As though he hadn’t arrived in Oakland already possessing the right mix of attributes to endear him to A’s fans – a good track record as a hitter, everyman quality and a catchy nickname – Billy Butler hit safely in the first 12 games of the season. That matched the longest such streak by a player to start his A’s career in the last 100 years.
The streak ended Sunday in Kansas City, but Butler drew two walks in the game and had reached base safely in all 17 A’s games entering Friday night’s series opener against the Astros. As the increasingly rare player whose at-bats have come almost exclusively as a designated hitter in recent seasons, Butler has one job – to hit. And the start of his A’s career has been one.
Butler entered Friday ranked second in the American League in hits (24), fifth in average (.369) and tied for seventh in total bases (37), while his three home runs and 12 RBIs ranked second on his team behind catcher Stephen Vogt. Butler, though, has been the A’s most consistent hitter; after his 0-for-2 day Sunday, he went 9 for 16 in the final four games of their trip. He has become a mainstay in the cleanup spot of an overhauled lineup.
“It’s the consistency of all the at-bats,” that stands out, manager Bob Melvin said. “He’s got the ability to hit the ball the other way, to hit the ball up the middle. He’s very aware of what his strengths and weaknesses are and how teams are going to pitch him. And that usually comes with experience, which he has.”
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Butler, 29, was a career .295 hitter over eight seasons with the Kansas City Royals before the A’s signed him as a free agent this past offseason. Since the start of 2011, 88 percent of Butler’s at-bats have come as a DH – including all 65 this season before Friday – and he led the majors in at-bats as a DH in 2012 and 2013, ranking fourth last season.
That can be a difficult role for a player – requiring him to stay involved in games despite sitting for long stretches while not playing defense – and some teams rotate players through the DH spot for matchups or to rest regulars. Butler was at first base Friday with Ben Zobrist in the DH spot returning from a knee injury, but Butler’s 17 consecutive starts at DH before that were the most by an A’s player since Frank Thomas in 2008.
“It’s tough for a lot of experienced players to deal with, (but) he has in the past; he knows what it takes to keep himself ready,” Melvin said. “I think there are a certain few guys … who know how to do it and have had success doing it.”
Butler said that when he’s DH, he keeps the same routine before each at-bat. He goes back into the A’s clubhouse for cardio and core exercises and to hit in the batting cage. He’s familiar with a lot of opposing pitchers from his time in the league, but before games, he said, “I’m on the (exercise) bike watching them, looking at percentages and stuff like that. That’s what I do best.”
“I pride myself on being one of the better hitters in the game,” Butler said. “I have been my whole career. Just focus on what you need to do each day, and everything else’ll take care of itself. That’s what I’m here for, just to drive in runs, get on base, and that’s what I’m doing.”
While some metrics say Butler is swinging at fewer pitches and hitting more ground balls to start this season than in years past, Butler said he changed nothing about his approach this spring after learning he’d be playing half his games at the pitcher-friendly Coliseum. He attributed his early success to “finding holes.”
“There’ll be a point in the season where I don’t find holes, but I have so far,” Butler said.
Butler, who bats right-handed, also figures to see more starts at first base against left-handers – the A’s original plan – as the season goes on. Butler’s nickname from his days in Kansas City, “Country Breakfast,” does not scream defensive range, but Melvin said the A’s are confident with Butler at first base after seeing him there often in spring training.
The nickname was bestowed by a Royals fan and embraced by Butler. The A’s early 10-game trip has given Butler little time to search out breakfast places in the Bay Area. But, he said Friday, “I live out in Walnut Creek. I’ve found a few.”