Billy Butler Could Become the Worst Runner Ever

While answering a question in my chat last Friday, I wound up navigating to Billy Butler’s player page, and then I casually noticed that since he debuted a decade ago, he’s been worth about -9 wins on the bases. In the moment, that didn’t seem like something that was going to stick in my mind, but, here we are. You’re going to get a whole article about this.

Look, everyone knows that Billy Butler isn’t much of a baserunner. Butler certainly knows, which is why he laughs and calls attention to himself whenever he does anything good out there. I’ve written about his baserunning before, and it’s hard to go back to this without feeling like I’m making fun. My intention isn’t to be cruel. It’s just, hey, this is a site where we talk about numbers, and some of his numbers are crazy. Butler built a career around his bat, and he has a lifetime 115 wRC+. That’s great. Very few people on planet Earth could do that over one month, much less 10 years. Yet, as Butler’s bat has provided positive value, his legs have given some of that back. He’s nearly the worst baserunner of all time.

Let’s start with something familiar. You probably know that we have a baserunning metric here, and while it goes back to only 2002, that’s at least 15 years of worthwhile information. I looked at every player who’s batted at least 2,500 times over the window, and then I calculated their baserunning values per 600 plate appearances. Here is the bottom of the list:

Worst Since 2002
Player BsR/600
Bengie Molina -9.1
Billy Butler -9.0
Paul Konerko -7.1
Kendrys Morales -6.7
Victor Martinez -6.6
Frank Thomas -6.5
Mike Piazza -6.4
Yadier Molina -6.4
Jorge Posada -6.3
Casey Kotchman -6.0

It’s Bengie Molina, then it’s Butler, almost in a tie. Then there’s a gap of about two runs before you get to Paul Konerko. None of these are surprising names. Baserunning value is predictable in that way. We see that Butler is one of the worst baserunners in recent baseball history.

What about in not-so-recent baseball history? Now we have to change up the metrics, but Baseball-Reference offers some baserunning information that goes beyond just 15 years ago. So, I searched through it all, once again establishing a minimum of 2,500 career plate appearances. I’m going to show you two tables. There’s a minor bit of controversy here. Some people prefer to include double plays with baserunning value. Other people prefer to leave them separate. At FanGraphs, we mix it all in together. For this first table, let’s look at baserunning by itself:

Worst in History
Player Baserunning/600
Alex Avila -4.3
Mike LaValliere -3.8
Rick Cerone -3.6
Bengie Molina -3.4
Pat Duncan -3.3
Prince Fielder -3.3
John Flaherty -3.3
Babe Pinelli -3.2
Kirt Manwaring -3.2
Bruce Benedict -3.2
Dave Magadan -3.1
Ramon Hernandez -3.0
Billy Butler -3.0
Charlie Hollocher -3.0
Henry Blanco -3.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Just based on baserunning, not including double plays.

Butler looks bad here, but not quite worst-ever bad. He’s separated by more than a run from last place, and that’s a pretty substantial buffer. Yet, when you include the double plays, this is the result:

Worst in History
Player Baserunning/600
Bengie Molina -5.8
Billy Butler -5.6
John Flaherty -5.3
Toby Hall -5.2
Alex Avila -5.0
Willie Aikens -4.9
Paul Konerko -4.8
Dave Valle -4.7
Randy Milligan -4.7
Yadier Molina -4.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Based on baserunning and double plays.

There’s Butler, bumping up against Molina again. I don’t know why these numbers are less extreme than the numbers on FanGraphs, but they still manage to tell a similar story. I understand the arguments for and against including double plays when you’re talking about baserunning. It’s kind of a blended skill, involving both hitting and running. So you can choose your own takeaway, but there’s no way to make Butler’s baserunning look good. And if you take double plays into account, well, Butler is a slow-footed righty who’s always made contact and put the ball on the ground. He’s been paid to sustain rallies, but he’s ever so often worked to kill them.

Looking at that last table, Molina still stands out as the least-valuable runner in recorded history. Butler’s close, and he’s also getting older, which opens some doors. Butler did almost all of this before turning 30. He has a chance to pass Molina and become the worst runner ever, according to this. The tricky thing is that Butler is no longer assured of regular playing time. His bat hasn’t been good enough, which means, moving forward, his legs might not be bad enough.

Here is how Butler has done, season to season, by the FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference numbers:


That’s just — that’s consistently bad baserunning. It’s not all Butler’s fault. He was born this way. Let’s say Butler gets another 500 plate appearances before the end of his big-league career. In order for him to pass Molina in the last table, his baserunning would have to be at least 6.8 runs below average. If Butler gets another 750 plate appearances, his baserunning would have to be at least 9.2 runs below average. And, if Butler gets another 1,000 plate appearances, his baserunning would have to be at least 11.6 runs below average. That last one works out to 7 runs below average per 600 PA. Butler’s been worse than that, in 2010, and in 2015. There’s a chance.

Maybe it’s not a great one. Butler would require some sort of offensive resurgence. It’s at least something we can’t yet rule out, because Butler still hits decently enough, and teams tend to find room for bats. As things stand, according to the numbers, Billy Butler has been almost the worst baserunner on record. It’s not impossible he could play enough to ditch the “almost” part. Did you need another reason to be excited about 2017? Baseball is nothing without its history.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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7 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Kind of like seeing if Jeff Mathis can set the record for most career PA’s while batting under .200. It’s his for the taking if you go back to 1920, but if you go back further you get the illustrious Bill Bergen, who hit .170 over 3,228 career PA’s.

No amount of framing magic could keep Mathis’s career alive long enough to threaten Bergen’s mark.