butler was about 46% worse than the average Major League pitcher … BUT, when you apply league-average production to Butler’s individual actual BIP type and velocity mix (i.e., the results you’d expect to see when stripping away randomness) you wind up with an adjusted contact score of 123 (only 23% worse than league average).
And even when you throw in his below average 16.0% strikeout rate but solid 7.2% walk rate, Butler’s “tru” ERA- actually comes down to 125 (21 percentage points better than the number he actually recorded). So what does this all add up to?
Well for one, Butler probably should have benefited from better results in 2016 than he did. In fact, based on the type/velocity of balls in play and his walk/strikeout rates, his results should have been significantly better than they were for the Rockies last season. For another thing, the simple fact that he won’t be pitching in the hitter-friendly environment of Coors Field next year should help his numbers across the board (in general).
But most importantly, we need to remember that each of these statistical reasons for optimism are simply gravy on top of the fact that Butler will now be working with Chris Bosio in an organization that has found success by letting pitchers be who they are on the mound.
And clearly, Butler still needs some help.
Although he was technically a lot better than the results indicated last year, his peripherals still suggested that he was well below average. I’m reminded of Jason Heyward in this respect, who also performed poorly in 2016, but probably netted even worse results beyond that because of bad luck.
With a little luck, some better coaching, and a change of scenery, though, Butler still stands a chance of breaking out.
For the full set of data and some other pitchers for context, head over to FanGraphs and read Blengino’s article.