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Eddie Butler Rockies’ career was as exciting as it was disappointing

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How Eddie Butler went from diamond in the rough to DFA.

The Rockies designated Eddie Butler for assignment on Saturday to make room for newly signed reliever Greg Holland. The move ends Butler’s up and down tenure with the Rockies, which saw him as one of the best prospects in the organization, one of the worst pitchers in baseball, a hopeful post-prospect, and, finally, the most expendable person on the 40-man roster.

Butler didn’t start as one of the premier prospects in the Rockies’ system, though he wasn’t an afterthought either. The Rockies selected Butler out of Radford in the first compensation round of the 2012 draft, the 46th overall pick. Sandwiched between the first and second rounds, he had some shine. But he was always going to receive “diamond in the rough” descriptions. Otherwise he would have gone in the first round.

Butler got off to a good, but nondescript, start with the organization. The Rockies assigned him to Rookie ball after he signed. He posted a 2.13 ERA in 67.2 innings as a 21-year-old. Butler also struck out 7.3 batters per nine innings and walked 1.3 per nine. The strikeout numbers were good, if not overly impressive given the level; however, the low walk rate demonstrated that he had control of his pitches.

His pedigree and performance was enough to push him into Baseball America’s Rockies’ top 10 after the 2012 season. He ranked sixth in the system, behind No. 5 Chad Bettis and ahead of No. 7 Tyler Anderson. While he didn’t crack Baseball Prospectus’s top 10, he did receive a write-up that turned out to be prescient: “The stuff can be really sharp, and Butler should see his prospeect status elevate after a good full-season debut in 2013.”

Butler’s status did rise after his better than good full-season debut. In 2013, Butler cruised through three levels of the minors. He began in Asheville and posted a 1.66 ERA in nine starts. Even better, his strikeout rate rose to 8.4 per nine. Not only were batters, who were on average the same age as the then 22-year-old, unable to hit off of Butler, but he was nearing a strikeout per inning. Butler did lose some of the control he exhibited in Rookie ball though; his walk rate jumped to 4.1 per nine innings.

The next stop for Butler was Modesto, where he stayed for 13 starts and had a 2.39 ERA while also improving on his strikeouts and walks. Butler struck out 8.9 batters per nine in his 67.2 innings in Modesto, and he walked 2.8 per nine. The control was back and he was striking out even more batters. And, significantly, he was doing this against competition 1.2 years older than him on average.

Butler wrapped up the year facing Double-A competition on average 2.5 years older, and all he did was post a minuscule 0.65 ERA in six starts and 27 innings, during which he struck out 8.1 batters per nine and walked 2.0.

While the promotions were due to internal scouting, the fan fervor had more to do with his statistics and the endorsement attached to those promotions. The final piece that augmented Butler’s stock came in the 2013 Futures Game, which took place before his final promotion to Double-A. Call it “the changeup;” call it “the .gif.” Whatever it was, it made people pay attention. You can see why:

Butler struck out top prospect Xander Bogaerts with what was quite possibly the best pitch he ever threw. It was a changeup that faded inside to a right-hander. It was unhittable. It led Carson Cistulli to ask with playful seriousness, “does Eddie Butler’s changeup provoke mystical experience?” This .gif has become famous, but it’s also worth noting that the strikeout was accompanied by a masterful sequence that highlighted Butler’s ability to locate a moving fastball. And it says something that he was in the Futures Game to begin with.

Scouts continued to scout and the statline continued to impress. But I’m convinced that this .gif changed the perception of Butler in a real way. It would be difficult to prove, and it’s true that the pitch was incredible, but it might have raised expectations beyond where they realistically should have been.

After this full-season debut and after “the .gif,” both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus ranked Butler second in the Rockies’ system, behind 2013 draftee Jon Gray. He also skyrocketed up top 100 lists, too, landing at No. 24 on Baseball America’s list and No. 26 on Baseball Prospectus’s. BP pegged his overall future potential as a No. 2 starter, while hedging his realistic role as a No. 3. At the time, no Rockies fan could talk about hope for the team’s future without starting with Gray and Butler, Butler and Gray.

★ ★ ★

And that was the high point for Eddie Butler the prospect. He entered the 2014 season with legitimate shininess, and he started out well, too. In his first three starts for Double-A Tulsa, Butler struck out 17 batters in 18.2 innings while only walking three and allowing just five runs.

It’s not clear why, but after that third game of the 2014 season at Double-A, Butler was no longer able to strike batters out. This was a warning sign that the Rockies should have paid attention to, but didn’t. He didn’t strike out more than four batters in a start between then and the time of his early June promotion to the majors (though he struck out four in a five inning start and four in a 4.2 inning start). He had back-to-back outings in May where he only managed to strikeout one batter in each game. But through all of that, Butler still got good results. On May 31, he had a 2.62 ERA, even though he was only striking out about 5.0 batters per nine innings. The Rockies then promoted Butler to the majors on June 3, 2014.

The start was a disaster. Against the Dodgers on June 6, Butler allowed six runs on 10 hits in 5.1 innings. He walked three batters and, continuing the trend he exhibited in Tulsa, struck out just two. He was overmatched. Butler didn’t get another start against major-league competition until late September in 2014. He went on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation and returned to the minors after recovery. He pitched a game in Modesto and a game in Triple-A Colorado Springs, to similar results as his first run in 2014.

Because Butler had just one major-league start, he maintained his prospect status heading into the 2015 season; possibly because of the shoulder inflammation, prospect watchers gave him the benefit of the doubt about his 2014. He was still the consensus number two pitching prospect in the Rockies’ system, though Baseball America dropped him to 77th overall, and Baseball Prospectus dropped him to 64. Still, being a top 100 prospect is enough reason to hope. It was just time to re-adjust expectations.

Butler broke camp with the Rockies’ rotation in 2015 due to need more than impressiveness. In 11 starts from the beginning of the season to June 5, Butler posted a 4.80 ERA and walked 30 batters while striking out just 29 in 54.1 innings. He essentially replicated those results after a demotion to Triple-A Albuquerque, and he did so again after five more starts in the majors in July and August. He was one of the worst starters in all of baseball that season, and he had strikeout and walk numbers simply incompatible with success. That prospect shine had dulled considerably.

Entering 2016, Butler was firmly a post-prospect. His ceiling had become fourth or fifth starter, with the bullpen a realistic option. He began the year at Triple-A Albuquerque as a starter, and his performance held steady. Butler had a new normal. He got the call back to the majors in late April, and after one relief appearance, he returned to the rotation. It started poorly, but that was no longer surprising. In 5.2 innings against the Padres in San Diego, he allowed five runs off of four hits. He walked one, struck out three, and gave up two home runs.

In his next start, however, Butler gave Rockies fans a reasons to remember his potential and think, eve if for a moment, about it being realized after all this time. On May 8, Butler got the start against the Giants in San Francisco. He spun six innings of scoreless baseball while allowing just four hits, walking two, and striking out six batters. It was the best start of his career. By this time, Jon Gray had established himself as a legitimate major-league starter, and this one start brought back the though, “what if Jon Gray and Eddie Butler are good?”

Fantasies are fantasies because they’re comforting, and this was a fantasy punctured as soon as Butler took the mound for his next start—four runs, zero walks, three strikeouts, and nine hits in five innings. For the remainder of the season, Butler made a few starts when needed but mostly worked out of the bullpen. While Butler posted an 8.00 ERA in 18 innings out of the bullpen, he did boost that bugaboo of his, strikeouts. He K’d 17 in those 18 innings. It was a small sample—too small to draw much from—but it was, at least, better.

After the 2016 season, it looked like Butler had found a new role. It still might be his role, but it won’t be with the Rockies. One can argue that Butler shouldn’t have been the expendable part to make room for Greg Holland—Chad Qualls seems to be the more expendable. But that debate is one of who is more expendable, and Butler most definitely has earned a spot in that conversation. Ultimately, the Rockies chose to part ways with Butler, and it’s an entirely defensible position.

★ ★ ★

In hindsight, Eddie Butler’s fall shouldn’t be too surprising. He was an outsider looking in to the top prospect club when drafted, but he did enough in a full season of professional baseball to break in. Once his prospect status rose, his performance fell. And he never had anything close to a sustained run of success at the only level that really matters.

If the Rockies had to do it again, maybe they wouldn’t have promoted him to the majors so fast in 2014, especially given the lackluster showing prior to his debut in Denver. Maybe the Rockies go further back in time and keep Butler in Asheville or Modesto longer in 2013, especially given his walk rate in Asheville. It could have delayed his debut but helped his development. Or, he might have ended up in the exact same place: DFA’d to make room for the most recent bullpen signing.

Eddie Butler’s baseball story might not be over—he’s 25 and still has good stuff—even if his Rockies story has come to a close. In his four and a half years with the organization, Butler was equal parts excitement and disappointment, sequenced in that order. He was also your favorite band’s worst album. That’s life, and that’s baseball. I hope he does find a new home. But even if he doesn’t, for better or worse, we’ll still have “the .gif.”