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
Guest
Fangraphs Writer

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

Jeff Sullivan
Member

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
Guest

I don’t think this is really Jeff

Jeff Sullivan
Member

well this is obnoxious

Jeff Sullivan
Guest
Jeff Sullivan

This is weird, Jeff Sullivan never talks back to himself

Steve K
Guest
Steve K

Will the real Slimy Shady, Jeff Sullivan please standup.

I think we have a problem here.

Stuck in a slump
Guest
Stuck in a slump

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
Guest
Catoblepas

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

Rotocat
Guest
Rotocat

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
Guest
Stuck in a slump

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
Guest
Walter

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
Guest
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
Guest
wallysb01

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
Guest
Jason B

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
Guest
PackBob

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
Guest
Chili Davis

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

h.villanueva
Guest
h.villanueva

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
Guest
KDL

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
Guest
MRE

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.