Billy Butler is one of the Oakland Athletics’ hottest hitters, which has come as a huge surprise to just about everyone, from the fans to the A’s brass to I’m sure other teams as well.
Their scouting reports on Butler had to be changed quite a bit since the end of June. He’s gone from hardly hitting against left-handers — which he is characteristically better at getting to — to having his numbers against both righties and lefties go through the roof in the past month-and-a-half.
When the Oakland Athletics signed the first baseman and designated hitter as a free agent after the 2014 season, they knew that he wasn’t coming off a career year. Still, they thought he would be a solid presence in the lineup capable of having a 20-home run, 100-RBI season.
However, 2015 rolled around and Butler’s three-year, $30 million contract suddenly seemed like a huge bust. Oakland doesn’t spend that much money on a player often, so they were expecting a lot more than the .251 batting average, 15 home runs and 65 RBI in 151 games that they ended up getting.
The 2016 season didn’t bring with it much hope that Butler would do any better in his second season with the Athletics. He hit so poorly in April that he was relegated to the bench, only stepping in as the designated hitter against left-handed pitchers.
In April, Butler hit just .219 with a single RBI and no home runs. May brought with it more of the same. By the end of June, Butler had at least gotten his batting average up to .250. Still, he wasn’t bringing the power the A’s were expecting, having hit just two home runs in the first three months of the season.
By the end of June, due to both injuries and his rising average, Butler began getting more playing time. Then July hit, and something completely unexpected happened: Butler began hitting. Not the 29 homers he hit when he made his only All-Star appearance in 2012, but he was hitting.
Since July 1, Butler is hitting .346/.411/.494 with 10 RBI and nine walks, which is significantly higher than the eight total walks he had during the first three months of the season. He’s currently hitting .343 for the month of August and has raised his average from .242 on July 1 to .287. He has seven multi-hit games over than span.
Of all his stats, most surprising is his sudden ability to hit right-handers. He’s hitting .292 against righties and .281 against lefties. Last season, he hit just .269 against right-handers.
He’s getting in the lineup more, which certainly helps; most players need the consistency of playing everyday in order to raise their batting average. But what has suddenly turned Butler into one of the A’s best (and most clutch) hitters?
Honestly, it’s hard to say exactly what has changed. The biggest change has been the rate in which he is hitting ground balls. Twice in his career, Butler has led the league in grounding out into double plays; he grounded into 26 in 2015.
Last season, Butler hit 17.7 percent line drives, 31.5 percent fly balls and a whopping 50.8 percent ground balls, which usually resulted in outs. His percentage of ground balls in 2016 has dropped to 41.9 percent, he’s pulling the ball at a lower rate and using the entire field. He’s hitting 39.9 percent of the time to center field and 26.4 percent to the opposite field, instead of pulling the ball on the ground to shortstop or, if he was lucky, hitting it into left field.
As A’s skipper Bob Melvin put it, Butler is “squaring it up” and “using the entire field.” There is still no real way to tell exactly why Butler is suddenly hitting the right-handers he has had so much trouble with in the past.
The A’s are not complaining, however; Butler is moving ever closer to having the best batting average on the team. While that has not included the long ball this season (a typical by-product of pulling the ball less), that isn’t a concern. Khris Davis has the power-hitting under control, while Butler has been having multi-hit games, hitting at clutch moments, taking more walks and striking out less.
In a lost season, Butler’s recent stretch provides at least a glimmer of silver lining.