Why The Billy Butler Deal May Not Be Totally Crazy by Eno Sarris November 19, 2014 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.