Numbers don't tell the whole story for Butler

Quality of young A's outfielder's at-bats hint at better results to come

April 24th, 2024

NEW YORK -- Success in baseball requires some form of luck, and the numbers will show that has been one of the game’s unluckiest hitters so far in 2024.

On the surface, Butler’s .190/.301/.333 slash line through 23 games might give the impression that the 23-year-old A’s outfielder is struggling in his first full season as a big leaguer. His Statcast page, however, provides a clearer picture.

Entering Tuesday, Butler’s average exit velocity (94.5 mph) ranked in the 97th percentile in MLB. But the gap between his actual batting average and expected batting average (xBA) of .282 was the sixth-biggest difference of any hitter in MLB. His expected wOBA (based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks) of .404 ranked in the 91st percentile, yet his actual wOBA was only .280, the third-largest difference. The biggest discrepancy was his actual slugging percentage from his expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .562, second most of any hitter.

All this to say, Butler has been swinging the bat well without much to show for it. In Oakland’s 4-3 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday, though, Butler’s consistent hard contact was finally rewarded.

Leading off the fourth inning against Yankees starter Marcus Stroman, Butler took advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right by golfing out a 1-2 slider below the zone for a 362-foot solo blast.

“It was a relief,” Butler said. “I was continuing to hit the ball hard, but the results weren’t there. To see that one go over the wall, especially over [Juan] Soto’s head, that was pretty cool.”

The homer was Butler’s second of 2024. Ironically, based on Statcast’s data, the long ball -- which just cleared the fence and landed in the first row of seats -- would only have have gone over the fence at Yankee Stadium. So, Butler was a bit lucky for once ... and he’ll take it, especially after his recent misfortunes.

An example of Butler’s hard luck showed up earlier in the game. During his first at-bat, just before belted a solo homer to right-center, Butler roped a grounder with an exit velocity of 110.8 mph and expected batting average of .470 that was snagged by second baseman Gleyber Torres for a 4-3 putout.

“You could call it what you want,” said Butler when asked if he feels he’s been unlucky this season. “I just call it baseball. The hits are going to be hits. People are going to make plays. You’ve got some great defenders in the big leagues. Apparently, I’ve been a part of a lot of those players’ highlights, so I’ll be on a lot of highlight tapes at the end of the year.”

Had Butler been judged on basic offensive statistics alone, he might have been sent down to Triple-A by this point. But the A’s evaluate him based on quality of at-bats, and despite the lack of success, they like what they’ve seen.

“His hard-hit contact rate is great,” said manager Mark Kotsay of Butler. “He’s swinging at the right pitches. A bit of bad luck. But that’s also encouraging, because behind the actual batting average number are some positive things.”

While the hits haven’t fallen at the rate he’d like, Butler is contributing in other ways. His 10 walks are second most in the club, reflecting vast improvement in his patience at the plate from his stint last season as a rookie.

The A’s expect the hits to fall more frequently for Butler so long as he maintains his approach. That, along with better strike zone recognition, could soon make him a force in an A’s lineup that could use a boost. Oakland’s 68 runs scored through 24 games are second fewest in the Majors.

“He can impact the baseball,” Kotsay said of Butler. “If he continues doing that, he can establish himself as a hitter that you have to come in the zone to. Any time you get a player with exit velos above 110 mph, when he touches it, it can be special.”

After bounced back from a four-run first by retiring 17 of his final 18 batters faced, the A’s remained competitive until the final out. Between that and Monday’s victory, the start to this four-game series against a high-powered New York team is an encouraging sign after getting swept in Cleveland over the weekend.

“It shows a lot about this team,” Blackburn said. “The way it was in Cleveland where we got swept to start a long road trip, the way we’ve fought shows a lot about the guys in here. We’re never going to quit, no matter the situation.”