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“He’s big, strong and fast”: Why Lawrence Butler will be worth watching with A’s

“He’s big, strong and fast”: Why Lawrence Butler will be worth watching with A’s

OAKLAND – At a glance, Lawrence Butler’s first full year with the A’s has been merely okay.

Butler delivered his first career walk-off on April 12, launching a 445-foot home run that same night, but through 30 games, he’s hitting .185 with a .599 OPS. Dig deeper, though, and Butler’s tantalizing potential becomes clear.

He’s smashing the ball. He’s displaying more patience. He’s playing fantastic defense. He’s, in short, flashing glimpses of being a foundational piece.

“I envision him being extremely successful,” Darren Bush, Oakland’s bench coach and director of hitting, said. “He’s big, strong and fast. When you have that combination and you’re willing to listen and you’re willing to learn and you’re willing to take information in and use it, you’re going to have a good chance of being successful.”

The underlying number that immediately jumps out is his average exit velocity of 94.4 mph. Entering Friday, that places him in the 97th percentile, tying him with Shohei Ohtani and placing him just below Aaron Judge (94.6 mph) and Matt Olson (94.7 mph). It’s not just the exit velocity, either. Just about all of Butler’s underlying numbers have jumped from ‘23 to ‘24 thus far:

  • Hard-Hit%: 37.1% to 52.7%
  • xSLG: .419 to .469
  • Barrel%: 9.0% to 10.9%
  • xwOBA: .289 to .356
  • xBA: .232 to .256

“He’s controlling himself more,” Bush said. “He’s not wild in the box. He’s getting to a good hitting position. He’s staying behind the ball. He’s controlling his head. He’s doing the things that you need to do to be accurate. The exit velocity is just a byproduct.”

Regarding the contrast between Butler’s actual and expected stats, some bad luck might be at play. This season, Butler’s BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, is .245. The league-average BABIP, by contrast, is typically around .300. Labeling someone as unlucky is never as simple as having a below-average BABIP, but several plays illustrate Butler’s early misfortune.

(All videos are courtesy of Baseball Savant)

On April 16, center fielder Victor Scott II made a diving catch to track down Butler’s 108.4 mph line drive.

 

On April 19, Tyler Freeman made an incredible leaping catch, turning extra bases into a 106.4 mph line out.

On April 1, Butler was robbed of a hit on a 107.0 mph ground ball by Enmanuel Valdez, who made a diving stop.

“These defenders are the best in the world at defending their position,” Butler said. “All you can control is hitting the ball hard and swinging at strikes. It helps me mentally. Even though I’m not getting the results I want, I’m doing everything I can to the best of my ability to control what I can control. Baseball is a game of averages, so I feel like everything will even out in the end.”

On the subject of swinging at strikes, Butler has been particularly picky this year. After swinging at 47.8% of the pitches he saw in 2023, Butler is only swinging at 43.0% of pitches in 2024. With more selectivity, Butler’s walk rate has leaped from 3.1% in ‘23 to 12.9% in ‘24, a mark that ranks in the 84th percentile.

Butler attributes the improved discipline to an expanded mental database. Butler’s brief time with Oakland last year allowed him to experience major-league velocity and spin. During the offseason, Butler utilized a Spinball machine while working with Rays’ prospect Chandler Simpson at Georgia Tech, cranking the settings up so they could see “wicked pitches” to give Butler a better idea of movement profiles.

“You’re just trying to figure out what they’re trying to do to you,” Butler said. “They’re trying to get you to swing at balls; you just have to take them. Sometimes, you want a hit very badly, but you have to accept that you can draw a walk and get on base and help the team in other ways than hitting the ball.”

Added Bush: “His pitch selection has become outstanding. He’s not trying to do too much. He’s just taking what they’re giving him.”

For the pop and patience, Butler’s contact rate is worth monitoring. If he qualified, Butler’s Contact% of 67.7% would be the 10th-worst mark in the league coming into Friday. His Z-Contact%, or the contact rate of pitches in the strike zone, is 75.0%, which would be the fourth-worst mark if he qualified. Due in part to those struggles, Butler is striking out more than a quarter of the time (28.0%).

Time will tell how Butler’s first full season unfolds, but with a combination of power, patience and range — his two Outs Above Average lead all right fielders in baseball — Butler has the foundation of a lengthy career.

“The one thing I would say about Lawrence right now is he’s putting himself in the best position to have success,” Bush said. “As long as he continues to do that and recognizes that’s all he needs to do, he’s going to be successful.”

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