Since we learned that Eddie Butler would get a spot start in tonight’s game in St. Louis, we’ve heard a lot about Butler being a full-time member of the Cubs’ starting rotation. A former top-100 prospect sporting a 94 mph fastball along with a changeup of social media fame, a curve, and a slider, he fits the mold.
The more I’ve looked into Butler’s stats, however, I think he will have a hard time achieving “mid-rotation starter” and maybe even “ass-end of the rotation” status.
With the team off to a slow start at 17-17 and in 4th place in the NL Central, I can imagine lots of fans in their Cubs onesies dreaming about Butler being a shot-in-the-arm for the starting rotation. THIS will shake their early-season funk, leading to a cascade of weaker contact and better outcomes in the field. All that goodness will also spill over at the plate, because everyone knows that after a guy makes a great play in the field, he always comes up and gets a hit. All will be right on the Northside! While Cubs fans can hope for that, the numbers tell a different story.
It’s no secret that Butler struggled in his previous MLB stints while with the Rockies:
Woof. A lot of those struggles come down to (a) not missing enough bats, while (b) missing the strike zone too many times. Add to that volatile mixture 60+ innings pitched at Coors Field, a high BABIP (never below .328) and a high HR/FB% (20.3 percent in 2016), and you get a turd sandwich of a career stat line.
He admittedly “improved” from his debut season in 2014 in both 2015 and 2016, but the improvements have yet to progress to the point where he looks like a viable MLB starter. Going back to 1990, the number of starters who threw 100 innings while combining a K-rate (6.6 or fewer) and BB-rate (2.95 or higher) akin Butler’s best season (2016) is relatively small:
The list of comparables contains such luminaries as Russ Ortiz, Jair Jurrjens, Sidney Ponson, Jason Marquis, and late-vintage Dontrelle Willis. Note in particular the relatively dearth of comparable starters after the year 2002, with zero such representatives after the year 2013, when recently departed Travis Wood started 32 games for the Cubs as perhaps the last of a dying breed.
Butler has made a number of changes since 2014, in particular to his pitch arsenal and usage. His changeup usage has dropped from 22 percent to 6, his slider usage has doubled from 13 percent to 26, and he learned a curveball, which he threw approximately 0 percent of the time in 2014, but 8 percent of the time in 2016. Both the slider and the curve show swing-and-miss potential, with a whiff rate of 27 and 22 percent respectively in 2016, as do his four-seam (11%) and two-seam fastball (9.3%).
So it would appear that Butler is on the upswing. He learned some lessons in the Rockies school of the hard knocks, and that led him to learn some new tricks. A change of scenery, the Cubs’ defense, and two catchers with solid framing skills suggest the offseason trade could be another great heist for the Cubs. And pitching coach Chris Bosio has worked similar magic with starters in the past. Take a look at these two stat lines:
Under Bosio’s tutelage in 2014, after working out some mechanical issues and rebuilding his confidence, all Arrieta did was establish himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball by increasing his strikeout rate to 27.2 percent and cutting his walk rate in half.
How is Bosio’s magic working on Butler? In five starts at AAA Iowa this year, Butler is 1-0 with a 1.17 ERA, and he has yet to surrender a home run in 30.2 innings of work. While that seems promising, the rate stats we used to compare him to Arrieta’s age-27 season tell a slightly different story:
While Butler improved his walk rate, his strikeout rate is down compared to 2016 with the Rockies, when he posted a milquetoast 16 percent strikeout rate. Only three qualifying MLB starters posted a strikeout rate below 14 percent last season, and all of them had an ERA over 4.00 and FIP over 4.39. I also worry that his HR/FB% of 0% won’t hold up with homer-happy MLB hitters, especially as his groundball-flyball ratio at Iowa is .92. In other words, Butler’s ability to avoid homers thus far is a result of a healthy dose of luck. We unfortunately don’t have pitch selection or whiff rate broken down by his individual pitches in those starts, so we can’t compare his pitch mix to past seasons . . . yet.
Just like many pitching prospects, however, hope springs eternal: in his last start for Iowa on May 6th, Butler worked six innings, giving up zero runs, striking out six, and walking none (but plunking two guys for good measure), with a groundball/flyball ratio of 7 to 1. If he can replicate that kind of performance in the big leagues, even adjusting for the talent difference between AAA and MLB, Butler may be more than a fill-in starter.
I am writing BPW’s recap of tonight’s game, you can count on me giving Butler’s start a full analysis there.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports