Preaching patience, Butler eyes bigger leadership role
Royals designated hitter aims for more productive season after hard-luck 2013
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The way Billy Butler remembers his 2013 season, every time he hit the ball hard, the dog-gone thing went right at somebody.
"You have years like that. There are nine guys out there," he said.
Well, not everything that Butler hit got caught. After all, he did have a .289 average with 27 doubles, 15 home runs and 82 RBIs -- numbers most guys would be eager to emulate. But they were un-Butler-like. In his previous four seasons, Butler had averaged .306, 43 doubles, 20 homers and 93 RBIs.
"He's right in that upper level of right-handed hitters," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "Your whole goal and focus when you get in the box is to hit the ball hard somewhere. You can't guide it. And he hits the ball hard."
And, in 2013, right at people a lot of the time. So what can you do about that?
"You've just got to keep refining your game, stay with your approach and refine it if you need to, and just keep hitting it hard and it'll find holes," Butler said.
"Some years you'll get more breaks than others. There are nine guys out there trying to get you out every time. The hardest hits sometimes are outs. Next thing you know, there's a little ball over the first baseman's head or the third baseman's head -- just over the infielder and just in front of the outfielder -- and that's the difference in a game sometimes. It's all about placement; all you can have is a good approach, that's all you can have."
Butler, a designated hitter who studies his craft as hard as he drives the ball, is spending these early days of Spring Training searching for that good approach. What's involved in that?
"Just staying behind the ball more, you just create a bat path that stays in the strike zone more to where if your timing's off a little bit you can still make solid contact. Let the ball travel as much as you can," he said. "The deeper the ball gets, the longer you can stay through it, and that's the hardest thing in Spring Training -- the ability to start trusting your hands. It's hard to go up there and hit 95 [mph] and just say trust it. It takes practice to get right into it. That's the reason we have Spring Training, that's why we don't come right out of the gates ready for the start of the season."
Until the Royals get into intrasquad games on Tuesday and Wednesday prior to Thursday's Cactus League opener against the Rangers, they're taking regular batting practice and also live batting practice against the pitching staff.
"You've got to start seeing it out of the hand, that's the big thing -- pitch recognition. That's what we're trying to get down right now," Butler said. "Where we start recognizing the difference between fastball, changeup, offspeed. Seeing it out of the hand, that's hard."
Even in the early games of Spring Training, in his view, the hitters aren't close to being ready. That's why there's an entire month of games before the first regular-season game at Detroit.
"It takes time, it really does. All of a sudden one day you've seen enough pitches and you start feeling comfortable," he said. "You just want to get to that level once Opening Day starts."
This year Butler figures to bat fourth, behind Eric Hosmer and ahead of Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez, with only the occasional break, such as when the Royals are without a DH in Interleague Play. Last year, Butler was in all 162 games, starting 157 (including seven at first base).
A few days ago, former team captain and current special assistant Mike Sweeney encouraged Butler to take a more forceful leadership role.
"I'm in the middle of the lineup and everybody's looking toward me and Alex to lead them -- that's on and off the field, that's in the clubhouse and everything," Butler said.
"I'm just now at 27 years old still figuring out [that] you're never going figure out the game but just understanding how things go, just caring for the guy next to you more than you care about yourself ... that's what it's all about, wanting the guy next to you to succeed because that's good for the team. That's good for everybody. It just makes the organization better. That's just what the organization expects out of guys like me that have been here a while and have had success -- just give life to everybody and give them energy."
Butler believes what he's learned on the home front, where he and Katie are raising daughters Kenley, 5, and Karsyn, 1, will be helpful.
"The biggest attribute to a leader is patience," he said. "I've got two girls at home, so I know patience."
Now if Butler can just be patient enough, perhaps those hard-hit balls will start finding holes again this year.
"In 2012, everything was going right," he said.
That was the season he pounded a career-high 29 home runs.
"They can't catch those," Butler said.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.