Ricescapades: Billy Butler, 2012 Fantasy Breakout

Jesse Johnson-US PRESSWIRE

Billy Butler rose to the majors amidst sky-high expectations. For four-and-a-half seasons, he teased us with a high batting average, but power that was not up to snuff for his position. In 2012, he put it all together to become one of fantasy baseball's most underrated young stars.

I remember Billy Butler arriving on the major league scene in 2007 to much fanfare. Well, as much fanfare as could possibly be generated by a prospect on the Royals, a small-market team that hadn't been to the postseason in 22 years and never, ever appeared on national TV. Butler, along with teammate Alex Gordon, was heralded as a can't-miss, up and coming young star who would lift the franchise out of the mire and back to relevance.

It's easy to see why scouts loved him. Butler's minor league numbers were imposing, and he looked like a player who could hit well over .300 in the majors with his eyes closed. He hit .348/.419/.636 as a 19-year-old at High A ball, making Royals execs salivate. In his first go-round at AA that same year, he plugged right on ahead, hitting .313/.353/.527. He hit .331/.388/.499 in his first full season at the level in 2006. By this time it was obvious that his days in the minor leagues were numbered, and he looked to be on the fast track to the majors and a date with stardom.

Butler finished his minor league career with a .336/.416/.564 batting line, and with the way he chewed his way through minor league pitching, some were predicting All-Star status the second he set foot on major league soil. Of course, "chewed" seemed to be an appropriate choice of words, as Butler's somewhat portly build had wags saying that he was the guy who could hit like Edgar Martinez and eat him, too. Also, his total lack of defensive skill made it clear from day one that he was destined to be a DH. In one of their annuals, Baseball Prospectus once derisively said that Butler's natural fielding position was "chair". It seems hard to believe now, but Butler was originally drafted as a third baseman. After some misadventures at that position and in left field and first base, the Royals decided to make him a DH, pronto, and that's where he's been, more or less, since.

So Butler arrived in the majors on May 1st, 2007, as Kansas City's starting left fielder. I remember being pretty pissed when I missed out on him in a keeper league because I was outranked on a waiver claim. His minor league resume was sublime, and I loved his high-average/high contact combination. Butler rapped two hits in his debut and appeared well on the way to achieving his potential right off the bat.

It didn't happen, at least not right away. Butler had a generally underwhelming rookie season, hitting .292/.347/.447. That was encouraging for a 21-year-old, but there was still a sense of disappointment for those who had expected him to come in and hit .330 and walk on water once he became a major leaguer. Many Royals fans had to be reminded that one of their all-time heroes, another Kansas City great, also struggled as a 21-year-old rookie. George Brett, back in 1974, hit just two (!) home runs in 486 plate appearances and was generally nothing special before breaking out as a 22-year-old. As with any player arriving in their early-20's, time was on Butler's side.

Then, the regression. Butler got off to a miserable start in his sophomore year, and was hitting .249/.310/.330 at the 2008 All-Star Break. That performance got his butt banished back to the minors. After that little sabbatical to get his head on straight, Butler came back to the big club and finished hot, hitting .305/.341/.476 in the second half. Still, fantasy owners who had expected a young star were getting nothing of the sort. His power wasn't developing at all, and though he didn't project as a big home run hitter, owners wanted more than the paltry total of eleven that he ended up with. The larger concern was that he wasn't hitting for the lofty batting averages that scouts had foreseen ever since he was in rookie ball, and a DH with a .724 OPS wasn't going to cut it, in fantasy ball or real life.

The following year, Butler finally got his bat going, with a breakout .301/.362/.492 line and 21 homers and 93 RBIs. From 2009-2011, Butler hit .303/.370/.474 and averaged 18 homers, 89 RBIs, and 47 doubles per year. That's a pretty nice line, especially for a young player, but for bloodthirsty fantasy owners, it still wasn't enough. Butler's home run power wasn't developing as expected, and while the high batting average was nice, the overall package didn't put Butler in the elite of fantasy first basemen. Keeper league owners who had drafted him early in preseason drafts had to have been a bit disappointed.

There were signs, though, that home run power was going to surface, and soon. As mentioned before, Butler had averaged 47 doubles per year over those three seasons. Often times, crazy amounts of doubles tend to turn into more homers as the years go by, as some of those balls that were hitting halfway up the wall one year start to go over it as the player gets stronger. While it was always possible that Butler was just going to be a line drive hitter and would never develop into a big home run threat (think Sean Burroughs, only...um, good), his minor league home run numbers seemed to indicate he'd send a few more balls into the stands at some point.

Well, Butler's 2012 season proved to be a case study for that kind of doubles power phenomenon. Butler's two-bagger count dropped to 32, but his home run total shot up to a career-high 29. He did that while also maintaining a .313 batting average. He finished with a career-bests in RBIs (109) and OPS (.882), and the combined package added up to a legit fantasy star. Even in a stacked first base field, his OPS ranked seventh among first base eligibles, and even better if you exclude guys like Buster Posey and Miguel Cabrera, players who spent most of their time at other positions.

Butler just had a fantasy breakout and is entering his age-27 season, the age where a lot of hitters are at their peak. Continued development and the (presumable) promotion of Wil Myers to replace Jeff Francoeur in the lineup should help Butler put up even bigger numbers in 2013. A couple of 30-homer season look to be on their way, which, coupled with his usual ability to hit in the .300s, means that Butler should be one of the more underappreciated fantasy stars in the game for the foreseeable future.

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