DENVER -- Even phone calls to his family back home in Virginia were difficult for Rockies pitcher Eddie Butler during a rough 2015 season."It was the first time I'd ever really had failure," Butler said. "Before, after I'd pitch, it was, 'You did real well,' and we'd want to talk
DENVER -- Even phone calls to his family back home in Virginia were difficult for Rockies pitcher Eddie Butler during a rough 2015 season.
"It was the first time I'd ever really had failure," Butler said. "Before, after I'd pitch, it was, 'You did real well,' and we'd want to talk about what happened. But last year, it was pretty much always after a bad day, 'Do you want to talk about what happened?'"
Postgame conversations weren't the only times Butler wasn't himself. Butler barely resembled the pitcher who was drafted 46th overall out of Radford (Va.) University in 2012 and dominated Rookie, two Class A levels and Double-A to the tune of a 1.90 ERA with 198 strikeouts in 217 1/3 innings in his first two pro seasons.
Last season, Butler made his first season-opening Major League roster, but he seemed to have left behind the power sinkerball and the confidence that made him a prospect. Butler had a 5.90 ERA in 16 starts in a year that saw him optioned twice to Triple-A Albuquerque. Butler's Triple-A numbers (2-6, 5.40 in 11 starts) weren't cause for him to burn minutes and data to the folks back home.
No wonder Butler, who turns 25 on March 13, is vowing to be his old self. If he succeeds, he'll be a whole new pitcher to those who have seen him only in the Majors.
"I just had gotten away from who I'd been in the past," Butler said. "We got so focused on a deficiency that I lost what I do well. I had spent so much time working on a four-seam fastball over the last couple years that it took away from my sinker. That's the pitch I use to get a double play, to get bad contact. It ended up being a big loss."
The adjustment fostered by coaches in the Rockies' system was sound.
Butler dominated low and arm side against Minor Leaguers with a 92-97 mph sinker, and an 86-90 mph changeup. But adding the four-seam fastball would give him a hard pitch to his glove side and keep hitters from sitting on pitches in the lower part of the strike zone.
But Butler spent much of 2014 injured. The pitching-poor Rockies summoned him from Double-A even though his shoulder was already sore, and he went on the disabled list after his first start. Last year, when he could have used the Minor League time to incorporate the changes, he found himself in the rotation as the club decided to send Chad Bettis to Albuquerque to correct a delivery flaw, then lost David Hale to an oblique injury late in Spring Training.
Not having honed the adjustment, Butler pitched like someone doing as he was told but lacking comfort and conviction.
"It was difficult for me, with not a lot of time in the big leagues," Butler said. "I didn't have the power to go in and say, 'This is what I'm going to do.' There is a happy medium, where I work on things but understand that there are things I've been successful at from the beginning, and that's what I should stick to when push comes to shove."
The Rockies sent him down in early June to work on the separation between the velocity of his fastballs and his changeup, and again on Aug. 14. In the Majors, he yielded a .546 slugging percentage and .952 OPS. In perspective, among pitchers who had enough innings to qualify to be listed among statistical leaders (Butler was nowhere close), the highest slugging percentage and OPS against were, respectively, the .497 and .816 owned by then-Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy.
The fact Butler didn't earn a promotion after the second send-down confirmed his inability to fix his problems.
"That's an aptitude question," Rockies pitching coach Steve Foster said. "Are we able to take the information and apply it to what we're doing on the field in the heat of the moment? Will Eddie be able to do that or not?"
This time, Butler will answer his way.
After a month of reflection, Butler rekindled his work with Gary Lavelle, who pitched in the Majors from 1974-85 and in 1987, mostly with the Giants. Lavelle has worked with Butler since age 9 and was his head high school coach at Greenbrier Christian Academy in Chesapeake, Va.
Lavelle quickly helped Butler correct his arm slot, which had crept higher, and more importantly, found Butler was still the confident kid who would rely on a whippet arm and not overanalyze.
"Coaches are always there to help you -- they're not there to tear you down or not help," Lavelle said. "But the ultimate responsibility lies with the player. 'This works. This doesn't work.' If he gets back to that form he'll have a lot of success."
After working with Lavelle, Butler has spent most of the offseason working at the Rockies' training center in Scottsdale, Ariz. -- a development Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich called "a commitment to the guys that are going to be his teammates, and those are all excellent things." Butler says he's getting positive reactions from his catch partners in flat-ground sessions -- Albuquerque bullpen catcher Aaron Munoz and fellow right-handed prospect Jon Gray.
The Rockies remain thin on rotation experience and depth, but they might have enough that Butler will have to earn his way to the Majors. He is in his final year of Minor League options, so the time for Butler to establish himself is drawing nigh.
"One bad year isn't going to make me or break me," Butler said. "I'm going to take the things I've learned the last two years, and put them with the things I've done well in the past, and become the dominant pitcher that I should be."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, listen to podcasts and** like his Facebook page**.