Amid the struggles of the starting rotation and an overtaxed bullpen following 13 straight days of games—which included 13- and 18-inning games as well as a doubleheader—the Cubs have called upon latest reclamation project Eddie Butler to save the day.
Okay, maybe that’s a little unfair; in 159 ⅓ innings since his debut in 2014, Butler is 6-16 with a 6.50 ERA and 1.770 WHIP. That’s a sample of about one full season… one really ugly, unfortunate season. While the 26-year-old hurler spent this three-year stretch with the Colorado Rockies, the Coors Field argument doesn’t quite hold: Butler is 3-9 with a 5.40 ERA and 1.26 strikeout-to-walk rate in 15 road starts (90 innings).
If you dive deeper into the numbers, you’ll see his totals aren’t exaggerated: 6.71 DRA, 113 cFIP, 12.0 H/9, -3.0 WARP in those 159 ⅓ innings. Plain and simple, Eddie Butler has not been a very good major league pitcher.
But the Cubs have become a point of destination for former highly-touted pitchers who struggle to find themselves at the big league level, largely due to the work of pitching coach Chris Bosio and the club’s success with reclamation projects. That list includes:
- Scott Feldman, whose 6-11 record and 5.09 ERA with the Texas Rangers may have been exaggerated in 2012 (3.81 DRA, 1.9 WARP). His 3.46 ERA and 1.8 WARP with the Cubs in the first half of 2013 helped lead the team to…
- Jake Arrieta, well-known as the one of the worst starters in Baltimore Orioles history with a 5.46 ERA in 63 starts (358 innings). After adjusting his delivery in 2013, he’s gone 58-23 with a 2.69 ERA, doubling his strikeout-to-walk rate.
- Trevor Cahill had a 7.52 ERA/4.43 FIP in 26 ⅓ innings for the Atlanta Braves in 2015 when the Cubs took him in for a bullpen role. In 82 ⅔ innings between 2015 and 2016, Cahill logged a 2.61 ERA and accumulated 1.2 WARP. Thus far for the Padres in 2017, he has an immaculate 2.08 DRA and 1.3 WARP in six starts.
The list goes well beyond that to names like Travis Wood, Paul Maholm and Clayton Richard, all of whom saw varying levels of modest success as members of the Cubs.
We can now add Eddie Butler’s name to that list, who will make his first start for the Cubs tonight against the red hot St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. It’s a daunting task for the young right-hander, and fans, who haven’t seen much of Butler in his three years, might not have an idea of what to expect from him.
Butler has made five starts for the Triple-A Iowa Cubs to this point in 2017, and he has been impressive: 1.17 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 7.9 H/9 and a 2.13 strikeout-to-walk rate in 30 ⅔ innings. This admittedly small sample size is an improvement over his last two seasons with the Rockies’ Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque, where he logged a 4.85 ERA in 152 ⅓ innings between 2015 and 2016.
His performance in Des Moines made comparisons to Jake Arrieta an inevitability, and they indeed began following a 6-3 win over the Round Rock Express on April 16, in which Butler threw six scoreless innings. Following that start, Butler said he was feeling comfortable in his new setting, and attributed his success to Bosio encouraging him to utilize his sinker more.
“We had to find a way to at least be able to attack the zone,” Butler told Tommy Birch of the Des Moines Register. “Once I started doing that, balls started getting hit around the ballpark on me. It was something that I’m not used to doing. I’m not used to trying to miss bats, which is what I had to do more so when I wasn’t throwing my sinker.”
That change has paid off for Butler, who after a brief stint on the disabled list due to a rolled ankle returned for two more starts and continued to dominate. He most recently threw six shutout innings in a no-decision against the Memphis Redbirds on Saturday night.
Combine that start with the Cubs’ aggressive and, to quote manager Joe Maddon, “awkward” travel schedule over the last several weeks, an overworked bullpen and an injury to starter Brett Anderson, Butler’s strong performance against the baby Redbirds convinced the Cubs’ brass he was ready to face off against the big league Redbirds Friday night.
Indeed, Butler has never pitched this well in either Triple-A and the majors, and it’s easy to get excited about him becoming the Cubs’ “next Jake Arrieta.” Even Butler himself, who says his confidence has returned, enjoys the comparisons.
“Seeing that happen with (Arrieta) and now watching it happen with me, it’s a great feeling,” Butler told Birch. “I know that the guys have my back either way and obviously want the best for me. It’s just a good feeling.”
But it’s easy to get carried away when the big league club is playing at a thus-far underwhelming 17-17 clip and could use a saving grace, especially given the current woes in the rotation and Butler’s numbers in Iowa. It’s baptism by fire for Eddie Butler, as he pitches against a Cardinals team that’s 7-3 in their last 10 games, holding onto first place in the National League Central.
Still, it is exciting to consider the possibilities of Butler living up to the hype and becoming a valuable addition to the Cubs’ rotation in 2017 and possibly beyond.
I’m sure we’ll see a heavy diet of sinkers in play this evening, with the inducing grounders from Cardinal hitters. Butler doesn’t have noteworthy velocity, but he did average around 94 miles per hour on his two- and four-seam fastballs in 2016, meaning he could catch some hitters off-guard with heat if he’s mixing pitches well. He’ll throw in a slider, curveball and changeup as well.
But ultimately, Eddie Butler’s first MLB start of 2017 is impossible to predict: he can begin a new chapter of his career and throw six shutout innings, based on potential and the small sample we have from Iowa; or he can get shelled and fail to make it past the third, based on nearly 160 major league innings we’ve seen since 2014. It’s the pitcher he was versus the one he can be.
It’ll be fun to watch unfold. At least, that’s what we’re all hoping to be the case.
Lead photo courtesy Matt Kartozian—USA Today Sports