Friday, August 21, 2009

Billy Butler: Hall of Famer

There, I said it. Previously I indicated (when comparing Billy Butler to Dave Winfield of all people) that Billy would one day hit 30 HR in a season. Sort of a lukewarm prediction for a first baseman in the modern era, don’t you think? Sure, it’s six away from the franchise’s all time leader, that legendary slugger Steve Balboni, but saying the Royals are a bit historically lacking in that particular department is like saying that the Burj Al Arab in Dubai is a hotel. So here's going out on a limb a little bit.

The basic premise of the initial argument was why Dave Winfield was an excellent Billy Butler comp by age. But who cares? That dude who hit a sausage with a bat was a top 20 comparable last year. Prince Fielder’s his number two (who certainly at least has a more similar body type to Butler than Winfield) and there was no discussion his age 23 season whether he would ever one day hit 30 bombs – he hit 50 that year.

But something changed this season, and went off the projection in a big way … and it was extra base power, just not in the way that most would notice. The man was projected to hit around 30 doubles. As of this writing, he’s now on pace for the mid 50s. Everything else (the AVG, OBP, and SLG are almost exactly as projected) is just pretty much who we thought he would be, while hoping for more.

So what does hitting that amount of doubles mean to a player of Butler’s age (23) or younger? Microsoft Excel, some google fu, and a plain ole’ desktop calculator helped me put it into context.

If Billy Butler can accomplish this very reasonable feat, does he continue to compare with a Hall of Famer?

(click to enlarge)*

No. He compares to dozens of them.

And he shares the top ten list with four.

One of them isn’t just a Hall of Famer, but one of the greatest of all time. Another was arguably the best overall player of two different decades. One was the greatest offensive player in the most difficult run scoring environment since the deadball era. And even those who didn’t make it – one was because of injuries that derailed a sure thing. And the worst among that top 10 company had 1800 career base hits and 4 all star appearances.

Just off the top 10 list are guys like A-Rod and Albert Pujols and Ted Williams. If you expand it to age 25 and younger, George Brett in 1978 is right there. So is Hank Aaron in the late 50s. In fact, the whole qualifying list basically reads like an almanac of baseball history. These are most of the greatest players in the game starting just before World War 2. And Billy would rank tied for 5th. Unless he completely falls off a cliff, he’s going to land in the top 30 or so. That’s not good company, it's legendary.

Look for yourself -->

So to address the intial premise (the Seagull conundrum if you will), did any of these guys go on to hit 30 HR in a single season? To make this completely fair, I’d have to do park and year adjustments, but frankly there’s no need. Vada Pinson never made it, but he hit in the 20s regularly, and his prime was in the long ball killing 1960s. Every single other player in the top 10 did.

This should be a world of good news for Royals fans. But there’s an aspect of it all that makes me very sad … Butler is clearly the wrong player for the wrong time. He’s built almost perfectly in the mold of the 1970s and 1980s line drive, high Batting average sluggers. The Tony Gwynns. The Robin Younts. Even the George Bretts. This is the ultimate testament to a franchise stuck completely in the past, in that their best player, their pride and joy, could be a three time MVP … if he played in Fulton County Stadium or the Houston Astrodome, wearing ugly horizontal stripes and an unflattering adjustable waistband. Their other potentially developing offensive star is more of the modern mold – walks, strikeouts, and homers … and Alex Gordon just got sent back to Triple A.

A commenter on the Winfield / Butler comparison asked if I believed that the comp could indicate that Billy would have a long career, much like Winfield did. I indicated that I didn’t believe it was possible, that Billy’s athleticism and build would eventually hold him back. I no longer fully believe that.

This study has convinced me that Billy, unlike the discipline and power mold (the old player skills) has an ability set that passes the test of time. Even the worst comps mostly had very long careers. The power may come and then go again, like so many players, but while muscles fade in the 30s (those of us there can testify to this), the eyesight lasts until 45 or so. And that gives a player like Billy an awful lot of time to compile 3,000 hits. And there’s still going to be enough aging sentimental sportswriters around that believe in the magic number, and they’re going to give Billy the nod.

Viva la Billy Butler. Hall of Fame class of 2032.

* Projected total for 2009 for players under 25


  1. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

  2. All of the other players on the list hit a lot of doubles because they were having hall-of-fame type seasons. Billy Butler is not. He is hitting a lot of doubles without having great overall production.

    Of course, if you arbitrarily choose the one aspect of Butler's season that is outstanding and compare it to others, you will come up with Hall-of-Famers. This is because Hall-of-Famers are the best players, and their stats are the best in every area.

    The only way this comparison works is if doubles is somehow a better predictor of performance than a player's overall stats. It is not. Search for seasons with an OPS+ of 120 and a large number of doubles. Brad Fullmer (who is that?), Warren Cromartie (?), and Jorge Cantu are among the leaders for age 23 and under--not exactly outstanding players. There are great players and even Hall of Famers on the list, too (though the HOFers include people like Johnny Bench and Lou Boudreau, who provided valuable defense to supplement their decent offensive stats). But the point is that you have not found a good predictor of greatness.

    People have put a lot of thought and work into the idea of predicting performance by finding similar players. For example: Baseball Reference uses Bill James' similarity scores. It finds no Hall-of-Famers among Butler's most similar players. Is using just doubles better than this?

    If your methodology leads you to predict that a barely above-average player is a surefire Hall-of-Famer, question your methodology.

  3. Second Poster, You sir are very ignorant of Billy Butler's career. You calling him "BARELY above-average player" proves that you shouldn't post about someone you have no clue about.
    His high school numbers are better than this Bryce Harper kids.
    His minor-league numbers are out of this world. All-Star at ever level, 2 batting titles and The futures Game MVP, just to name a few.
    Does that really sound like a "barely above-average player"? If it does, you sir are a moron.

  4. Of course, the Baseball Ref sim scores aren't including anything on Butler's performance this year, at this time. You have a point--Butler's performance took a leap forward this year, but he's still not among the elite performers at that age. But, he has also steadily improved this year. His second half performance is very strong for a 23 year old. Could just be a fluke, but could be evidence of a real change.

  5. So when does FP Santangelo enter the Hall?