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Eddie Butler back in Rockies' bullpen after strange Triple-A season

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Eddie Butler, especially in the latter half of his Albuquerque campaign, found significant success despite not missing bats whatsoever. How will that translate now that he's back with the big league club?

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It wasn't that long ago -- June of 2014, in fact -- that Eddie Butler made his highly anticipated debut for the Colorado Rockies. Entering that season, Butler had everything on his side. A stellar minor league track record to that point saw Butler carrying a sub-2.00 ERA with just about as many strikeouts as innings pitched. He dominated rookie ball. He flew through Low-A and High-A. And he even tasted success during a brief Double-A stint.

People took notice. Butler entered 2014 a consensus top 50 overall prospect in baseball, being ranked as high as No. 24 by Baseball America.

But early that season, something changed. Butler posted OK results at Double-A, finishing with a 3.83 ERA in a little more than 100 innings. But he struck out just 5.2 batters per nine innings there and, to make matters worse, was torched in limited big league time.

Since then, things haven't been the same for Butler. He's gone from a highly regarded prospect to attempting to salvage his big league career. The culprit isn't his stuff; Butler still possesses mid-90s heat with good movement and secondary offerings that flash as useful or better. Rather, it's an inability to miss bats in the minors -- just 72 strikeouts in 152⅓ Triple-A innings since the start of 2015 -- and repeated instances of poor performance at the major league level, where he owns a 6.49 ERA in 154 innings.

To his credit, Butler seemed to learn how to pitch through his lack of strikeouts in Albuquerque this season, finishing with a 4.45 ERA overall but posting a 2.58 ERA in his final 45⅓  innings spanning six starts.

"I've just been trying to stay on top of the ball," Butler told Purple Row after his penultimate Triple-A start, which was his worst during that stretch. "I wasn't getting extension early in the season; just getting under it and pitches were flattening out a little bit. Now I'm doing that while being able to throw my offspeed [pitches] for strikes."

Butler was able to limit walks and hard contact during the final month of Albuquerque's season, walking fewer than two batters per nine innings while giving up just 36 hits. His main motivation? Staying on the mound.

"That's all we're trying to do is miss barrels," Butler explained. "If I get contact early, it gives me a chance to go deeper into games so I'm doing all I can to keep my pitch count down."

The issue with that -- as we've seen in a fairly large sample size -- is how it affects Butler once he's pitching regularly at the major league level. Butler's career strikeout rate of 5.1 per nine innings is already low; if he's intentionally trying to induce contact, that may go even lower. That, of course, is problematic at Coors Field, and is trouble regardless of venue if traffic on the basepaths continues to be a problem for Butler.

Let's take Butler's 3.5 K/9 rate at Triple-A this year and translate it to the majors. Only five Rockies pitchers have ever had a strikeout rate that low in a sample size of at least 50 innings. One of them is Aaron Cook, who posted a pair of above-average seasons, in 2005 and 2007, with strikeout totals as low as what Butler put up this season. Mike DeJean had a similarly good year out of the bullpen in 1998. Other than that, it's the likes of Denny Stark, Scott Elarton and, most recently out of all of them, Greg Reynolds.

All of those players and seasons were from ages ago. But the last five seasons yield similarly grim results. Only six pitchers (Cook, again, is one of them! ) during that time have posted a strikeout rate of 3.5 or fewer per nine, and just one -- current Milwaukee Brewers reliever Blaine Boyer -- produced an ERA+ of 100 or better. Cook, Justin Nicolino, Jake Westbrook, Derek Lowe and Sean O'Sullivan didn't exactly produce positive results.

Simply put, low-strikeout pitchers such as Butler don't often have a place in the league the way it's set up today. And, on the off chance they find a spot, they're usually not successful. It's still too early to completely write off the 25-year-old Butler, but odds are certainly against him.

Still, the Rockies will give him a look this September -- and possibly beyond -- in hopes of the one-time prospect regaining his early career form. Butler, easy going and soft spoken as ever, is grateful for the opportunity.

"I'll do whatever I can to stay up there," Butler said. "I just want to help the team win. Whether it's starting, one inning, three innings, I'm game for it."

***

Not a great return: Butler pitched in the Rockies' 11-4 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday and the result was more of the same. Though the right-hander recorded three of his four outs via strikeout, he surrendered five runs -- all earned -- on six hits and a walk.

Hat-tip to Baseball-Reference's Play Index, which was used heavily during the production of this article.