The changes are subtle enough that you probably need the eyes of a hitting coach or the help of technology to see it, but these microscopic adjustments will determine a disproportionate amount of the Royals’ success this year.
The most proven hitter on the roster is in what should be the prime of his career but is coming off what for him is a down season.
Only seven players in the American League reached base more than Billy Butler last year, but 61 had more extra-base hits. Butler is a designated hitter who will bat cleanup and make more money this season than every Royals position player except Alex Gordon, so he knows that getting on base is nice, but doing it with a double is better.
With that in mind, Butler is concentrating on two very specific things right now. He is trying to swing down and through the ball, to create more backspin and loft, and he is trying to rotate his hips a tiny fraction of a second sooner to get the ball in the air.
More balls in the air means more extra-base hits. More balls in the air with backspin means more home runs.
“My whole career, I’ve hit a lot of balls on the ground,” he says. “I hit more balls on the ground last year.”
More power from Butler means the Royals have a better chance of improving upon an offense that ranked 11th in the AL in runs, torpedoed the team’s chances in May, and drew George Brett back to the dugout as an effective swag coach.
Depending on who’s doing the counting, Butler hit about 20 percent more ground balls last year than the year before, or his career average. There is some oversimplifying here, but it’s easy to draw the line between that and more double plays (he led the league with 28) and less power (his extra-base hit rate was the lowest of his career).
As far as bad years go, Butler’s 2013 was very productive. He was ninth in the AL with a .374 on-base percentage, and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .787 was second on the team only to Eric Hosmer.
But the rules are different for Butler, both because he is capable of so much more (many advanced metrics had him as one of the 10 best hitters in the AL in 2012) and because the Royals need so much more for this season to work. There’s also the reality that unless the designated hitter is a star, most teams prefer to keep that spot open to give the position players a physical day off without removing them from the lineup.
For what it’s worth, the Royals are saying all the right things publicly. Neither general manager Dayton Moore nor manager Ned Yost would say they need Butler to hit with more power.
“I just want him to be himself,” Yost says.
But as the offense dipped last year, the whispers around the American League included a lot of calls for Butler to hit with more power. Getting on base is great, but it’s less great for the slow-footed Butler than for some others.
“I’m in the four hole,” he says. “You need to hit with more power. That’s what’s expected.”
The good news is that the Royals have helped. After years of anchoring limp lineups, and then last season’s roller-coaster, Butler figures to be in the middle of a stable and solid lineup. The way it stands right now — and, granted, a different middle infielder seems to go down every few hours — Butler will hit after Hosmer and in front of Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez.
For a hitter who has always crushed fastballs, this can only help.
“There’s a reason you don’t judge someone’s career off one year,” Butler says. “There’s not enough sample size.”
The kicker of this whole thing is that this season will go a long way toward determining whether Butler is in Kansas City next year. He will make $8 million in 2014, with a team option for $12.5 million next year.
The Royals are built on pitching and defense, so that’s a big chunk of the payroll for someone who doesn’t fit either of the franchise’s two main focuses. Plus, opening the DH spot would give the Royals flexibility in both their day-to-day lineups and offseason planning. Signing Carlos Beltran this past winter, for instance, would’ve made a lot more sense if he could rest his legs as the DH some days.
Butler says he’d like to stay in Kansas City long-term. So there’s a lot at stake here for a guy who, on the surface, doesn’t fit the team’s vision.
“Sure,” said a league executive. “But if he hits 30 home runs, he fits.”