Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Billy Butler: One of These Things Is Like the Other...

… at least according to the Baseball Prospectus Player Comparison Model. This model compares a player’s age, size, handedness, position and tendencies in the core batting elements that BP tracks, which are BA (Batting Average), ISO (Isolated Slugging), BB (Walk Rate), K (Strikeout Rate), and SPD (general foot speed and baserunning acumen).

So for those of you without a paid account or unwilling to risk minor copyright infringement, who would you guess to be Butler’s most comparable player at this age throughout history? Two years ago Albert Pujols was his number 3, that tenuous connection long dashed by a higher BMI and quite a bit less “oomph” in the bat.*

*In Albert Pujols’ age 23 season, he hit .359/.439/.667, won a batting title, and finished 2nd in the MVP voting. While we discuss optimistically how Billy will turn some of his doubles into HR, Pujols hit 43 HR … and still led the league with 51 doubles. Unreal.

So we have to settle for a new comp. How bad is this going to get? A number of Kansas City fans are seeing another Mike Sweeney, a big, pudgy faced right-hander incapable of handling the field and heading for a number of sore back days on the DL. This is not a fan base accustomed to being optimistic.

Maybe Ken Harvey? Heavy, slow, limited defensively, had some nice moments. Baseball Reference certainly seems to think so, based on career to date statistics, a pretty useless measurement for a just turned 23 year old.

So how about a Hall of Famer instead of a future one? A player who put up 3000 plus hits, over 1000 of them for extra bases? Who made 12 All Star games and won 7 Gold Gloves (okay, PECOTA doesn’t pretend to be a defensive forecaster)? A player who was still an effective hitter into his 40s? It would be hard to turn down such a resume, and you shouldn’t. So unless you have a BP account, you probably wouldn’t have guessed this player, because it’s physically an impossibility for anyone to be called his comparable in physical prowess and look any less like Billy Butler.

I give you Dave Winfield, college basketball star, terrific all around athlete, first ballot Hall of Fame class of 2001.

So let’s break this puzzlement down a bit.

22 year old Dave Winfield: .265/.318/.438, 20 HR, 18 2B, OPS+ 115

22 year old Billy Butler: .275/.324/.400, 11 HR, 22 2B, OPS+ 94

Hello increased run scoring environment of 2008 vs. 1974, just a few years removed from the 2nd deadball era. But wait, there’s more. Winfield played in 30 more games. And San Diego Stadium, where Winfield played at home (later known as Qualcomm) was a much better HR environment than Petco is now, which may explain the exchange of 2B for HR. All in all, pretty spot on. Almost identical walk rates (.053 vs. .049), Batting Averages, the lot. Interestingly, Butler was a more valuable base stealer, via the Wargames alternative – for him, the way to win was not to play. One attempted steal all year (he was caught), while Winfield attempted 16 times and got caught 7, wiping out his 9 successes and more of his value from OBP in the process. So how is this projection holding up? And how does Billy’s immediate future look when compared to the man Goerge Steinbrenner famously dubbed Mr. May?

Dave Winfield (ages 23-29)

23 1975 .267 .354 .403, 15 HR, 20 2B, 116 OPS+
24 1976 .283 .366 .431, 13 HR, 26 2B, 135 OPS+
25 1977 .275 .335 .467, 25 HR, 29 2B, 123 OPS+
26 1978 .308 .367 .499, 24 HR, 30 2B, 151 OPS+
27 1979 .308 .395 .558, 34 HR, 27 2B, 166 OPS+ (league leader)
28 1980 .276 .365 .450, 20 HR, 25 2B, 133 OPS+
29 1981 .294 .360 .464, 13 HR, 25 2B, 139 OPS+ (injury shortened season)

Pretty encouraging. At his typical player peak, he hit 34 HR, which was no joke in the ballparks and environment of the late 1970s. We can easily see that the extra base hit total did continue to increase, which should give the Royals hope for the best pure hitter their system has produced in at least a decade.

This is technically considered Billy’s age 23 season, so let’s see how he measures up so far.

23 2009 .300 .355 .481, 13 HR, 36 2B, 120 OPS+

Accounting for differences in era, this comp definitely gets the thumbs up for it’s first year of projection: that is almost exactly the player. But how about a look into the immediate future? Is Billy Butler going to finish 3rd in the MVP discussion at 26, like his lanky counterpart? Hey, this comp promises us there are about 2800 base hits to go. But since we can reasonably assume that if Billy Butler turns into a future Hall of Fame player, greener pastures are in his future. Let’s assume the Royals can sign a long term deal and take 2 years of FA away, taking him through 29, just past the apex of his theoretical peak to the vast (in Winfield’s case, practically endless) decline beyond.

A fair disclaimer for these long term projections: like the 7 day weather forecast or visiting the fortune teller, it’s a fun exercise, but don’t change your plans. These projections were made before the season, and included this year, so it could be fun to include them, see how close they are, maybe validate the process a bit.

2009 (age 23) .291 .352 .458 , 15 HR, 29 2B
2010 (age 24) .289 .355 .454 , 16 HR, 32 2B
2011 (age 25) .294 .358 .465 , 17 HR, 31 2B
2012 (age 26) .293 .362 .468 , 18 HR, 31 2B
2013 (age 27) .293 .364 .457 , 16 HR, 29 2B
2014 (age 28) .298 .365 .403 , 18 HR, 29 2B
2016 (age 29) .302 .371 .491 , 18 HR, 28 2B

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First of all, note how close the first two parts of the triple slash stats are. The difference is slugging, and it’s almost entirely related to two baggers. The Home Run projection looks solid.But the doubles projection was based on a player who showed decline in extra base hit power over the first two years of his career in a pretty large sample size of AB, giving the system some reason to believe that his power had, if not peaked, certainly showed it’s limitations. But Butler has a good 40 games to go, and has already surpassed that projection by 24%. Considering how close PECOTA is on the rest of his skillset, what does this do to his projection?

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Good things. Lots of them. Better hitters get more walks. A skyrocketing line drive percentage (the most important aspect of hitting a double) drives up batting averages. A common adage says that a player under 25 who hits 40 or more doubles will have almost exactly 50% of those past a certain number (usually around 15, which accounts for bloopers down the line and lucky breaks in the OF) will turn into HR. Reference Dave Winfield’s line as he ages to see this happen.

So fine, here's some good news. Short version of the story: Pending his health, Billy Butler will hit 30 HR in the major leagues someday very soon. And he may be six-foot-six. And seagulls should be terrified of him.

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  1. That's nuts. Great depth in your analysis here. I think that Butler would take Winfield over Ken Harvey. Just a guess.

  2. Would you also suggest that this correlation could lead to a longer career like Winfield's?

  3. I'd have a difficult time making the career longevity correlation because of some vast differences in general health and athleticism, plus the random fortune of injuries. Winfield got quite a bit heavier towards the end of his career, but if Butler showed a similar pattern he'd be much more quickly at a point where he'd be physically unable to play.