Eddie Butler debut: What to watch for

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Eddie Butler makes his debut for the Colorado Rockies tomorrow. What should we be looking for while evaluating his performance?

If you have never seen Eddie Butler pitch before, you are in for a treat. Jason Parks of baseball prospectus summed it up nicely with this:

On nights when I feel lonely and down, I dim the lights, make a delicious cocktail, and watch Eddie Butler's performance from the 2013 Futures Game in order to return a smile to my face.

I wish I could go back and watch Butler's performance in the first minor league game I ever attended. He mowed down the opposing hitters like a Tazmanian Devil with a smile. I'm pretty sure he struck me out in that game, sitting in the third row behind home plate in Grand Junction.

Even though I barely knew his name going in to that game, I knew I'd never seen anyone pitch quite like that.

So how does he do it? Can he continue to do it at the highest level? And what should we be watching for as he takes the step from exciting prospect to MLB player with expectations?

First, let't take a look at the arsenal.

Fastball: 92-97, heavy sink and bite

Eddiebutler_fastball_medium

via rotoanalysis.com

The first question that may come to mind for many in this day where the radar gun is king might be, "Is he just going to blow everyone away with constant heat?" The short answer is no.

Eddie is not what most people conjure when imagining the prototypical "power pitcher" as he relies more on deception and placement with the fastball. Even though he told me in spring training that he could dial it up to 98 mph on occasion, the fastball doesn't sit there and interestingly has the tendency to gain velocity throughout his starts.

So if Butler comes out throwing 93 and 94 mph fastballs in his first few innings for the Rockies, don't fret. The added velocity is likely to show itself later on. Butler's fastball command will (like many, many pitchers before him) be a huge part of whether he can be successful in the big leagues.

Because it can sometimes move six or seven inches down and in on righties (and naturally down and away from lefties), the ability to hit corners can be difficult. His cross-body delivery adds another element that can make repeating his locations harder.

Be on the lookout for any changes to his delivery from pitch to pitch and if his fastballs are starting out of the zone and tailing in or vice versa. The fastball's natural movement is much tougher on right-handed hitters who have limited time to decide if the outside pitch will get back over the corner or if the inside pitch will get too far in on their hands.

Because of this, I think "east and west" will be more important to him than "north and south". While it's popular to preach just keeping the ball low, for Eddie it should mostly be about keeping the ball on either side of the plate.

The fact that he can dial it up from time to time will likely erase some mistakes, but regardless of how hard he is throwing, living on the edges is the name of Eddie Butler's game and, that needs to continue to be the case for him to succeed.

He does also throw a more typical four-seem fastball to show a different look and it moves at about the same velocity but is much straighter. This just serves to keep the barrel of the bat away from the ball once hitters adjust to the movement on other pitches and start anticipating too much.

Slider: 84-89, late movement

Eddiebutler_slider_medium

via rotoanalysis.com

Butler's slider hasn't gotten as much attention as his other pitches. We'll get to the change-up in a minute but the slider is a key pitch for throwing hitters off the scent of the fastball. It isn't a wipe-out pitch with devastating movement like, say, Jon Gray's, but it does have late movement which can be just as important.

The GIF above shows how this dynamic can work perfectly. Look at where the pitch is about halfway from Butler's hand to the plate. Xander Bogaerts has from that moment to decide if it is going to break like the previous pitch (the fastball above) which would land it way inside, sawing off his bat or maybe even hitting him if he lunges for the ball.

He starts his stride but stops at this juncture when the late break reveals itself and instead of breaking six inches in one direction, the pitch breaks a few inches in the other direction, landing almost dead center and knee high.

The fact that the slider looks like the fastball for so long and breaks in the exact opposite direction makes  deciding when to throw it the key to this pitch.

The execution above was fine, but if a big league hitter is sitting on that pitch he can hit it a long way. The key here was deception due to pitch selection, and Butler will need to do that wisely since the slider probably isn't wicked enough to miss bats on its own.

Change-up: 86-90 mph, heavy sink

Eddiebutler_changeup2_medium

via rotoanalysis.com

We'll probably never get tired of seeing this one but the amazing thing here is really that Butler's change-up is designed to be death on left-handed hitters more than against righties.

This could very well be the pitch that ends up setting Butler apart, especially at Coors Field where "bowling ball" like sink can be a pitchers best friend. The pitch falls off the table, he has a ton of confidence in throwing it, and for hitters gearing up for 96 and 97 mph, it's almost unfair.

The key with the change-up will be whether hitters at the big league level can recognize it and lay off. Some will certainly be able to achieve this so throwing the pitch for a strike without hanging it in a hittable position will become vital.

Being able to throw his off-speed stuff for strikes will be very important to Butler as fewer major league hitters are likely to chase the stuff in the dirt, no matter how good the movement might be.

Look to see if he can locate the change for a strike, especially out and away from left handed hitters who are apt to roll over on such a pitch. If it always falls below the zone, though, guys will eventually just start laying off.

Curveball: ???

We don't know much about Butler's curveball so I would just suggest we be on the lookout for whether he throws the pitch at all. I talked with him about it briefly this spring and he said he wanted it as a "show me" pitch that he could throw mostly to surprise hitters.

I know he has spent some time this season working on the pitch much more in Tulsa, but I would be surprised to see it more than a couple of times per game on average at this point. But if Butler can establish it as another weapon both in and out of the strike zone, it'll be just another fun toy at his disposal.

Should we expect him to dominate right away?

Short answer again: no. Could he be really good immediately? Sure. But the most difficult thing about tempering the excitement of adding someone to the team who we have all been talking about for years is remembering that just because they are here, doesn't necessarily mean that they have "arrived."

The physical tools are all there. And I will stake whatever reputation I have (not gambling much, but hey!) on Eddie's mental fortitude being strong enough to not have any potential struggles dramatically deter his development process.

He's an exceptionally optimistic and smart guy both in terms of baseball IQ and in general. He and Jon Gray told me that they see each "failure" (bad game, or even just a home run given up) as a learning opportunity.

He may still be at least year away from being anything close to the "ace" that many talking heads believe he will eventually become. So if he turns out to be that this season, we should consider it icing on the cake.

But for now, he needs to throw strikes, results be damned.

Butler must avoid walking hitters and giving up bombs. If the opposition singles him to death, so be it. But it will be a good sign if he can avoid hard contact in the air and giving up free passes.

Regardless of what his stat line shows for his first few games, I will be looking to see if his off-speed stuff is fooling anyone and/or sitting effectively in the zone. Throwing a change-up for a strike is one thing, not leaving it up enough that it gets destroyed is something else entirely.

Much has been made about whether the Rockies have tried to turn Butler into more of a pitch-to-contact guy as opposed to the strikeout pitcher he has become known as, but early on I wouldn't read too much into those numbers. I suspect he will go back to more of a strikeout approach in certain situations. Starting Friday, Butler will be free to unleash everything he has, no longer in an attempt to prove that he can do any one particular thing beyond getting guys out.

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