Eddie Butler has seen success so far this season, but he’s been walking a fine line. His 3.27 ERA in four starts and 22 innings is encouraging. His 4.96 FIP promotes caution. The reason for the big discrepancy between his ERA and FIP is his low strikeout and high walk rate. In those areas, Butler has been oddly consistent: he’s walked 13.3 percent of batters he’s faced, and he’s struck out 13.3 percent, too.
These figures offer us something about Butler, but the message is mostly "he’s working on things and we’ll know more later." But we can tease out a little bit more about the young right-hander right now by diving into his pitch sequencing, tendencies, and the vision he holds for the development of his pitches. The information below is drawn from Brooks Baseball and a conversation I had with Butler. The silent actors to keep in mind throughout all of it are catchers Nick Hundley and Michael McKenry.
We’ll start with fastballs. Butler throws a four-seam and a sinking fastball. So far this season, he’s thrown the four-seamer 39.55 percent of the time and the sinker 23.16 percent of the time. As an outside observer, it seemed that placing his fastballs into two buckets might have missed something. I asked Butler if, contrary to what PITCHf/x presents to the wide world, he throws more than just the two. He assured me it was just the two, but that he deploys them differently based on the batter, and his four-seam fastball varies in velocity.
Because left- and right-handed batters frequently display similar tendencies, we can see a pattern of usage. First, Butler has thrown the four-seam fastball more frequently to lefties than righties, 41 percent of the time to 38 percent of the time. It’s still his most used pitch against both. The pitch averages a touch above 94 mph. While the aggregate frequency of fastball usage is similar, there is a notable distinction. As Butler engages batters with a first pitch, he throws his four-seam fastball 52 percent of the time to right-handed batters, but only 37 percent of the time to lefties. Against left-handed batters, Butler is almost as likely to throw his sinker (35 percent) as his four-seamer (37 percent).
The outcome of the first pitch, to a certain extent, determines the pitch selection for the rest of the plate appearance. A first-pitch strike allows for more creativity because it gives the pitcher the advantage. It is here where Butler’s fleeting command has hurt him. His four-seam fastball, which he throws more than any other pitch, has landed for a strike 25 percent of the time against the 35.71 percent of the time it has resulted in a ball. His sinker has produced a strike less often, 19.51 percent against 37.8. But this might be a natural consequence of the increased movement of the latter pitch as opposed to the former.
Count advantage plays a role in pitch selection, and a look at Butler’s usage reveals his reliance on the four-seam fastball to work for him in different ways. With the batter ahead in the count or with an even count, Butler’s tendency against left and right-handed hitters remains the same. Against righties he’s more reliant on the four-seamer, with the sinker trailing behind; against lefties Butler also favors the four-seamer over the sinker, but to a lesser degree. Against batters from each side of the plate, Butler’s four-seamer usage is higher when the count is even as opposed to when the batter is ahead.
When Butler is ahead in the count, however, the script is flipped. Against left-handed batters, his four-seam usage increases to 41.5 percent and his sinker usage falls to 11 percent. But against right-handed batters, Butler’s usage of his four-seam fastball falls to 32 percent. When opposing batters have two strikes, Butler’s usage of his four-seamer against lefties and righties almost aligns. It sits at 43 percent and 45 percent, respectively; the sinker usage, because it doesn’t generate very many swings and misses, declines to 14 and nine percent against lefties and righties.
Butler’s four-seam fastball is his go-to pitch to get the first strike (though this doesn’t happen as frequently as he would like) as well as to put a batter away. There’s a reason for the preference over the sinker: batters are hitting .267 against the four-seam fastball and .429 against the sinker. Additionally, the line drive rate against the four-seam fastball is five percent, while the line drive rate against his sinker (9.76 percent) almost matches the pitch’s ground ball rate (10.98 percent). If the sinker’s ground ball rate aligns too closely with it’s line drive rate, then it’s an ineffective pitch.
A tentative conclusion that can be drawn from this examination of a small sample size is that Butler might be better off without the sinker. It’s too early to state that with conviction, especially since Butler has yet to command the pitch with authority, but right now the pitch is simply not doing what it should.
Doing away with the sinker would only work with the presence of quality secondary pitches. Butler has those, although they still need polishing and the benefit of command. Lodged in the purple part of our consciousness is Butler’s strikeout of Xander Bogaerts at the 2013 Futures Game with an absolutely unhittable changeup. That has given the impression that the changeup should serve as his go-to strikeout pitch. The thing about that pitch, though, is that it was likely the best changeup he ever threw, and it just might be the best changeup he ever throws. That is not a comment on his future ability to succeed, but a note about the extraordinary movement of that pitch. That eminently gif-able pitch is something to be admired from now until the end of the Internet, but it actually distracts from the pitcher Butler is, and what the changeup is for him.
I asked Butler about how he envisions the future development of his secondary pitches, in particular his changeup and his slider. He told me that the goal was not to make either of them a pitch to rely on with two strikes; instead, he wants to be able to use both of them at any point in the count to left- and right-handed batters. The graph above provides some hints that this is something Butler is already doing. While he throws his four-seam fastball against righties on the first pitch the majority of the time, his slider doesn’t trail his sinker as his second most used pitch in that situation by very much—he has thrown the slider 15 percent of the time as opposed to the 19 percent of the time he has thrown the sinker. Butler’s most frequently used secondary pitch to initiate a plate appearance against left-handed batters is the changeup rather than the slider—he’s used it 16 percent of the time in that situation.
Just like fastball usage, count advantage plays a role in pitch selection regarding Butler’s secondary pitches. In situations where the count is either even or the batter is ahead, Butler relies on the changeup against left-handers—26 percent for the latter situation and 17 percent for the former. Against righties, Butler has opted for the changeup 18 percent of the time when the batter was ahead in the count, but when the count was even, he opted for the slider more frequently, 14 percent of the time. At the moment, it appears that Butler trusts his command of his changeup to get a strike without making the pitch too hittable more so than his slider. His slider, however, is the one where he gets the most strikes via the whiff. Just over 15 percent of his sliders have produced a swing and a miss, while 8.47 percent of his changeups have yielded that result.
The secondary pitches Butler has thrown when ahead in the count and with two strikes provide further hints regarding his arsenal. Against lefties, Butler similarly favored the slider in such situations, although when ahead in the count he’s used his changeup almost as much, 19 percent of the time compared to 16 percent. The same trend holds against righties: slider usage dominates. The results have been excellent so far. Not only has the pitch induced the most whiffs, but it has also led to the least amount of damage. The next batter to get a hit off of Eddie Butler’s slider this season will also be the first.
Butler’s third secondary pitch is the curveball. His usage of the pitch, which was almost absent from his first three starts, provides a small wrinkle. As Bryan Kilpatrick noted after Butler’s most recent start against the Giants, Hundley directed the rookie hurler to his seldom-used pitch because nothing else was working. The pitch is similar to his slider.
It is notable that with two strikes, Butler’s most infrequently thrown pitch against both right-handed and left-handed hitters has been his changeup. The pitch does induce whiffs more than either of his fastballs, but only about half as often as his slider does, at 8.47 percent. Rather than generating swings and misses, Butler’s changeup has been his most effective pitch at getting groundballs—even more than his sinker. While Butler’s sinker has produced a groundball 10.98 percent of the time, his changeup has done so 13.56 percent of the time.
Butler’s changeup is hard, and it’s going to remain so. According to FanGraphs, Butler’s changeup velocity ranks eighth in baseball. In terms of average velocity, he’s behind Jordan Zimmermann, Felix Hernandez, Gerrit Cole, Jake Arrieta, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, and Zack Greinke. Some of these pitchers, such as Cole and Strasburg, have a large difference between their average fastball and changeup velocities, while others, such as Hernandez and Greinke, have a minimal difference. The pitch’s success doesn’t rely on a velocity discrepancy between it and his fastball. And Butler knows that.
I asked Butler if he intended to try to increase the velocity difference between the pitches, especially given the natural fastball velocity decline that, like every other pitcher, all pitchers experience. He indicated that he’s tried to do so in the past, but when Butler slows his arm down to take off some speed, the pitch loses movement. It can’t get slow without becoming ineffective.
Eddie Butler is unfinished. In four starts in 2015, he’s had mostly good results, but the process of getting to them has been messy at times. The picture painted above is one of a pitcher in development. Smart tendencies, which Butler indicated to me are always formed in concert with either Hundley or McKenry, are evident. Aside from command, the biggest issue at the moment is just how hittable Butler’s sinker is. But if Butler can harness his changeup while keeping the movement to induce groundballs, and if his slider is as good as the small sample size so far this season suggests, then he might not even need it.
Butler makes his fifth start of the season tonight against the Padres. Pay attention to his final line—but also pay attention to every pitch.