Billy Butler hits baseballs. Hard. This is what he does. His father wore out a shoulder throwing him endless batting practice as a kid. Billy has worn out countless gloves and batting cage nets and daylight hours hitting baseballs. Hard. This is who he is.
Billy could’ve gone to college to hit baseballs but never seriously thought about it because signing a pro contract with the Royals meant he could hit more baseballs more often. He is not fast. He does not have a good arm. Or good feet. And he will make more than $50 million in his career because he hits baseballs. Hard. Over and over. And over again.
His whole life has been driven by this rare gift to hit baseballs. He always played with older kids, because the pitchers his age didn’t stand a chance. They made fun of him sometimes, the older kids, but Billy had the ultimate scoreboard response:I can hit.
Then, the older kids usually shut up. This is the push of Billy’s life. He won two batting titles in three minor-league seasons. The Royals batted him cleanup in his 14th big-league game, two months after his 21st birthday.
He hit 51 doubles at 23, and signed a contract that gave him generational wealth at 24. Everything Billy has, and all that people know him for, is because he hits baseballs. Hard. He is the one player coaches and teammates can tell is in the cage just by listening.
There are signs that the worst is in the past, but even after his first double (which, to be fair, could’ve been caught) and multihit game Saturday, Butler is hitting .193 nearly three weeks into the season. He has been pushed out of the middle of the order for the first time since April of his second season. All his life, hitting has been his identity. No matter what else, Butler hits.
So what happens when the hitting stops, inexplicably if temporarily, at the start of what might be the most important season of a career?
“I don’t think he’s ever been through anything like this,” Royals manager Ned Yost says.
“I’ve never been through anything like that,” Butler says.
Billy Butler’s timing is off. That’s part of the problem. He is late on fastballs and early on change-ups, which means he’s overthinking the mechanisms he uses, like that toe tap.
The issues are complicated and interconnected. Ask him about it, and you will get a passionate and earnest explanation that includes his hips opening too soon, too much worry about the inside pitch, not enough trust in his hands and the pressure of being a full-time DH who isn’t hitting.
“There’s something just mechanically off,” he says at one point.
“It’s not mechanical, it’s mental,” he says at another point.
This is all new to him, like waking up one day and not being able to see colors. He’s never gone this long without an extra-base hit — he had 73 of them in 2009, and 62 as recently as two years ago — and for a man whose entire livelihood is hitting, well, you can see how this would get into his head.
One of the things that has marked Butler for years as a hittingsavant
is consistency. Relentlessness. In the last eight years, the Royals have been through José Guillen’s moods and Gil Meche’s contract and Zack Greinke’s rise and enough time for Sal Perez to go from unknown amateur teenager to All-Star catcher.
The most constant part of the Royals for the big-league equivalent of an eternity has been Billy Butler hitting line drives all over American League ballparks. From April 2009 to June 2011, the Royals played 131 series and Butler had at least one hit in each one.
There is no known data about how this compares with other top hitters in the modern era. It is an odd statistic, granted, but it does speak to a remarkable consistency that has anchored the middle of a lot of otherwise rotten Royals lineups over the years.
So the Royals have never seen this before. He has just 11 hits in 57 at-bats. Saturday was his best day of this still young season, but even then his double was a floater misplayed in the sun by a Twins outfielder and his single more through a hole than driven through it.
“It isn’t a lot (of time),” he says. “But it’s enough to realize you’re doing something wrong.”
Butler has waited his entire professional career to be on a team this good, one that is genuinely seen around the game as a playoff contender. He is in an effective contract year, the Royals holding a $12.5 million option for 2015 they aren’t picking up without a big year.
Butler is a designated hitter and the third-highest paid player on the team. When he’s not hitting, he’s not helping. And his team needs help.
If pressure is the problem, moving him down in the order probably isn’t the answer.
“Someone like, say, Moose (Mike Moustakas), he plays good defense and helps the team,” Butler says. “Me, it’s like, ‘Hey, man, this is all I have for the team and I’m not hitting worth a squat.’ It takes a toll on you mentally. But I’m tough enough to not let it wear on me going forward.”
It was only a month ago that Billy Butler approached perhaps the most important season of his career with so much optimism. This is the best lineup he’s been part of with the Royals, by far, and he expected the team to be in the American League’s top five in runs scored.
Butler knew he had to be part of the improvement. He had only 42 extra-base hits in 2013, not enough for a full-time DH or a hitter of his ability. So he promised some adjustments. Subtle tweaks, like swinging down and through the ball to create more loft, and rotating his hips a blink sooner to hit more fly balls.
So far, the results are bad. Depending on how you count them, he’s hit about eight balls in the air this season, including pop-ps.
Baseball people see the flaw that Butler spent the offseason and spring training correcting. He is often late, particularly with his hip turn, which means he’s either grounding out or popping up.
There is a subtle momentum of optimism in recent days. Aside from the two hits Saturday, the single Friday night was like a grainy flash of Butler at his best — he let the pitch get deep, then shot it the opposite way. A little more air, and that’s a line-drive double in the right-center gap. A little closer to the sweet spot, and it goes over the fence.
This is the hope, anyway. For now, the struggles are easier to take because the team is winning and even as this season is still so young, who saw this coming? The Royals are in first place, and their biggest concern is whether Butler can start hitting.
“I’m getting there,” he says.
Much of the rest of this Royals season, and Butler’s future with the organization, depends on whether that’s true.