Did the Oakland Athletics Overpay for Billy Butler?
The Oakland Athletics love walks, home runs and, apparently, a good ol' platter of steak and eggs. By bringing Country Breakfast to the Coliseum, the A's have made an attempt to solidify their shaky offense. Can Billy Butler, a plodding designated hitter who had a .311 wOBA last year, make that difference?
There are two questions at hand here, and they both could have radically different answers: 1) Will Billy Butler help the A's? 2) Is Billy Butler worth the contract he got at three years, $30 million? We'll start with the first question and then, in true Billy Butler fashion, eventually meander our way to second.
Can Billy Butler Help the A's?
Last year, the collective designated hitters for the Athletics were a flaming pile of garbage. No, that seems generous. Because you could physically place a flaming pile of garbage on a base and said flaming pile of garbage may be better at baseball than the A's designated hitters.
As a whole, the A's designated hitters hit .215/.294/.343 in 2014. The batting average and on-base percentages were actually worse than either of their middle-infield positions, so, yes, things could have gone better.
If that line were one batter, it would have ranked 136th of 146 qualified batters in slugging percentage. It would have been roughly the equivalent of trotting B.J. Upton out as the man you have in the line-up exclusively for his bat. Not optimal.
Butler's 2014 was fairly putrid, but even this would be an improvement over what the A's had at designated hitter.
In 603 plate appearances, Butler hit .271/.323/.379 with that aforementioned .311 wOBA. He also lost 5.7 runs on the bases compared to an average base-runner. That converts to -0.3 wins above replacement.
This was a complete deviation from what we had come to expect from Butler. While he never lit the world on fire, Butler did have an on-base percentage between .360 and .390 every year from 2009-2013. His wOBA those seasons only ranged from .345 to .377, as well. Consistency.
Part of the reason Butler bucked that label this year was his walk percentage. In that five-year span, Butler never had a walk percentage lower than 8.0 percent. This included his 2013 season, in which he walked 11.8 percent of the time. In 2014, that dipped all the way down to 6.8 percent, the lowest of Butler's entire career.
This wasn't some sort of statistical oddity for Butler. In 2013, Butler swung at 43.6 percent of pitches; that number spiked to 48.3 percent in 2014.
This wasn't all due to Butler's being more aggressive. The pitchers were also more aggressive. He saw first pitch fastballs 62.4 percent of the time in 2014 compared to 54.8 percent in 2013. Pitchers were in the zone more as that number increased to 46.4 percent from 43.7.
In addition to this, pitchers stopped throwing Butler the heater. Below is a chart of the pitches Butler saw, according to Fangraphs:
This would demonstrate a change in the opponents' approach to Butler, justifying his hard core crash into dumpsterdome. But there are also some indications that he could regress back in the positive direction in 2015.
Butler has always been a heavy groundball hitter. That didn't change at all this year, as most of his batted ball percentages were in the same ballpark as previous years. What did change was what happened after the ball left the bat.
On the three tables below, you will see the slashes for Butler on the balls he hit, dependent on whether the ball was a grounder, flyball, or line drive. You'll notice a fairly significant difference from year-to-year, with 2014 essentially giving Butler the middle finger of batted ball stats.
While part of this is due to a loss of power (Butler's home-run-to-fly-ball-ratio fell to 6.9 in 2014 from 19.9 in 2012), some of this can also be attributed to the scornful baseball gods.
ESPN's Mark Simon, the Sultan of Statistical Sweetness, sent out a couple of interesting tweets about Butler Tuesday. I'd check them all out on his timeline, but there's one that especially caught my eye.
Throughout the season, Simon kept tabs on which batters led the league in "hard-hit rate." It's fairly self explanatory and also fairly dope-tastic. This is the tweet that piqued my attention:
Billy Butler ranked in the top 20% of batting-title qualifiers in hard-hit rate (19.6%), but was middle of pack among them in BA (.271)— Mark Simon (@msimonespn) November 19, 2014
I can guarantee you the A's are aware of everything we've gone through above. They know that Butler was donkey doo in 2014, but also that he could be due for a regression next year. And even a dung-ish Billy Butler is better than what the A's got from their designated hitters this year. So, yes, Butler is a good addition for the A's. But is he worth $30 million over three years? That is a very different question, my friends.
Whole Lotta Breakfast
You could say that a discussion about Butler's salary is moot because it's completely dictated by Butler's value relative to the market for defensively inept base cloggers and how many defensively inept base cloggers are in the market. Instead, we'll be looking at Butler's value to see whether or not he can return the investment the A's made into him.
One conveniently nifty feature of Fangraphs is that it converts WAR into the salary a player could demand in free agency. Not that that would be relevant in this exact situation or anything.
In this case, we won't look at Butler's 2014. First of all, we've already seen he should outperform that in 2015. Second, he had a negative WAR. This means, based on Fangraphs' value stat, he should have paid the Royals $1.5 million to play this year. Sports would be way more fun if that were reality. "Strikeout! That's another five spot from you, Matt Dominguez." Delmon Young would just make it rain in the outfield.
If we dig back in the annals of Butler's career, only twice has he had a WAR high enough to warrant a $10 million-per-year salary. Those two years came in 2010 and 2012. His salary value in 2013 was $7.4 million.
An interesting comparison for Butler would be James Loney heading into 2014. Loney has never had the power that Butler displayed in 2012, but he is physically able to stand and play defense, so that should amp up his value a titch.
Loney finished 2013 hitting .299/.348/.430 with a .339 wOBA. He was going to be a year older on Opening Day 2014 than Butler will be on that day in 2015.
Based on this, you would assume that Butler and Loney may at least be near each other in salary. Nope. Loney's contract was also for three years, but only $21 million. There's certainly a difference between Loney and Butler, but $9 million worth of difference?
It seems highly unlikely that Butler lives up to the dollars in this contract. His Steamer projection for 2015 does show an up-tick in offensive production to a slash of .277/.347/.426 with a .340 wOBA, which would be around 1.5 wins above replacement. That's very similar to his 2013 season, which was closer to Loney's salary in value than his own.
At the same time, this could just be the case where the A's knew what they needed to improve their team and were willing to spend to get it. It seems as though Butler should have a positive effect on the offense. Is that worth more than a player's true value?
In the end, I don't love this signing, but I also don't hate it. Sure, the A's probably overpaid for Butler, but there are advantages to having him vis a vis a propped-up corpse hacking as the designated hitter. The A's still have holes to fill offensively, but this at least helps fill one of those.