Backup catcher Drew Butera impresses on the mound for Dodgers
Maybe Drew Butera has this whole career thing backwards. One of the worst-hitting major leaguers in modern history made the second pitching appearance of his career on Wednesday night, touching the mid-90s on the radar gun in throwing a scoreless ninth inning for the Dodgers amid their 13-3 drubbing by the Marlins.
Butera's pitching appearance was one of the few highlights for the Dodgers on a night where they fell behind 12-0 by the end of the fourth inning. Starter Paul Maholm was battered for 11 hits and 10 runs (five earned) in 3 2/3 innings, and after manager Don Mattingly used five relievers to get to the ninth inning, he turned to the team's 30-year-old backup catcher for some mop-and-bucket work.
Butera needed just 11 pitches to retire the side in order. Working with a fastball that averaged 86.2 mph and maxed out at 95.1 according to BrooksBaseball.net and mixing in a couple changeups in the 75 mph range, he got ahead of Christian Yelich 0-2 (both strikes looking) and two pitches later induced him to line out to centerfield. He fell behind Ed Lucas 2-1 but got him to ground out to second base, and finally got Marcell Ozuna to swing and miss three times, the last of the his fastest pitch of the game (94 on the broadcast, but higher on Brooks' park-adjusted PITCHf/x data). Here's the highlight reel, as narrated by Vin Scully:
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Butera became the eighth position player to pitch in the majors this year and the second of the night, following the White Sox Leury Garcia (April 17), the Yankees' Dean Anna (April 19), the Red Sox's Mike Carp (April 24), the Brewers' Martin Maldonado (April 30), the Rangers' Mitch Moreland (May 6), the Cardinals' Daniel Descalso (May 12) and the Blue Jays' Steve Tolleson (May 14). He joined Moreland as the only one of those players to break 90 mph, and he worked with exceptional quickness. Via Dodgers Digest's Mike Petriello:
The 30-year-old Butera is the son of former major league backup catcher Sal Butera, who spent nine years in the majors (1980-1988) with five teams and himself tossed hitless, scoreless innings for the Expos in 1985 and Reds in 1986. The younger Butera pitched occasionally in high school, "But only when my dad wasn't around. He didn't want me to hurt my arm," he said after Wednesday's game. At the major league level, Butera the Younger had previously taken the mound for the Twins on May 20, 2012, working a scoreless ninth in a 16-4 loss to the Brewers; in doing so, he and his father became the first such combo of position players to pitch in the majors. He touched 95 mph in that one as well, setting up a strikeout of Carlos Gomez with a 78 mph changeup immediately afterwards.
Before taking the mound on Wednesday night, Butera could be seen consulting with Clayton Kershaw and catcher A.J. Ellis. He said that between striking out in a pinch-hitting appearance and taking the mound, his father texted him. Via the Los Angeles Daily News' Tony Ciniglio:
“I was telling A.J. what I had, which wasn’t much,” Butera said. “I was trying to ease my nerves.
“It wasn’t easy. I just think they had no idea what I was throwing. It’s just like when you’re taking BP, you’re relaxed, and the next thing you know you’re out.”
“He actually texted me before I went out there. He said I looked like a pitcher hitting in my last at-bat. Thanks Dad.”
Ouch. Butera might want to consider a more permanent move, because Dad is onto something. Pressed into service by Ellis' knee surgery, Butera is currently hitting a respectable .231/.300/.385 in 60 plate appearances by the Dodgers; his two home runs — both of which have induced fainting spells among Dodger fans — have already tied his career high. His performance to date is probably unsustainable, as his career line is just .186/.236/.273 in 601 plate appearances. The resulting 41 OPS+ is lower than 10 active pitchers with at least 100 career plate appearances, including teammates Zack Greinke (65, on .222/.274/.330 hitting) and Dan Haren (44, on .214/.242/.306 hitting).
In fact, Butera's 41 OPS+ is tied for the ninth-worst of any position player with at least 600 plate appearances since 1901. Tied with the immortal Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza Line — the standard of offensive futility — is named:
If Butera were to undergo a conversion to the mound, he'd hardly be alone in the Dodgers' organization. Current closer Kenley Jansen converted from catcher after serving in that capacity for the Netherlands in the 2009 World Baseball Classic. Earlier this month, the team called up Pedro Baez, a former third baseman, from Double-A Chattanooga to make his major league debut; he allowed two runs in one inning before being sent back down. Further down the ladder, 2009 second-round pick Blake Smith began converting from the outfield to the mound last year and is currently at the team's High-A Rancho Cucamonga affiliate. The Padres' organization also offers Butera a few models in 31-year-old former big league backup catcher Rob Johnson, 37-year-old ex-outfielder Jason Lane, and 30-year-old outfielder (and former Sports Illustrated cover boy) Jeff Francouer. Johnson made major league mound appearances in for the Mets in 2012 and the Cardinals in 2013 and is currently working on a full-blown conversion, though he's been slowed by forearm soreness. Lane, who spent parts of six years in the majors, is a starter at Triple-A El Paso, while Francoeur, in addition to serving as El Paso's regular rightfielder, has four scoreless appearances totaling 3 1/3 innings in relief. Perhaps Butera will be the next former hitter to follow in their path.