It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Billy Butler would be inducted into the Royals Hall of Fame. Over eight seasons in Kansas City, Butler accumulated a WAR of 12.5 as a Royal. Unfortunately, that puts him outside the list of the Top 24 Royals of All-Time, according to Baseball Reference WAR, and it seems like that if any recently retired Royal wants to establish their candidacy for a place in the Royals museum of honor, they need to be within that Top 24 list. As of now, Danny Duffy sits in that coveted 24th spot with a WAR of 17.6, which is 5.1 wins better than Butler’s total, which should be a further blow to Butler’s chances.
However, even though Butler will not be enshrined in the Royals Hall of Fame, he should be a “not forgotten” player in Royals history. Butler proved to be a successful Royals draft pick and homegrown player who really grew into his own at the MLB level in the beginning of the Dayton Moore era. Butler’s skill set is quite unique for modern baseball standards: he couldn’t really field; he didn’t have much speed; and while he could hit, his power left a little to be desired for a designated hitter.
That being said, there was something endearing about Butler that made him the perfect fit in Kansas City. He was a country, BBQ-loving guy who seemed closer to a beer league softball player than an everyday designated hitter of a professional baseball club. Of course, he wasn’t perfect, as his personality did rub some the wrong way, and his relationships as well as leadership in the clubhouse may have been a big reason why Butler wasn’t able to experience the Royals’ first World Series title in 30 years.
Nonetheless, Butler helped carry the Royals during a dark era for Royals fans, and he also perfectly encapsulated what it meant to be a baseball player from Eastern Kansas/Western Missouri.
Butler was drafted 14th overall in the 2004 MLB Draft out of Wolfson High School in Jacksonville, Florida. The 2004 draft was a strange one to say the least: Justin Verlander (2), Jered Weaver (12), Neil Walker (11), Stephen Drew (15) and Huston Street (40) were all successful MLB players who produced higher career WAR totals than Butler. However, the draft may be mostly known for the San Diego Padres drafting high school player Matt Bush number one over Drew, and not for baseball reasons (Drew was a superior prospect in comparison to Bush going into the draft) but financial ones. The Padres’ cheap decision hindered the club for years to come, as Bush struggled with substance abuse and legal issues and didn’t debut at the MLB level until he was 30…as a pitcher with the Texas Rangers (he was drafted as a shortstop).
Even though he was drafted 14th overall, the fact that only two players drafted after Butler produced higher career WAR totals shows how smart former GM Allard Baird was to select the high school slugger (and honestly, Drew was out of the Royals’ price range, as his signing bonus was $4 million, which was $2.55 million more than Butler’s).
Butler became one of the Royals’ best prospects immediately after he was drafted. He signed quickly and played 74 games with Idaho Falls in the Pioneer rookie league, and posted a slash of .373/.488/.596 and also hit 10 home runs as well in 324 plate appearances. The solid short-season debut catapulted Butler in the prospect rankings, as Butler was rated as the 75th best prospect in baseball going into 2005, according to Baseball America.
In the minors, the former Florida prep prospect pretty much succeeded wherever he went. In 2005, he posted an OPS of 1.054 and hit 25 home runs in 430 plate appearances as a 19-year-old with the High-A High Desert Mavericks. The solid performance earned him a a 29-game call up to Double-A Wichita, and he continued to mash, despite being 5.4 years younger than the Texas League competition. He posted an OPS of .880 and hit 5 home runs in 119 plate appearances.
The solid 2005 campaign continued to help Butler rise in prospect circles, as Baseball America ranked him as the 29th best prospect in baseball going into 2006. Butler as a 20-year-old repeated the year in Wichita and spent the whole season in Double-A, as he posted an OPS of .887 in 119 games and 535 plate appearances. During this time, not only did Butler continue his rise in the prospect rankings (he was the 25th best prospect going into 2007, according to Baseball America), but the Royals also saw a major front office change, as Dayton Moore took over for Allard Baird during the 2006 season.
Moore, a former assistant general manager for the Atlanta Braves who was known for his scouting acumen, seemed to believe not just in Butler, but also in other young prospects in the organization such as Alex Gordon, who also played in Wichita with Butler in 2006. That confidence was displayed on May 1st, as Butler made his Major League debut as a 21-year-old, going 2-for-4 against the Los Angeles Angels. Though Butler only played 10 games before being sent back down to Omaha, he was called back up after Mike Sweeney hit the injured list on June 19th, and Butler ended up playing 92 games and posted an OPS+ of 108 in his MLB rookie season.
In the minors, finding a position that fit Butler was a difficult endeavor. While his bat certainly was MLB-caliber, his glove proved to be a different story. He rotated between third and the outfield early in his MiLB career, not really excelling at either. In 2007, Butler began to play more first base as a primary defensive position, as he played 13 games at first in Kansas City and 22 games in Omaha (when he wasn’t a designated hitter).
In 2008, Butler played 124 games with the Royals an played 34 games at the first base position. However, first year manager Trey Hillman preferred veteran Ross Gload as the Royals’ primary first baseman over Butler, as Butler made 82 starts as the Royals’ Designated Hitter. The decision was not necessarily a bad one, as Butler posted a .724 OPS and 93 OPS+ in his age-22 season. While it was a regression from his rookie season, Butler showed enough promise in his first two seasons with the Royals to show that he could be a part of this club’s future.
2009 was the breakout year for Butler. With Gload gone, Hillman made Butler the primary first baseman, and Butler played 159 games with the Royals. In 672 plate appearances, Butler hit 21 home runs and posted an OPS+ of 125, which earned him honors as Royals “Player of the Year”. Butler’s third season with the Royals also sparked a four-year stretch where he arguably became the Royals’ best hitter.
From 2009-2012, Butler averaged a slash of .306/.371/.483, an OPS of .854, and an OPS+ of 131. Furthermore, he also accumulated a total of 738 hits, 172 doubles, 84 HRs, and 373 RBI. This hot stretch also resulted in an All-Star appearance in 2012, which was particularly sweet considering the All-Star game that season took place at Kauffman Stadium. Butler was also the center of the most memorable part of All-Star festivities, for during the Home Run Derby, American League Captain and New York Yankee Robinson Cano did not choose Butler on his team, and Royals fans in attendance booed Cano throughout his round in the contest. Much to Royals fans’ joy, Cano hit zero home runs in the round, becoming the second person to have a zero home run round in the history of the contest (Brandon Inge being the other).
During his hot stretch, Butler made the transition from first base to designated hitter full-time. As the Royals’ primary first baseman in 2009, he led American League first baseman in errors with 10, and he finished fifth in the same category in 2010 with 6. Thus, with Eric Hosmer on the cusp of breaking into the Majors, manager Ned Yost moved Butler to the designated hitter spot in 2011 and he stayed in that role for the remainder of his career.
After Butler’s momentous 2012, “Country Breakfast” began to show signs of regression. Though he played in 162 games, his OPS+ declined from 138 in 2012 to 116 in 2013, which also included a noted decline in home runs from 29 to 15. The regression was even worse in 2014, which was the final year of his initial contract with the Royals. Not only did he hit just 9 home runs as the Royals’ designated hitter in 151 games and 603 plate appearances, but his OPS+ regressed to 96, the first time it had been under 100 since 2008.
However, Butler made his first (and eventually only) appearance in the playoffs, and did make good in his first postseason. Butler especially came through in the Wild Card game against the Athletics, as he went 2-for-4 with two RBI in the dramatic extra-inning contest, with one of his big hits still viewable on YouTube, as evidenced below:
While Butler’s postseason got off to a good start, he struggled in the ALDS, going hitless in 12 plate appearances against the Angels (though the Royals still swept the series). He bounced back in the ALCS against the Orioles, posting a .723 OPS in 17 plate appearances and also performed admirably against the Giants in the World Series, as he posted a .775 OPS in 16 plate appearances, though he only played in 5 games due to no DH in the games in San Francisco. However, he only posted a .660 OPS in the postseason as a whole, which wasn’t exactly confirming for Royals fans or management when it came to whether or not Butler could be the DH in Kansas City in the future.
After the 2014 season, Butler signed a 3-year, $30-million deal with the A’s, thus ending his tenure in Kansas City. Butler’s move proved to be a blessing in disguise, as the Royals signed Kendrys Morales as a response, and Morales, as the Royals’ new DH, ended up helping the Royals capture their second World Series title in franchise history.
Butler continued his free fall of regression in Oakland, as he only posted a 98 OPS+ with the A’s in 2015 over 601 plate appearances. Though he did improve a bit in 2016, as his OPS+ improved to 101 in 242 plate appearances, the Athletics released him from the roster in September. The Yankees swooped him up and had him on the roster for the remainder of the 2016 season, and he did post an OPS+ of 136 in 32 plate appearances and 12 games in the Bronx. However, the Yankees declined to pick him up, and he ended up declaring free agency that November.
And that was it…as no team signed Butler ever again.
Unfortunately, the reason Butler never played anywhere again after the 2016 season probably was due more to his attitude than his ability.
In August of 2016, Butler and A’s teammate Danny Valencia got in a clubhouse fight, and that seemed to open a Pandora’s Box on Butler’s tenure in Kansas City, which was covered thoroughly by Max Rieper of Royals Review. While Butler was a fan favorite as a Royal, he seemed to rub many in the Royals clubhouse the wrong way, as he seemed to be more concerned with individual stats than winning, and he had a sense of humor that didn’t always vibe with other players in the Royals clubhouse. Furthermore, he never seemed to embraced the “leader” role, and that was further evident in a Jeff Passan quote from the Royals Review article:
Billy Butler is a guy who just doesn’t know what he is. He thought he was a leader in Kansas City. And he was the furthest thing from it. He considered himself like a veteran clubhouse leader because “veteran” and “clubhouse leader” tend to be used in the same sentence and he thought that those two things went hand-in-hand when there was no leadership there. Billy is a guy whose lack of self-awareness tends to get in the way.“Apparently Billy Butler had some clubhouse issues in Kansas City” by Max Rieper; Royals Review
And thus, it seems like Moore made the right call by letting Butler go at the conclusion of the 2014 postseason (though Reiper’s mention of a possible Butler for Yuniesky Betancourt trade is insane to think about in retrospect). Granted, Butler did have some moments that are worth remembering, even in Oakland, as this home run below against the Indians did produce some Jomboy video gold*:
*If you have not already, subscribe to Jomboy on YouTube or follow him on Twitter. His stuff, especially baseball stuff, is just great, even if he may be a Yankees fan.
While Butler’s history and legacy in Kansas City may be mixed, it seems like he’s in a better place now that he’s further away from the game and in “retirement”. He seems to be living in Idaho, working as a PE teacher and playing in men’s softball leagues, living his best life. Baseball fans don’t hear about him “trying to get back in the game” and that’s a good thing: it means that he’s happy with where he’s at in life.
Furthermore, Butler did find himself back into the spotlight during quarantine in a positive way, as a video surfaced of him and former Royal Mark Teahan playing “catch” (doing the whole playing catch but from different parts of the country…thing). If anything, it made Royals fans a bit nostalgic, and it was nice to see Butler in a better place, looking back fondly on his Royals days (which wasn’t really the case when he left for Oakland).
Butler will have just missed the threshold for Royals HOF enshrinement, and it makes sense that he will not be inducted. He was a good, not great player who was just too one-dimensional. Furthermore, his mixed reputation in the clubhouse didn’t help, and it would probably be uncomfortable to see him in the Royals HOF when he wasn’t necessarily as well-liked as a Sweeney or Gordon (who will be inducted when he’s eligible).
However, Butler and what he did as a Royal should not be forgotten. For a four-year stretch, he was arguably one of the best designated hitters in the American League.
And also…he’ll also be known for being the cause for a whole stadium booing a former Yankee at the All-Star game.
Royals fans can certainly get behind that.