Why The Billy Butler Deal May Not Be Totally Crazy

At first glance, it seems crazy. A bad-body post-peak designated hitter that was under replacement last year… three years? $30 million? Billy Butler to the Athletics? A team that has never had three ten million dollar players on the roster at one time did so for the first time in order to sign a guy that might not play the field?

What if it wasn’t so crazy.

You’d think a straight dollars for wins analysis would hate the deal, and it does. Steamer has Butler down for ~1.5 wins next year (there’s a bug on his page currently), and wins per dollars analysis isn’t going to love that production. The fan’s median crowdsourced projection was two years and $18 million, so the crowd think it’s too much, too.

Dan Szymborski was generous enough to provide a four-year projection for Butler in Oakland, and it’s a bit more hopeful:

Year BA OBP SLG G AB HR BB SO DR WAR
2015 0.272 0.34 0.403 156 573 15 57 100   1.4
2016 0.271 0.338 0.405 145 531 14 53 92   1.1
2017 0.269 0.334 0.402 143 525 14 51 89   0.9

Szymborski’s projection system dings designated hitters a little bit less than our current positional values in WAR here. His work mirrors MGL’s work on the designated hitter penalty. A healthy player hits worse as a designated hitter or off the bench as a pinch hitter than he does if he takes the field. So if Butler has hit to the tune of 17% better than league average (once his park and league were taken into effect), he’s done so despite that penalty. And since every team in the American League has to field a designated hitter, and he’s shown the skill to be a designated hitter, perhaps we are undervaluing his work by penalizing him 17.5 runs with respect to players that play in the field.

It’s important to note that the designated hitter penalty *is* factored into current FanGraphs WAR, so this is a discussion of how big that penalty actually is. And different attempts to measure it have come up with different results. ZiPs isn’t really that much more optimistic than Steamer, probably. We’re still a couple wins short of a bargain.

But so far we’ve ignored Butler’s fit on his new team, which is something that should be considered. His steamer projected wOBA (.340) would have him tied for the second-best on the team with Brandon Moss. But Brandon Moss is very much the type of hitter the Athletics have gathered over the last few years. Butler is very different. This is a good thing.

Moss had the second-fewest ground balls per fly ball in baseball last year. The Athletics hit the fewest ground balls per fly ball in baseball last year. This is not the first time someone has noticed this — Andrew Koo showed that fly-ball hitters do well against ground-ball pitchers and that the Athletics were assembling a fly-ball lineup, most likely to combat the growing trend of ground-ball pitching in the big leagues.

Only seven hitters with an isolated slugging percentage over .100 hit more ground balls per fly ball than Butler last year. Butler could pair well with Moss in the lineup and provide diversity, which is odd for a dude like him, but probably true.

This isn’t necessarily something we have to believe without evidence either.

We know, at least, that there are synergistic effects in lineups. Certain batter events are worth more in different teams and lineups. So not every batter fits every team the same, even batters with the same overall offensive ‘value.’ Here’s a little bit about why from Steve Staud:

However, when it comes to particularly bad or good offenses, or to those with unusual breakdowns, wOBA will lose some of its efficacy. Why? There are synergistic effects in offenses to consider. First of all, if a team gets on base a lot, there will be more team plate appearances to go around, which of course gives its batters more chances to contribute. Second of all, if the team gets on base a lot, a batter’s hits are generally worth more, because they’ll tend to drive in more runs. And, of course, once the batter gets on base in such a team, it will be likelier that there will be a hit (or series of hits) to drive him in. The reverse of all three points is true in a team that rarely gets on base.

Basically, players with the same wOBA don’t always have the same impact on a team. Staud goes on to say that to a low-walk team (the Royals had the worst walk rate in baseball last year), the home run is worth over ten times as much as a walk. But to a high-walk team (the A’s led baseball in walk percentage last year), the home run is only worth five times as much as a walk. So Butler could be worth more to the Athletics than to the Royals just based on his distribution of offense alone.

But remember back to those disastrous games against the Angels late season, and Butler’s addition may go beyond home runs and walks. The Angles were third in baseball in fly ball percentage last season and the Athletics had all sorts of problems against them with their fly-ball hitting lineup. Now they’ll have Craig Gentry, Sam Fuld, and Billy Butler there to perhaps put some pressure on the fly-ball pitchers. This wrinkle on lineup synergy effects is something we may have to take on faith for now, but it’s fairly intuitive that a mixed lineup would fare better than a homogenous lineup — at least in certain situations.

Let’s say these synergistic effects, and the value Butler has to this specific team, push Butler’s production for the Athletics to over four wins and make him a reasonable signing. We don’t actually know the true value of these effects, so it’s hard to say. But if they come from being a high-walk, high-ground-ball rate hitter… aren’t there other guys that could have done the same thing for the team, at a cheaper rate?

Not really. There were only fifteen hitters last year that had an isolated slugging percentage over .100 (.150 is about league average), had an above-average walk rate, and hit more ground balls per fly ball than league average. The only free agent is Chase Headley, and he’ll cost more money than Butler and plays a position where the Athletics don’t have a need. The rest are stars. Well, there’s David Freese, but he also plays third and would cost a prospect of some sort. So Butler’s offensive profile is not actually as plentiful as you might think.

Of course, it will be weird to have a full-time DH on the team when they’ve had some injury problems with the existing guys on the roster and one of their catchers may not catch again and now they’ve got a glut of guys in the corner outfield and first base and so on and so on. But the offseason isn’t over yet, so the depth chart can be figured out later.

In the meantime, for a price that has become much more reasonable in recent times, the Athletics added some lineup diversity with a rare offensive skillset at a position that we may undervalue. Billy Butler probably fits his new team a lot better than his old team, at least.

Even if this is still a head-scratcher of a deal when you look at it as spending $30 million for three years of a post-peak designated hitter, there’s more to the eye. Perhaps through this lens, it’s an understandable deal.





With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Fangraphs Writer
8 years ago

3 years 30 million for Butler? Awful deal. Wait Billy Beane signed him? Here is why this is actually a good deal.

King Flops
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

$10MM worked out really well for Jim Johnson, too.

Pirates Hurdles
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

Oh, how dare you challenge FG’s take on the Rays and A’s paying big money for RP last year?!

Sometimes good people do bad things.

Joshua_C
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

The overall point on preventing good, young relievers from hitting arbitration with gaudy save totals was correct.

However, you don’t have to pay $10M for Jim Johnson to accomplish that.

Pirates Hurdles
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

But Joshua, isn’t that the inherent bias? Assuming that the A’s and Rays were purposefully trying to keep good young RP salaries low instead of assuming that they were just falling for the whole veteran closer garbage. If Amaro does it, its idiotic. If Beane does it we really need to look deeper to see what we may be missing. Nevermind that Amaro has 1 WS title, Beane zero.

Eno Sarris
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

Except that Papelbon money is not Jim Johnson or John Axford money, which is what that Hardball Times article was about.

Jasper Franciscomember
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

So I guess this means the A’s should offer players less then $10M because of some arbitrary limit you’ve created based on one trade that didn’t work out? Not a FA signing, but a trade for a guy with one year left on a deal?

a eskpert
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

They might make stupid decisions, but we can only speculate on the decision making process. Assuming that they’re signing someone simply to sign them and that they are basing their decision same information available to us is just weak. They employ a multitude of FULL TIME statistical experts to analyze this sort of thing. I give them the benefit of the doubt, as these things are always a damn sight more complicated than we amateurs tend to think. Additionally, hindsight is a beautiful thing.

Stannis Baratheon
8 years ago
Reply to  King Flops

A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward.

Yosted
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

Had the Royals signed Butler to this exact deal I can’t imagine an article defending it.

Joshua_C
8 years ago
Reply to  Yosted

I’m not convinced that Billy Butler being a GB-heavy hitter, or lineup ‘diversity’ more generally, are of actual value.

You’re certainly stating true, observable facts–it’s just not really clear that these player-attributes have any immediate value. The Athletics apparently think so, and maybe you’ve correctly identified the key to this deal. I just have trouble believing that Butler’s ground-ball proclivities are an especially good thing.

Dave
8 years ago
Reply to  Yosted

Joshua_C – I can understand the idea that lineup diversity has value. I’ll illustrate that by proposing an extreme edge case that no actual team would play – a lineup consisting of all LH hitters (or all RH hitters) with high platoon splits. The weakness of this lineup is clear, and opponents would find some ways to take advantage of it by re-arranging rotations and using relievers to make that team face more same-handed pitchers. Similarly, if less dramatically, having all fly-ball hitters will presumably lead to more PA’s against pitchers who are good at retiring fly-ball hitters.

As for the particular case of Butler, I share your skepticism that his GB tendency is a good thing. Putting a slow GB hitter on a team that takes a lot of walks sounds like a recipe for frequently wiping out some of those walked base runners with GIDP’s. That doesn’t necessarily erase all of the value from adding lineup diversity, but I think that it’s a meaningful consideration.

Joshua_C
8 years ago
Reply to  Yosted

Dave, I certainly think that lineup diversity, in terms of L v. R, could be a thing. And even different types of hitters against different pitches. I do think there’s *some* tactical utility associated with the Butler signing.

I guess the question is how big you think that effect is. I don’t think it’s all that big, and I think the stuff you mention in the second half of your post (the GIDPs, the fact that slow guys hitting a lot of grounders isn’t great to begin with) is much more likely to have an impact. Maybe we’re missing something here because we don’t have a great way to measure the synergies of different hitters, but I have a hard time believing we’re missing something big enough to make this deal look good.

Joshua_C
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

I think it’s interesting to try to determine what the Athletics might be thinking in order to gain clues as to how they’re valuing players, but I can’t, at first glance, think of any reasonable justification for why this is a decent deal. Butler is a reasonable fit on the Athletics given their DH struggles and need for a right-handed bat, but his defensive limitations and the hefty price tag are huge drags on the deal’s potential value. If RAJ had made it, we’d be slamming him right now.

On the one hand, Billy Beane has proven for 15 years that seemingly-inexplicable moves aren’t necessarily without their own internally consistent logic. But it’s worth wondering, between several of the head-scratchers he’s made over the last year or so (Johnson trade, the horrific Shark trade, this) whether Dave Littlefield has kidnapped Beane and is holding him hostage somewhere.

JayT
8 years ago
Reply to  Joshua_C

Is this really a hefty price tag though? The A’s are basically paying him to be a 1.5 win player, which is what he’s pretty much always been. I’m not saying it’s a good deal, but I do think that it’s pretty much market rate, though maybe a year too long. However, if Fangraphs’ war really does dock DH’s too harshly, then there might even be some excess value here.

Joshua_C
8 years ago
Reply to  Joshua_C

I’m generally sympathetic to the argument that fWAR punishes DHs a bit too harshly. That said, it’s not really true that Butler’s ‘always been’ a 1.5-win player.

He’s been worth 4.1 fWAR over the last three years, with fWAR totals of 2.9, 1.5, and -0.3. His wRC+ over that time? 139, 117, and 97.

It’s probably easy to make too much of the above trends–I think most of us expect Butler to rebound into at least a 110+ type guy–but it’s also true that he’s 28, he has a terrible body type, and guys like that don’t tend to improve as they head into their 30s.

I think he’s bringing the A’s a very specific skillset, and it’s not clear how much longer that skillset is going to last. I wouldn’t have had a problem with a one-year deal, because he may have some immediate tactical utility to them, but I’m gonna go ahead and emphatically take the under on Butler average 1.5 wins a year over the life of this deal.

Avattoir
8 years ago
Reply to  Joshua_C

I agree some here – presumbably also in Reality World – have trouble wrapping their heads around $10m/year not being a Big Deal in a world where a single WAR = $7m +/- $1m. After all: 1) across the Bay, they got a WAR out of Morse for $6m, and he’s the worst OF in MLB; and 2) odds are overwhelming that NO ONE posting on this thread will get $10m total in their entire career.

This Beane deal is not “crazy”, but it’s certainly a stretch. But Beane’s got a well-known thing for the lumpy and undervalued. Overall, it’s worth one arched eyebrow, way short of any dropped jaw that’s still got teeth.

ThePaddingtonBear
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

It’s clear that you guys are willing to give the A’s the benefit of the doubt and that you’re willing to dig deeper than they normally would to justify Beane’s roster moves when they contradict conventional wisdom. If Jack Zduriencik makes this deal we get a very different analysis from Fangraphs.

Avattoir
8 years ago

Pooh – not necessarily the only bear of little brain.

BenRevereDoesSteroids
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

The thing that really bothers me about this line of thinking from you, Eno, is that you only do this for certain teams. If the Phillies had signed Butler to 3/30, would you have put the same amount of effort into finding out why (Not if, but WHY) it maybe makes sense?

No, you wouldn’t. The conclusion is already there for you. Some front offices are smart, some aren’t. All you do is try to find evidence for the conclusions you’ve already reached.

Eno Sarris
8 years ago

Why do you assume this? I feel ready to write about any team that doesn’t something noteworthy and I always try to see it from both sides. We used to do both sides of every deal and I used to love taking the less popular side. I defended Loria and the Marlins. And what is this about the Phillies, I don’t think I’ve ever written a piece about RAJ’s follies or whatever.

Sometimes I write more about west coast things, yes. And Mets. I still try to see the news clearly, it’s just I live on the west coast and was a Mets fan before I started writing for a living — now I’m just a fan of whatever gives me content.

Andrew
8 years ago

whether it’s the chicken or the egg, you should probably just judge his analysis on its own merits rather than speculating WHY he’s writing it.

Avattoir
8 years ago

Sounds like, Mom never luv’d you the best.

There is no world in which Billy B is objectively worth 10 million smackers versus Average Schmoo being worth 50 thousand smaackers, okay? The fact that some presumptively not-insane team is now committed to pay 200 times Average Schmoo’s salary to Billy Butler means you try your best to articulaate what’s possibly not-insane about the deal, then invite The Crowd in to kick it around the lot a few times.

So, okay then: how WOULD you – you, not Eno – justify this deal for Philly? Answer: You wouldn’t bother, because the Phils don’t make this deal. Iz like a Perpetual Go-Round In Circles Machines, da nyet?

a eskpert
8 years ago

If the phillies do it, of course it’s terrible, they can’t put a DH in the line up (though god knows they try).

KCDaveInLA
8 years ago
Reply to  Eno Sarris

I would find it a bit hard to believe that if many teams shifted to a (perhaps KC-inspired) model of fly-ball pitchers with outfield defense, that a chronic ground-ball machine like Billy Butler could somehow increase his value by providing diversity to a fly-ball team. The frequent GIDP’s are not going to go away, but only increase with age. I’m probably not explaining that right, but as much as I will miss Butler in KC (emotionally mostly), he was in way over his head as a reliable offensive leader. But I do agree that Butler needed to be on a team where he could be protected in the lineup, at least way better than he was in KC.

Jeff Sullivanmember
8 years ago

It objectively seems bad. Probably is. Might as well try to find something in there, though. Otherwise the post is a paragraph long.

Jeff Sullivan
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I don’t think this is really Jeff

Jeff Sullivanmember
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

well this is obnoxious

Jeff Sullivan
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

This is weird, Jeff Sullivan never talks back to himself

Steve K
8 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Will the real Slimy Shady, Jeff Sullivan please standup.

I think we have a problem here.

Stuck in a slump
8 years ago

This seems like more of an exploratory article to try to understand what the A’s might be thinking. We know that Beane isn’t an idiot, and we also know that he’s open to trying to find new ways to win because he’s always had to think outside the box in order to compete.

I read this and didn’t think “oh, well then, that’s not such a bad deal.”, I read it and thought “I wonder if this is what Beane was really thinking, and if it’s something worth exploring more in depth.” The author never once called a good deal, instead he ended the article with:

“Even if this is still a head-scratcher of a deal when you look at it as spending $30 million for three years of a post-peak designated hitter, there’s more to the eye. Perhaps through this lens, it’s an understandable deal.”

Catoblepas
8 years ago

Right. “May not be totally crazy” =/= “BEST DEAL EVER”

Rotocat
8 years ago

Exactly. But I do think, if Eno’s conclusion is correct, the next question is was 3/$30M the best Beane could do to achieve this diversity. The whole premise of Beaneball is to uncover hidden performance (run differential creation) and capitalize on it on the cheap. If line-up diversity is a team performance driver not yet know/understood by the rest of MLB then you should be able to get it at a value. If Butler costs exactly what he gives you, despite it not being a bad deal, does that make it a good deal for a small market team?

Stuck in a slump
8 years ago
Reply to  Rotocat

It’s definitely a confusing deal, but the best I can do to rationalize it is that Butler is only 28, he has a history of good health, and his collapse doesn’t look like it’s due to a physical decline. When you look at it like that, Butler might have been getting offers like 2/22 or 3/24 which forced the A’s hand. Either way, they don’t sign him unless they really believed that he could return positive value.

Walter
8 years ago
Reply to  Rotocat

If line-up diversity is a team performance driver not yet know/understood by the rest of MLB then you should be able to get it at a value. If Butler costs exactly what he gives you, despite it not being a bad deal, does that make it a good deal for a small market team?

You’re chasing your tail there. If we use ~1.2 WAR per season for Butler and $7M/WAR, you have more or less neutral value. That’s as we assume things to be true thanks to fangraphs today. However, if Beane has found some small edge that Eno is exploring here, there may actually be some excess value that Beane is exploiting on the FA market.

And lets not just wash the A’s with the “small market team” paint. Forbes actually has them operating with the 7th highest income in the sport. While it might seem they are cheap, have relatively low attendance (which has been going up nicely after the drop from putting on the tarps), play second fiddle to the Giants in their market, and have an ugly, occasionally sewage filled stadium. They obviously run a tight ship from top to bottom. They compete and make money despite their lack of other resources (obviously much thanks goes to revenue sharing but still, other teams get that too and don’t make as much money).

Rotocat
8 years ago
Reply to  Rotocat

What I got from Eno’s write-up is that maybe this isn’t a BAD deal if you look at possible benefits of line-up diversity. To me that means, if Beane has found some small edge, all that does is make this signing around fair value vs poor like many are positing. On the surface he’s projected at 3.4 war over the next 3 years and the A’s paid for 4 WAR. Looks BAD. Maybe Beane’s edge gets him to 4 WAR and it’s a fair deal, but finding a hidden edge should enable you to pay zero for that and find undervalued players to sign. If the A’s thought he could give 4 WAR but everyone else thinks he’s 3.4 WAR then you want to pay for 3.4 WAR, not 4. If Beane is getting only fair value with his edge included then there’s no value add. And value add is still very important to teams with payrolls like the A’s.

wallysb01
8 years ago
Reply to  Rotocat

Roto, hasn’t every FA signing thus far been above our desired, err assumed, $M/WAR figure?

And geez, that .6 WAR works out to $4.2M of an overpay spread out over 3 years, or $1.3M/year. Yeah REAL BAD deal…that’s surely gonna kill the A’s…..yawn….

Jason B
8 years ago
Reply to  Rotocat

Agreed – it’s not the “paid for 4.0 WAR over 3 years, got 3.4 WAR instead” deals that kill you, not in the least; that’s a rounding error. It’s the “paid for 50 WAR over 8 years, got 14 WAR instead” deals that kill a team. (Not saying I love the deal, but it’s no franchise killer.)

PackBob
8 years ago

Most deals, even for star players, boil down to if the player plays well, it’s a good deal, if the player doesn’t, it’s a bad deal. But a lot of deals involve minor gains instead of big, blockbuster gains, and they are harder to stamp as good or bad until the games play out.

This is a very good article in that it discusses a reason why, and a fairly obscure reason why, Butler could work out. I would suggest that for deals that could legitimately tip either good or bad, that the ones that go bad could have equally obscure reasons why they went bad.

Even the big deals sometimes go this way, like Beltre to the Mariners. It’s likely that Beltre was just an awful fit for Safeco. In a similar but less obvious way, Butler could fit well with the Athletics.

Chili Davis
8 years ago

Haha, we all knew this article was coming. Fangraphs never disappoints.

h.villanueva
8 years ago
Reply to  Chili Davis

I don’t know why it’s so puzzling. Think of your own life. If one of your more intelligent friends who generally has their shit together does something head scratching you’d probably stop to wonder what you were missing. If another of your friends with a long history of making poor, uninformed decisions does something head scratching it’d be understandable to assume it’s just more of the same.

KDL
8 years ago

If you read one fangraphs article and think there’s a bias, there’s a good chance there’s a bias.
If you think every fangraphs article is bias-driven, maybe you’re the biased one.

MRE
8 years ago

You know, even if we take accusations of bias at face value, I think there’s some merit on considering who made the deal. Billy Beane has long been reputed to be one of the best GMs in baseball, and his teams are nearly always competitive. When he does something that seems uncharacteristic and potentially wrong-headed, it’s worth taking a second look. I think that’s all this article is doing: trying to understand what a rationale for this deal might be. After reading it, I’m not convinced that Eno himself is fully on board with this idea. But, hey, it might not be crazy.