Billy Butler: Hall of Famer

Gritty & Clutch's J. Walter Fulbright headlines this post by describing Billy Butler as a Hall of Famer. As evidence, he presents Butler's doubles this season: 45 and counting. Which might seem like a terribly lot of doubles. But Brian Roberts (50) and Adam Lind (46) both have more, and Lind has also out-homered Butler (by quite a lot).
The difference is that Lind is 26 and Butler is 23. Maybe it's not a big difference, or maybe it is. Fulbright makes a list of players who were 23 or younger, and finds a bunch of guys who are in the Hall of Fame or came reasonably close. Hence, Butler's a future Hall of Famer.

One obvious problem with this analysis is that "23 or younger" includes (or might include) doubles-hitters who were actually 20, and there's at least as much difference between 20 and 23 as there is between 23 and 26. As it happens, Vada Pinson was 20 when he hit 47 doubles in 1959. A study ignoring 20-year-olds would actually knock Pinson out, which would actually make Butler look better since Pinson's not in the Hall of Fame. But you get my point. Here's the passage that really caught my eye, though:

    Butler is clearly the wrong player for the wrong time. He's built almost perfectly in the mold of the 1970s and 1980s line drive, high Batting average sluggers. The Tony Gwynns. The Robin Younts. Even the George Bretts. This is the ultimate testament to a franchise stuck completely in the past, in that their best player, their pride and joy, could be a three time MVP … if he played in Fulton County Stadium or the Houston Astrodome, wearing ugly horizontal stripes and an unflattering adjustable waistband. Their other potentially developing offensive star is more of the modern mold – walks, strikeouts, and homers … and Alex Gordon just got sent back to Triple A.

    This study has convinced me that Billy, unlike the discipline and power mold (the old player skills) has an ability set that passes the test of time. Even the worst comps mostly had very long careers. The power may come and then go again, like so many players, but while muscles fade in the 30s (those of us there can testify to this), the eyesight lasts until 45 or so. And that gives a player like Billy an awful lot of time to compile 3,000 hits. And there's still going to be enough aging sentimental sportswriters around that believe in the magic number, and they're going to give Billy the nod. Viva la Billy Butler. Hall of Fame class of 2032.

As somebody who's been watching the Royals for more than 30 years, I saw quite a lot of George Brett. I saw quite a lot of Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount, too. And I have to say that it's practically impossible to make a meaningful group of players that includes those three and Butler. Statistically or otherwise.
Brett was a wonderful hitter, a daring baserunner and (eventually) a fine, occasionally acrobatic third baseman. Tony Gwynn was a left-handed hitter who won eight batting titles but never hit more than 17 home runs in a season. Robin Yount won MVP Awards while playing shortstop and center field.

Have you seen Butler? The first time I saw Butler, he reminded me of one player, and one player only: Edgar Martinez. Both right-handed hitters, both built like squat tanks, both employing line-drive swings that figure to result in more doubles than home runs.

The comparison is far from perfect. Martinez regularly played third base into his late 20s, while Butler got moved off the position while still a teenager. Butler is a doubles machine at 23. When Edgar was 23 he was still in the minors, and didn't establish himself in the majors until he was 27. But before Billy Butler, I'd never seen one player who reminded me so much of another.

So is Butler a Hall of Famer? After all, Martinez has a pretty good case for the Coop, and Butler's got (roughly) a five-year head start on him.

Probably not, if only because so many bad things can happen between a slugger's 23rd birthday and that day on which he's piled up enough doubles and homers and RBIs to merit serious Hall of Fame consideration. Martinez did get a late start, but he was also still a devastating hitter when he was 40. If Butler is still a powerful force a dozen or so years from now, we can talk again.