Butler studies pitch speed to rack up hits
First baseman arrives at camp leaner but not lighter
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- It's an old baseball saying: He could fall out of bed and get a hit.
Talking about Billy Butler, Royals manager Ned Yost went that one better: "Billy's going to hit if he's sleepin'."
Is that true, Billy?
"Naw, it's just a metaphor," he said.
At that moment, Butler was wide awake. He was still red-faced from a strenuous cardio session in the workout room. He'd just picked up a plate of waffles from the clubhouse kitchen, plopped down at a table for a quick card game and was studying his hand and talking to a reporter at the same time.
It was a time for relaxation. But, within a few hours, Butler would be on the field at Surprise Stadium for the serious business of hitting the ball and catching the ball in a game against the Cincinnati Reds.
Hitting the ball seldom has been difficult for Butler.
"He can hit, man," Yost said. "He's a guy that's instinctive on how to hit. He really studies it -- not to the point where it's crazy studies -- but he studies the opposition. He wants to know the variances in speeds. Like for me, what's the difference between a 91 and a 93 mile-an-hour fastball? I don't know -- I know it's coming hard. To Billy, it makes a difference. He's just that good a hitter. He can break it down, he can do it all."
Being able to analyze pitchers down to the speed of their pitches enabled Butler last season to pound out 44 doubles and 19 home runs with 95 RBIs.
"I just like to know the speed on a pitch because, obviously, with my style of hitting -- I have a leg kick and everything -- I have a big timing mechanism with it," Butler explained. "I need to know what speed it is so I consistently watch the pitcher to see where his velocity is sitting -- so I can tell from the side exactly what something is going to be. I sit there and consistently time even though I'm not hitting."
What he does, in the on-deck circle or in dugout, is simulate his stance and judge when a pitch would get in his reach.
"It's all mental," he said.
This is a leaner although not lighter Butler that Royals fans will be seeing this year.
"I lost some body fat. I transferred a lot of body fat to muscles. I didn't lose any weight, I just got in better shape. I move better and that's what it's all about," he said.
Yost was absolutely delighted when he first saw Butler in Arizona this year.
"He looks a lot better. I think he's going to have more power offensively and, more than anything else, he's moving so much better, he's running so much better," Yost said. "He's going to beat out somewhere between 10 and 15 more infield hits a year, I think. Because last year, as slow as he was, he'd be thrown out by half a step 20 times. He's going to beat out 10 of those this year."
Bold talk but, if true, that could add significantly to Butler's batting average which was .291 last year.
"I don't think it's that bold," Yost said. "He's moving better. I don't think he's going to be a world-class sprinter but he's moving better."
Butler obviously agrees.
"It's going to help the team because I'm in better shape. I'm running better, I'll be able to score on some more balls, I'll be able to beat some more balls out," he said. "If everybody just gets a little bit better, we're going to be a lot better."
How about more stolen bases? Well, Butler has just three in his career.
"I might have a few more attempts, I might not guarantee steals," he said.
Butler's increased agility also comes at a time that Yost plans to use him more at first base. Last year he was the designated hitter 142 times and started just 11 games at first base and just three times after Eric Hosmer arrived from Omaha in early May.
This year Yost plans to give Hosmer an occasional break from defense, switching him to DH and using Butler at first base.
"We need to be fresh in September if we're going to be contending and we can get guys some DH days, keep everybody fresh," Butler said.
But Hosmer and Butler won't find themselves on the bench very often.
"He and Billy are not going to come out of the lineup," Yost said.
After going 2-for-2 with a walk against the Reds on Tuesday, Butler was hitting a lively .455 (10-for-22) in the Cactus League with two homers, two doubles and four RBIs.
Maybe he doesn't hit in his sleep but he can sure give pitchers nightmares.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.