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Athletics' deal for ex-Royal Billy Butler is true headscratcher

Oakland's first move of the offseason is an odd one, with the A's giving former Royals designated hitter Billy Butler a three-year deal.

The Oakland Athletics made their first big move of the offseason, coming to terms with longtime Kansas City Royals designated hitter and first baseman Billy Butler on a three-year, $30 million contract. The deal suggests that the A's expect the 28-year-old righthander to rebound from what was arguably his worst major league season. Unfortunately for Oakland, there's very little to be found in Butler's recent performance to suggest a reversal of what has been two consecutive seasons of sharp decline at the plate.

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The final impression Butler left this season was a positive one thanks to the Royals' pennant drive and the handful of big hits that Butler got along the way, including driving in their first postseason run since 1985 in the Wild-Card Game against Oakland, as well as an RBI double amid Kansas City's seven-run second inning in Game 6 of the World Series. On the postseason as a whole, however, he hit just .262/.327/.333, which was not that far removed from his regular season line of .271/.323/.379. Butler hit career lows in all three slash stats in 2014 for a performance that translated to a 95 OPS+; even after correcting for the offense-suppressing Kauffman Stadium, Butler's production this past season was five percent below league average.

That might not be a disaster for a player who contributes in other ways, but Butler, who is a doughy 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, is a detriment outside of the batter's box. A liability even at first base, where he has started just 73 games over the last four years, Butler is also a comically slow runner, one who took the extra base in just ten percent of his opportunities in 2014 for a Royals team that was very aggressive on the base paths. Even Butler thought it was hilarious when he stole his first base in two years and the sixth of his career against the Angels in the Division Series (the Angels weren't holding him on).

All of Butler's value is in his bat, and that value has been eroding since he reached career highs in home runs, slugging, and OPS+ in 2012, batting .313/.373/.510 (138 OPS+) with 29 homers and 107 RBI, resulting in his only All-Star selection and Silver Slugger. Most of his decline has come in the power department, with Butler's homer output shrinking to just nine round-trippers in the regular and postseasons combined in 2014. Here's a quick look at the sharp decline in his power over the past two regular seasons (ISO is isolated slugging, slugging percentage minus batting average):

















Note that his 2014 numbers would be even worse if I factored in his 49 homerless at-bats in the postseason.

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One apparent explanation for Butler's declining power in 2013 appeared to be an increase in ground balls. He posted a career-high 1.14 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio that season, but that trend corrected itself a bit in 2014 (1.05 GB/FB, still the second-worst of his career, but not as extreme) without a corresponding correction in his power numbers. Unfortunately, the arrest of his climbing groundball rate (from 0.84 in 2011, to 0.92 in 2012, to 1.14 in 2013) is the only positive indicator that can be found in his 2014.

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Yes, Butler did perk up a bit in the second half, hitting .321/.351/.557 with six of his nine home runs in a 28-game span from July 25 to Aug. 24. But he followed that 111 plate-appearance spike by going homerless in his final 136 PA through the end of the regular season and the postseason, posting a combined .248/.316/.314 line after Aug. 24. That line corresponds much better to the .264/.319/.343 line he brought into July 25 than the small-sample success he had over the following month. On top of all of that, Butler walked less often in 2014 than in any other year of his major league career and posted his second-highest strikeout rate.

Almost every indicator you can find for Butler is a negative one. He hasn't even had any notable success in Oakland's Coliseum over his career, hitting a pedestrian .252/.354/.405 in 130 plate appearances in what is another offense-suppressing ballpark. Unless someone on the Athletics' coaching staff thinks they detected something in Butler's swing or approach that they believe to be an easy fix, it's difficult to figure out just why the A's thought he was worth $10 million a year on a team that will also have Brandon Moss, who is coming off hip surgery, in need of DH at-bats at least early on in 2015.

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Perhaps the A's have a higher opinion of Butler's defense at first base, or simply don't mind that he's a DH wearing a mitt out there. Butler's hot month this past season did coincide with the time he spent replacing Eric Hosmer at first base when Hosmer was out with a fractured hand, and Butler's splits are better when he plays the field, though there's often selection bias involved in such splits (age and health issues often push a hitter to DH). Butler also hit lefties pretty well this past season and would appear to hold at least some value as a platoon option in partnership with the left-handed Moss and Stephen Vogt, who finished 2014 as Oakland's primary first baseman. Still, $10 million a year is an awful lot to pay for the short-side of a platoon, particularly with a three-year commitment, even if Butler will be just 31 in his final season under his new contract.

Overall, it's not clear that adding Butler makes the A's a better team. Given that their success has been in part the result of Bob Melvin's ability to maximize his lineups by shifting even the likes of Moss and Vogt around the diamond, a declining hitter who can only play one position poorly is a poor fit. Of course, that would be true for just about any team, which is why the Royals are fortunate the A's prevented them from re-signing their former first-round pick, who despite his recent decline, was beloved in Kansas City.