In 2013, Billy Butler was one of just four major leaguers to appear in all 162 games of the season. Though he started 150 of those games as the Kansas City Royals’ designated hitter, Butler’s ability to hit right- and left-handed pitching kept him in the lineup against both and made him, by definition, an everyday player.
His role now with the A’s is markedly different. Butler, whom the A’s signed to a three-year, $30 million contract before the 2015 season, has become a platoon player, starting against left-handed pitchers and getting an occasional pinch-hit at-bat. As of Tuesday, Butler had just 58 at-bats in the A’s first 39 games – 11th among A’s position players – and was batting .224 with no home runs and five RBIs.
Butler drove in his fifth run with a two-out single in the fourth inning of the A’s 3-1 win over the Texas Rangers on Monday night. Afterward, he said adjusting to the platoon role has been “definitely difficult. Just trying to bide your time, support your teammates, and at the same time trying to maximize your opportunities.”
When you don’t have the at-bats, you’re definitely more aggressive trying to put the barrel on the ball. You don’t want to wait around. You’re just trying to get in there and get a good pitch to hit.
Opportunities have been scarce. Butler started just 14 of the A’s first 39 games, partly because of an early stretch in which the A’s faced right-handed starting pitchers in 32 of 34 games. It’s a significant drop-off for Butler, a career .289 hitter who played in 151 or more games each of the last seven seasons.
“He’s handled it well,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said. “I mean, it’s not easy. For a guy that’s not only played every day but been right in the middle of the order basically his whole career, this is a tough adjustment for him. We’ve talked about it several times and he’s doing the best he can with it.
“But it’s difficult. Number one, humbling a little bit for a guy like him. And number two, for a guy used to getting consistent at-bats, it’s not easy to go up there if you haven’t played in three or four days and feel like you’re on it.”
Butler walked onto the Coliseum field about four hours before the first pitch Tuesday, pulling on white batting gloves with his red-barreled bat under his arm. He proceeded to take 55 swings of early batting practice with hitting coach Darren Bush throwing, lining the first four pitches to right-center, then expanding to cover the rest of the field.
“The average isn’t that good, but you go back and look, he’s had a lot of hard contact,” Bush said. “And really that’s all we can do is make hard contact. He’s still only had like (60) at-bats or something, so you can’t really read too much into that. I’m more looking at: How are his at-bats? Is he hitting the ball hard? So that’s good.”
Butler said that recently he has felt “real comfortable in the box” and is “having some unfortunate luck.” This season Butler is swinging at pitches out of the strike zone about 10 percent more than his career average, according to FanGraphs, while seeing a career-low 3.38 pitches per plate appearance, per baseball-reference.com. But he said both numbers are the product of trying to capitalize on his irregular at-bats.
“When you don’t have the at-bats, you’re definitely more aggressive trying to put the barrel on the ball,” Butler said. “You don’t want to wait around. You’re just trying to get in there and get a good pitch to hit.”
On Monday night, Butler saw seven pitches from Rangers starter Derek Holland, fouling off three, before lining a breaking ball softly into left-center for his RBI single. It was his third hit in 13 at-bats this season with a runner in scoring position, and he was asked afterward if it felt important to come through in that situation.
“I mean, every hit’s important for me,” Butler said. “I just haven’t had the at-bats other guys have. I’m seeing the ball well and putting good swings on the ball, hitting some balls hard at guys, and when you have limited at-bats, it kind of doesn’t work out in your favor. So yeah, finding a hole is definitely a big confidence boost, for anybody.”