During the opening game of spring training this season, Joey Butler made his presence in the Rays camp known as he ripped a double in his first at bat, and Butler wasn't finished. He book-ended the day by hitting one of the longest home runs in Port Charlotte history, drilling the Batters' Eye wall in center field.
New manager Kevin Cash wasn't surprised to see Butler do that though, as he had been teammates with Butler in the minors and had seen him crush the ball numerous times.
Joey Butler has journeyed through several different clubhouses the past few of seasons. After being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 15th round of the 2008 draft, he worked his way up through the minors and finally made his major-league debut during August of 2013. He enjoyed a short stay with Texas, going 4-12 with two doubles during eight games, but that's all he would play as a Ranger.
The Rangers decided to try and sneak Butler through the waiver wire after removing him for their 40-man roster, but on October 3rd he was claimed by the St. Louis Cardinals. Butler played in six unmemorable games for St. Louis last year, collecting zero hits in five at-bats. He was released on May 23rd, at which point he packed up his bat and went to Japan.
This past off-season, the Rays made a decision to invite Butler, thanks to some lobbying from friend and mentor Kevin Cash, to spring training on a minor league deal. Little did they know the dividends it would pay. The only question is, whether he can sustain his early season success.
This season, Butler has slashed .348/.376/.551 with 4 homers in 27 games, earning him a 168 WRC+, as well as 0.9 WAR. He's even stolen three bases to add to his offensive production. The projections system 'ZiPS' doesn't believe that it's sustainable. It predicts he'll only hit .244 the rest of the way (with his overall package being around league average); however, let's take a closer look at what goes into that projection.
So why the hot start?
Sure enough, Butler has seemingly had an incredible amount of luck, benefiting from a .474 BABIP. It should be noted, however, that throughout his entire minor-league career Butler's BABIP has always been high, so there might be some skill involved here. The lowest it has ever been in a full season, was back in 2010 when he was in Double-A for the Rangers, and that mark was .340.
When Butler steps up to the box, he almost never gets cheated on a swing, so it's understandable that his K% is also pretty high. Right now it's at the highest rate of his career at 30.1%; meanwhile, his walk rate is at its lowest at 2.2%. It's not unreasonable to think that both of those rates would regress more to his career norms. If not his K%, then at least his BB% should rise at least slightly (and ZiPS thinks it will).
So, although his production is pretty much guaranteed to dip at some point, the dip in ball-in-play results could be offset by improvements in other areas of the box score, so the regression in total package may not be as extreme as what some people expect.
Butler is hitting the ball to all parts of the field, showing he's not a dead-pull hitter. One thing that may regress, though, is how hard he's hitting the ball. As you can see above, he's making solid contact when he's going the other way with the majority being line drives. He does occasionally roll over on one and pulls it to the left side, but not enough to warrant a shift against him.
Back to Butler's extraordinarily high BABIP.
Part of the reason for it may be with how well he's made contact with each pitch. As I stated before (as does BA with every Joey Butler at bat), he does not get cheated when he swings the bat. This has resulted in usually hard or medium contact. With recent changes in batted-ball data, it can be calculated approximately how often he makes soft, medium, or hard contact. For more on that, check out this link on fangraphs.
Now it's understandable as to why you would want as little soft contact as possible. When a player makes soft contact, the fielders have a better chance to react and make a routine play, where as a ball that is hit harder will be more difficult for a fielder to get to, allowing more of a chance for the hitter to get on base.
Right now, fangraphs has him making soft contact 9.3% of the time, which makes him a whole 5% lower than the next Rays hitter (David DeJesus, 15.1%), while his medium contact is 64.8%, which leads pretty much every one on the team, with the exception of Jake Elmore (whose position on the list should tell you everything you need to know about the dangers of small-sample-size analysis). However, he's making hard contact only 25.9% of the time which is among the bottom half of the team. So, once his medium contact percentage falls, which way will it go?
There have been times in the team's history when a small-sample-size run of success was just a flash in the pan (Damon Hollins, May of 2005). But, it's also entirely possible that Butler is a late bloomer who's finally been given an opportunity to play every day, and although his current rate of play may not be sustainable, the level he regresses to really could still make his presence worthwhile.
Right now, he's certainly making it a tough decision if/whenever the team's injured players (John Jaso, Desmond Jennings, James Loney, and Tim Beckham) make their returns.