Not a Rookie: Billy Butler
Billy Butler was drafted in the first round in 2004, 14th overall, out of high school in Jacksonville, Florida. Most teams thought he was a supplemental or second round talent due to his poor defense at third base and ugly body, but the Royals insisted that it wasn't a budget pick and that his bat was exceptional. They loved his combination of bat speed and strike zone judgment. Butler's pro debut was outstanding: .373/.488/.596 in 74 games for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League. I was impressed and gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book, ranking him as the 44th best hitting prospect in baseball. My theory was that the bat was real, and even if he had to move to first base that he would hit enough to justify the rating.
Butler skipped past low-level Class A in 2006, beginning the year in the California League at age 19. He hit .348/.419/.636 in 92 games for High Desert. Everyone hits at High Desert, but he was young for the level and scouts loved the bat. He hit .312/.353/.527 in a 29-game Double-A trial, showing that the Cal League numbers were not an illusion. His batting stance was a bit unusual, and defense was obviously an issue. He shows a pretty strong arm, but lack of mobility knocked him off third base. The Royals were trying him in the outfield by the end of the year. I gave him another Grade B+ and moved him up to Number 29 on the hitting prospect list.
Butler spent 2006 in Double-A, hitting .331/.388/.499 at age 20. Any doubts that scouts had about his somewhat unorthodox stance were eased. I was also very impressed by his low strikeout rate: just 67 whiffs in 477 at-bats. The attempt to make him an outfielder brought very mixed results. He worked at it, and by the end of the year his glove was rated as poor rather than really terrible. Scouts were already projecting him as a born DH, but with a bat that would give him a long career. I gave him a Grade A- and ranked him at Number Seven on the 2007 hitting list.
The plan for '07 was for him to spend most of the year in Triple-A polishing his glovework, but Kansas City's need for hitting pushed the timetable up. He hit .292/.412/.542 in 57 games for Omaha, then .292/.347/.447 in 92 games for the Royals. Obviously he's a first baseman at best, and DH work seems best suited for him.
Exactly how good can Butler be with the bat? If he continues to develop, at his peak he could be something like a cross between a healthy Mike Sweeney and Edgar Martinez, combining a high batting average, terrific plate discipline, and a high slugging percentage. I think his power production is only going to increase; he hit 23 doubles for the Royals and some of those are going to turn into homers as he matures. In the minors he showed excellent BB/K ratios (43/32 in 203 at-bats for Omaha last year) and as he gets used to the majors that will carry forward.
Some additional questions. Will he peak early? He has a "bad body" and might not age particularly well. However, his low strikeout rate is, I think, a positive marker. Many hitters with "old player" skills have high strikeout rates to go with high walk rates, but Butler is more of a pure hitter than a slugger, and I think that will help him maintain his production assuming decent health.
As for the short run, projections for 2008:
Bill James: .297/.365/.473
Ron Shandler: 294/.364/.454
All those projections show Butler adding some power this year. Certainly that can happen. But what if we see a batting average spike instead of (or even along with) a power spike? Could Butler challenge for a batting title even sooner than most people expect?
There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that, barring a catastrophic injury of some sort, Butler will be an excellent major league hitter. But the exact shape of that excellence is still a question. He has the long-term ability to hit .340-.350 eventually. He could be a 30+ homer guy if he concentrates more on power at the expense of batting average. With a maximal outcome, he could do BOTH at some point.
The sky is the limit here, and it will be fun to see what happens.