Eddie Butler is set to make his 9th start for the Cubs tonight in Washington. When the Cubs acquired the optionable 26-year-old this offseason to be the team’s 7th-ish starter, I probably would have put the over-under on big league starts right around the 10 mark. With Kyle Hendricks possibly out until after the All-Star break, Butler will almost certainly top that figure.
But, despite all that action, how well has he actually performed for the Cubs?
Well, so far, you certainly couldn’t call his time with the Cubs an overwhelming success. But has it at least been a modest success? That’s tough to say.
Overall, the numbers look like this: 4.19 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 5.43 xFIP, 38.2 innings over eight starts (under five innings per start). The ERA is slightly better than league average, and the FIP is about league average. If he could do that for more than five innings per start, you might say he’s been a perfectly serviceable fifth starter.
There are caveats that cut in both directions, though.
Although Butler’s ERA is lower than his time with the Rockies, that’s come almost exclusively because of an unusually low HR/FB ratio (7.1% – which is half the league average, and probably not entirely skill-based), and an incredibly low BABIP (.265). Some of that latter figure is due to the fact that Butler’s soft contact rate is way up with the Cubs and his hard contact rate is way down, but each of those rates are actually only about league average.
Butler’s groundball rate is actually down with the Cubs, at a below-league-average 42.9%. Moreover, his swinging strike rate is only up 0.1% over last year. And at 7.7%, it’s far below league average (10.4%).
Butler’s walk rate is a scary 12.7%, and his strikeout rate is an equally scary 15.1%. He doesn’t have to be a big strikeout guy to have success, but if he’s going to live with that strikeout rate, he’s going to need to induce a lot more grounders, and walk a lot fewer batters.
Maybe the Cubs are still working with him on building up future success, and that explains some of the performance stuff? Maybe. I mean, that was a huge part of the acquisition in the first place – get a guy with talent, tweak some things, draw a little more success out of him.
Of note, Butler’s curveball usage is way up with the Cubs, and that’s pretty much been the only pitch he’s dominated with. Then again, I’m not sure how real that dominance is, because he’s not getting grounders with the curveball and is instead giving up a ton of line drives (that have happened to find gloves).
Were I evaluating Butler on another team – based solely on the stats and peripherals – I’d have to say I don’t see much reason for optimism. Were I evaluating with him based on what I’ve seen with my eyes, however, it’s not hard to see why he was a top-rated prospect on whom the Rockies dreamed for several years. He has a wide array of pitches that he can sometimes command. He gets great movement on his fastballs, and he has solid velocity. The bones are all there for a great starting pitcher.
But the inability to consistently locate his pitches is just a killer for him, costing him strikes, costing him the right kind of contact, extending his innings, and imperiling the results. Hopefully the Cubs are successfully identifying strategies Butler can use to improve command and refine his arsenal while he’s pitching with the big league team. The results absolutely matter – the Cubs are deep in a playoff race, after all – but it’s just as important to know whether version of Butler the Cubs can remake will be a starter for the team after 2017 or not.