Eddie Butler has been a different pitcher in 2017. Through four starts with the Iowa Cubs, he is sporting a shiny 1.46 ERA, a far cry from his career 6.50 ERA after years of turmoil in the Rockies organization. The story here is an easy one to latch on to: top-shelf pitching prospect gets devoured by an offense-heavy ballpark, gets traded to the Cubs, becomes a bona fide ace. It’s the same backstory as Jake Arrieta’s, and the early returns are pointing to the same conclusion.
I am here to disagree. The further I looked into his underlying stats, the more I realized that Eddie Butler still needs to make a serious change if he wants to have any big-league success. In 2017, the “new” Eddie Butler is really the same old Eddie Butler masked by some small-sample good fortune.
Butler has never been a big strikeout guy, so he has to limit walks to survive. While his 2017 walk rate is below his career average, his strikeout rate has dipped as well, leading to a K-BB% of 3.0%. That is not good, and unfortunately, it is right in line with his career mark of 3.3%. The most recent qualified starting pitcher to post a lower K-BB% was 2012 Ricky Romero who had a K-BB% of 2.3%…which was accompanied by a 5.77 ERA. Pitchers with this profile don’t accrue very many innings, and when they do, the results show why.
If you are walking guys without striking them out, you better keep the ball in the ballpark, and Eddie Butler has definitely done that this season. He has yet to give up a single home run in his time with Iowa. David Laurila recently chatted with the right-hander about his new approach, which involves driving the ball downhill and getting back to his two-seamer, while the Rockies always prioritized his four-seamer. This new approach sounds like a recipe for a successful ground-ball pitcher, and it would explain the new ability to limit home runs. But, hold on, Butler’s career FB% is 28%, and his 2017 rate has skyrocketed to 41%, which doesn’t fit the rest of the narrative. Allowing this many fly balls is not a good sign for Butler, who has always had a bit of a home-run problem, as his career HR/FB rate sits at 18% (and no, that’s not just Coors Field – since the installation of the humidor, Rockies pitchers have posted a HR/FB rate of 11.6%). When I look at Butler, I don’t see a guy who found success with a new approach; I see a guy who is prone to home runs with a massive spike in fly-ball rate.
Butler’s success at limiting home runs thus far has allowed him to strand runners at a rate that is screaming for regression: his LOB% of 86.7% would be the highest mark for a qualified starter since Dwight Gooden in 1985. Opposing teams haven’t been able to string hits together against Butler, but that tends to even out over time, especially considering the fact that Butler’s career LOB% is below league average. When you don’t strike guys out, the ground balls eventually find holes, the fly balls eventually leave the yard, and the walks start to come around to score.
To be fair, I have not seen footage of Eddie Butler pitching this year. He might be making guys look foolish, and he might be on the path to becoming the next king of soft contact; if you have watched him pitch first-hand this year, please feel free to share your observations. He does still have the pedigree and he seems to have the work ethic to go with it, and it would make an incredible story if he could put it all together.
After all, Eddie Butler is a professional baseball player, and I’m just a guy with some spreadsheets. But right now, the spreadsheets are telling me to seriously pump the brakes on the Arrieta comps – underneath the ERA, this still looks like the same Eddie Butler.
Jacob is a mechanical engineer who spends an unhealthy amount of his free time researching baseball.