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July 3, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Brett Butler


If you put a gun to my head and asked me if I thought Brett Butler deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, I’d have to admit that he probably falls a bit short.

He never finished above seventh in MVP voting, he made only one All-Star team and was never really regarded as the best at his position at any point in his career. Shoot, he only made a measly $23.8M in his career that spanned the ‘80s and most of the ‘90s.

But he was great, he was unique and he was truly inspirational for at least one aspiring Major League baseball player.

I’ve only written fan mail to two people in my life. One was to John Glenn, the astronaut-turned-U.S. Senator whose journey on the Friendship 7 was depicted in the movie “The Right Stuff”. I was fascinated by the movie and specifically by the scene that included “fireflies” floating in outer space outside of Glenn’s shuttle. I wrote Mr. Glenn to ask about the fireflies and a couple of weeks later received a response in the form of a pamphlet full of information on space camp.  Bummer. I had too much baseball to play to go away to space camp.

The other letter was to Brett Butler.

It wasn’t a typical piece of fan mail, where the kid (or more often, the adult) includes a baseball card and a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) and asks for a signature. Mine was admiring, but also inquisitive. Because I so wanted to be him, I asked him what he ran the 60-yard dash in! I was twelve years old, obsessed with baseball (still am) and like so many other Little Leaguers, my goal was to one day play professionally. I knew my only chance at playing in college and beyond was to be a speedy outfielder. A short, left-handed one, at that (thank you, 5’6” dad and southpaw mom).

So I’d consult my favorite books, Total Baseball, The Baseball Encyclopedia and The Complete Handbook of Baseball, to see if there was anyone out there who could give me hope. Lenny Dykstra, John Cangelosi, Darren Bragg were all possibilities at various points in my childhood.

Dykstra was a 5’10 lefty who played the game with reckless abandon, but there was something that just didn’t feel like that’s who I’d grow up to be- maybe it was the 19-homer season he was in the midst of, or the bag of chew he threw in his cheek every game.

Cangelosi was tiny, threw left-handed and played as hard as Dykstra. But in that pre-internet, pre-Baseball Tonight, pre-interleague era, I don’t think I ever got to see him play, for he was a National League (often bench) player and I only watched Boston Red Sox games.

Bragg, who would play for my Red Sox in the late ‘90s, was a fellow New Englander, but he threw right-handed and even he would pepper balls over the centerfield wall at Fenway during batting practice, something I couldn’t ever see myself doing (Pesky’s Pole, maybe).

But Brett Butler was the one.

He was 5’10”, skinny, and looked more biologist than baseball player. Playing alongside behemoth outfielders like Joe Carter, Kevin Mitchell and Darryl Strawberry, he excelled as the leadoff centerfielder for the Indians, Giants and Dodgers. Whether it was with speed, a keen eye or his unparalleled bunting ability, Butler found a way to produce for his teams and irritate opponents at the same time.

While his career stolen base percentage of 68.5% is just ordinary (slightly below average given today’s standards but slightly above the roughly 67% MLB SB success rate that encompassed Butler’s career from 1981-1997), Butler did rack up 558 steals, including eleven consecutive seasons with at least 30 and thirteen seasons in which he finished in the top ten in his league.  

Butler never won a Gold Glove, but at least part of that was due to the strange bias shown toward great hitters when awarding Gold Gloves. We all know that quantifying defense is a challenge, especially when measuring anyone who played in the 20th Century, but most major metrics consider him an above average defender. Bill James gave him a B+ in his Win Shares book, and Matt Souders’ Pythagorean Comparative Analysis (PCA) has Butler as one of the top 20 defensive centerfielders of all time. And if you like simpler statistics, Butler is seventh all-time in putouts by centerfielders and 13th among all outfielders.

So at the very least you can say he got some good usage out of his (lengthy) glove.

Those 558 stolen bases and 815 steal attempts didn’t happen by accident. Butler was an on-base machine. Seven times he finished in the top ten in his league in on-base percentage and eight times he finished in the top six in his league in walks. He ended his career with 1129 base on balls compared to only 907 strikeouts, and only twice did he fail to walk more than strike out in a full season.

Butler’s career slash line of .290/.377/.376 pretty accurately depicts who he was offensively: a guy with little power but one who could reach base via the single or the walk at an elite rate.  And his career WAR of 47.0 (182nd all-time) is due in large part to his ability to reach base.

Not many people can lay claim to being the best there ever was at something.

The greatest hitter of all-time is debatable- Babe Ruth? Ted Williams? Barry Bonds? The best President, too- George Washington? Abe Lincoln? FDR? Brett Butler, however, is the best bunter the game has ever seen.

Hands down.

In my eight seasons as a professional ballplayer, I’ve had several coaches teach me the art of bunting. None of them mentioned anyone other than Brett Butler. They’ve told me when he stepped into the batter’s box, the whole stadium knew he was bunting (including the other team’s corner infielders) and he still would lay one down safely. I mean, half of his baseball cards are of him bunting!

226 times Butler recorded a bunt base hit, 51 more than the next best, Kenny Lofton (with data only going back to 1959, unfortunately).  His single season record of 40 bunt hits is the .406/56 games/511 wins equivalent of small ball records. And you could argue that given his success rate of 51% on base hit bunt attempts, he should have bunted even more!

I never got a response from that piece of mail I sent Butler. I was a little disappointed, but soon realized that he probably got hundreds of letters and also probably hadn’t run the 60-yard dash in years. So I kept on admiring Brett Butler.

On the day I got drafted by the Chicago Cubs, I thought of Brett Butler. And again when I made my Major League debut in 2007. I was in a small class of people. Literally. Sharing a clubhouse with giants like Derrek Lee and Carlos Zambrano, I was now Brett Butler. I felt like I needed to thank him.

Three years later, I got that chance.

Playing as an Iowa Cub, we headed to Reno to play against the AAA affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks. Their manager? Brett Butler.  My manager was Ryne Sandberg, but I was far more star-struck with Butler than I was with Ryno.

Four games flew by, and with no natural opportunity to approach him, I let the series go by without telling my childhood idol how much he inspired me. I cursed myself the entire flight back to Des Moines. How hard was it to introduce myself and tell Butler how much he meant to me? My shyness had failed me.

Maybe someday I’ll run into him again. Maybe I’ll even play for him.

But in case I don’t, thank you, Brett Butler.


Sam Fuld studied economics at Stanford University and can sometimes be found moonlighting in the broadcast booth enlightening viewers and listeners alike with his extensive knowledge of advanced baseball metrics.  He can be found on Twitter at @samfuld5.

Oh, yeah…dude also happens to play a mean outfield for the Tampa Bay Rays.


Dick Allen Hall of Fame said...

Very cool!

Brett Butler will forever be remembered by me as the courageous guy who came back to play after having cancerous tumor the size of a plum removed from his throat.

100% badass

TNP777 said...

Sam, I gotta say it's pretty refreshing to see a current ballplayer pay homage to a guy that most fans probably didn't give much thought to during his career. However, I guarantee his teammates and adversaries were very much aware of how much he could change a game.

This was an awesome read. From one huge Brett Butler fan to another, thanks!

Geordie (a dude who has been known to collect a few Butler baseball cards and memorabilia items from time to time)

Scott T said...

I grew up in Brett Butler's hometown and went to the same church as his family. I met him a time or two and heard him speak at his mother's funeral. I have played softball with his brother and nephew. Our town, a good-sized Chicago suburb, does not produce much in the way of professional athletes, so I was prone to idolize Butler even before it was clear I'd always be the underdog on the ballfield.

Of course, I don't have even an ounce of the talent of Sam, let alone Brett. But I have always admired his perseverance through the years, his ability to maximize a skill set and his proper perspective on life.

I can say, with certainty, that if you grew up playing ball in Libertyville in the 1980s and 1990s, you were taught to bunt the right way — the Brett Butler way.

Thank you very much for writing this.