Someday, if things go right, the Royals will have the kind of ballplayer that Kansas City will fall in love with. He will have a good nickname and be the kind of guy who never imagined anything other than baseball, who makes a point to be active in local charities and sign autographs and talk ball with fans.
By SAM MELLINGER
The Kansas City Star
Someday, if were all lucky, the Royals will have the kind of player who loves being drafted by Kansas City and signs almost immediately, for less than he could otherwise command, and when he becomes a rising star accepts one of the first contract extensions he sees.
Someday, if the baseball gods are kind to Kansas City for once, the Royals will have a player who not only signs to stay here long-term but outperforms that contract, never gets hurt, develops into one of the best in the world at what he does and is even better in the most important situations.
Someday, if were patient, maybe this player can develop into the kind of slugger who puts up bigger numbers than Prince Fielder and Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera.
Or someday, if we keep our minds open, maybe well realize the Royals already have this player and that his name is Billy Butler.
Hes going to be remembered as one of the best right-handed hitters of his era, an American League executive says. Im serious. The numbers are there.
Billy Butler is hitting for a higher average (.301) than Joe Mauer, getting on base more (.358) than Carlos Peña, and slugging more (.534) than Robinson Cano.
He turned 26 years old last month and is on pace for the best season of his career, better even than 2009, when he hit 21 home runs and 51 doubles, or 2010 when he hit .318 and walked nearly as often (69 times) as he struck out (78).
This is a slugger maturing, a man they used to call Ichi-Billy for his pop-gun singles power now on pace for 36 home runs and 119 RBIs both would be career highs.
He is hitting for more power in part because he is swinging with more force, comfortable enough to sacrifice some walks (lowest rate of his career) for power (highest home run rate of his career).
This is the year that Butler takes some misguided criticism one night for killing a rally with a double-play grounder, and then the next night hits a 94-mph fastball into the left field fountains for the game-winning home run.
Before the season, when we were all caught up in Mission 2012 expectations, it was easy to miss that Butler was the Royals only player anyone in baseball could be absolutely certain would hit.
Because he always hits, rarely slumps, a quality born from a middle-of-the-field swing, balanced legs, endless video study and a natural gift for sensing a pitchers approach that led a former coach to call Butler a hitting genius.
In a season so far marked by a 12-game losing streak, too many underperformances and way too many injuries, Butler (along with Mike Moustakas and Felipe Paulino) has been the exception. Hes started every game, taken out only for pinch runners, his batting average never dipping below .284 since the first week.
This is a legitimate All-Star candidate in a star-stuffed position, a former hitting prodigy now in the prime of his career. This is a man on track for the kind of career that ends with a spot in the team Hall of Fame, maybe a retired number.
Moustakas is having a more valuable season than Butler because he is a third baseman instead of a designated hitter, but people around Kansas City seem appropriately aware of that. Moooooose yells fill Kauffman Stadium whenever he makes a play or reaches base.
It has never been quite like that for Butler.
Back before Royals fans knew the young man as anything more than a name in the pages of Baseball America, then-manager Buddy Bell was talking one day in spring training about his young sluggers baseball-centric life and wonderfully simple given name of Billy Ray Butler.
People back in Kansas City, Bell said, theyre gonna love this kid.
There have been moments, sure. The Country Breakfast nickname was fun for a while. He got some attention in 2009 for joining Hank Greenberg, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Grady Sizemore as the only players since 1901 to hit 20 homers and 50 doubles in a season by the age of 23.
But those moments are drowned out by the Royals averaging 94 losses the last three seasons, or ridiculous talk about him clogging the bases, or leading the league in double plays two years ago, or his mediocre defense immortalized by Ned Yosts classic astronaut line.
The longer we watch players, the more we tend to pick them apart, and Butler has had his own rough edges, of course. The Royals sent him to Omaha in 2008 hed occasionally been the teams cleanup hitter as recently as that month more to work on maturity than baseball.
You mightve heard a couple of stories. Once, his buddies razzing him about striking out against his mom in Wii baseball, Butler replied, Yeah, she struck me out. But then I proceeded to hit three jacks off her. Another day, early in spring training, coaches said batting practice was to be half-speed, opposite-field type stuff and when Billy walked away he said to nobody in particular, First pitch Im raking.
But by now, those rough edges have long smoothed into what can generally be described as a lovable and well-intentioned comrade.
Even if you dont like Billy you cant not like him, if that makes sense, a teammate once said. Honestly, he has one of the best hearts of anyone I know.
Because beneath the easygoing swagger is a grown man obsessed with his craft. Thats why he takes time in the batting cage, giving himself plans of 100, 300, sometimes 500 swings a day. Thats why he moved his offseason home to Arizona, so he could be closer to coaching, closer to equipment, closer to baseball, and isnt that what you want from your ballplayers?
Butler has been this guy for four years now, even if the focus on him has often been about what he cant do. Thing is, that means too often missing what he can do.
To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to email@example.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.