Oakland Athletics 2016 Preview: DH Billy Butler

How will Oakland Athletics designated hitter Billy Butler fair in 2016?

In Oakland, if you mutter “Country Breakfast,” you will hear nothing but sighs and groans. Billy Butler is like the Hummer in your driveway: he’s big (6′ 1″, 240 pounds), he’s overvalued ($30 million for a batting line of .251/.323/.390? Nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks? Only 15 home runs?) ….and he’s only being used because you overpaid to get him. You’re even thinking about trading him away for something that costs a lot less.

The Athletics have very little reason to put him in the lineup, and yet they have 30 million reasons to put him in the lineup.

In 2014, Billy Butler signed the previously-mentioned $30 million contract to play for the Oakland Athletics as the designated hitter. He was targeted then as a bounce-back candidate on the right side of 30, who Billy Beane thought could be a high-ceiling kind of guy. At the time, he was only two years removed from an All-Star selection and a Silver Slugger Award, in 2012. That season, he hit .313/.373/.510, including 32 doubles and 29 home runs, and produced 107 RBI. Plus, as far as right-handed designated hitters go, he was replacing A’s players like Alberto Callaspo and Derek Norris (the two right-handers not named Yoenis Cespedes who led Oakland in DH appearances in 2014).

Wait a minute, did you just compare Butler to Cespedes, you’re asking?

Yes, and here’s why. Part of Billy Butler’s non-success in 2015 results from having him slotted in the cleanup position in the batting order. This was the position in which Cespedes was placed a year prior. In 74 games batting cleanup, Butler provided some terrible numbers: .241/.297/.643, five home runs, 22 walks compared to 39 strikeouts. He also led the A’s in hitting into double plays, and his ability to get to second base continued to diminish, as he had 28 doubles all year – four less than the year before. Compare that to 2009, his first year playing in over 124 games, where he did hit into 20 double plays, but also hit 51 doubles.

Butler was signed to decimate opposing left-handers and remain a force against righties. However, it will be hard to platoon him this year, as my editor Samantha Riley pointed out. Butler had better success against right-handed pitchers than southpaws last year. Before 2015, his numbers against lefties were .314/.393/.519, good for a .912 OPS. Those are eye-opening numbers. Yet last year, he was abysmal against southpaws, whom he hit for .200/.337/.350.

Enigmatic as Butler’s splits are, what success he did have translated into the success of the entire lineup. In the 61 games Butler played in in which the A’s won, he scored 39 runs and 40 RBI. Compare that to 24 runs and 25 RBI in the 90 losses where he played. Luckily, the A’s have will more depth at the position this year: the A’s have a glut of left fielders (among other positions), all of whom may get at-bats as a designated hitter, including Coco Crisp, Mark Canha, Khris Davis, Sam Fuld and Stephen Vogt.

But this article is supposed to preview the good things that Butler can do in 2016. With a year like he had in 2015, the upside has to be great for a high ceiling like Butler’s, right? Surely, GM David Forst is thinking the same thing, too, in order to rid himself of Butler’s contract through trade sometime in the future.

It turns out that there were measures of growth in Butler’s seemingly awful season last year.

He hit more homers and had more total bases in 2015 than in 2014. He had a better OPS. He exhibited better patience at the plate, walking 52 times. This is an improvement from 2014 and his 41 walks. The only player in Oakland who had more bases on balls than he did last year was All-Star catcher Stephen Vogt. And from August 30 onwards – after being plain awful for the better part of the year – Butler resurged, hitting .307/.373/.518.

As far as power goes, Butler’s ISO (Isolated Power) in 2015 marked a huge improvement, .139 vs. .107 in 2014. This is to say that Butler had more potential for extra base hits in 2015 than in the year prior. Butler also had less strikeouts per walks, took fewer at-bats per home run, and even though his numbers were heavily skewed towards pulling balls for groundouts per Fangraphs, you may also notice when he gets balls in the air, they spray to all parts of the field. In fact, Butler is very much a fly ball hitter: his ratio of groundballs to flyballs was 1.07 last year.

Then you notice that his fly balls typically have lots of hang time (typically 3 seconds or longer), making it easy for an outfielder to catch them. But you realize that Butler tied for second in sacrifice flies with the A’,s alongside former A’s infielder Brett Lawrie (who by the way got a little more than half as many walks as Butler but struck out nearly 1.5 times as often), and it makes that statistic a little bit better. Couple that with the admission that Butler alluded to – that Lawrie was the cause of chemistry problems in the A’s clubhouse – and suddenly the Lawrie trade looks amazing, and Butler looks like the saving grace of a hopeless 2015 team. (Other than, say, Sonny Gray, of course…)

Butler has taken to offseason conditioning with vigor.

The A’s were adamant in letting Butler know that he needed to emphasize fitness in the offseason, and at Oakland’s FanFest this year, Butler replied: “I’ve always had a bigger body, even when I was 18. I wasn’t going to be drafted to steal bases at 18, alright?…I know what to expect now. Nothing’s out of the ordinary. I’m completely prepared for everything that’s ahead.” He has been working out in Mesa since January, hitting with a trainer and with Mike Henriques, A’s strength and conditioning trainer.

In short, Butler will be just fine – just like the A’s.

Bold Prediction: Butler hits 30 doubles, 20 homers, 90 RBI, and stays productive enough to remain with the A’s until next year.

Is Billy Butler worth keeping? Will they trade him away or will Butler finish out his contract with Oakland? Let us know in the comments below.