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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

Joey Butler and Lessons of Early Success

By definition, each new season of baseball brings optimism. And there are no better stories than those of unexpected early-season successes who defy the odds and make their name in the big leagues.

Some are able to sustain, while others return to obscurity almost as soon as they emerge.

The early April feats of 28-year-old rookie outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker are not only being highlighted by the media who cover the St. Louis Cardinals, but are now also being noticed by the national press. For example, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports wrote about the “long shot” on Wednesday.

I cannot help to think back to last season, when a player whom the Cardinals gave up on the year before found himself in the same unlikely spotlight as Hazelbaker today.

Joey Butler, also a veteran outfielder, had been picked up by the Cardinals off waivers from Texas during the 2013-2014 off-season. With the Rangers, the now-30 year-old had a tasted cup of coffee the prior season.

Opening with Triple-A Memphis in 2014, Butler was a one-man wrecking crew, posting a line of .360/.481/.547/1.028 that included 20 RBI in 31 games. That earned him the briefest of trials with St. Louis, where he went 0-for-5. Before May 2014 was out, Butler had secured his release to sign with Orix in Japan.

Last spring, Butler returned to the States, where he caught on with the Tampa Bay Rays, managed by a former Triple-A teammate, Kevin Cash. Injuries, including to starting outfielder Desmond Jennings, opened the playing time door for Butler.

Butler was nothing short of phenomenal for the Rays – for a while.

Through 27 games, Butler slashed .348/.376/.551/.927 with four home runs, earning him a 168 wRC+, as well as 0.9 WAR, reported DRaysBay. With that came an incredibly unsustainable .474 BABIP, however.

A few weeks later, in mid-June, John Sickels of Minor League Ball noted that Butler’s wRC+ of 152 exceeded that of the man would eventually be crowned unanimous NL Rookie of the Year, Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs (145).

By July, reality set in, however. Butler’s slash line for the month was .170/.291/.191/.482 and soon, he was back in Triple-A.

This past off-season, Butler was again placed on waivers, and was claimed once more – this time by Cleveland. After not making the Tribe out of spring training, he is currently playing with their Triple-A club in Columbus.

Do I know that Hazelbaker 2016 will become another Butler 2015?

Of course not. Yet, I am sure he will not continue to enjoy a 275 wRC+, the fruits of a .571 BABIP logged over his first seven games as a Major Leaguer. Pitchers will get the book on Hazelbaker, with his ongoing success hinging on how well he can adjust to the adjustments that will most assuredly be made against him.

For those who value projections, ZiPS has Hazelbaker down for a 2016 season line of .248/.298/.392/.690 with St. Louis, with his BABIP settling in at a still-robust .330. Steamer has him pegged at .243/.291/.379/.670, backed by a .314 BABIP.

I am sorry if appears that I am throwing a wet blanket on those who believe Hazelbaker can settle in as a significant Major League contributor on an ongoing basis. I join those who hope he can, but I am not expecting it.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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14 Responses to “Joey Butler and Lessons of Early Success”

  1. JumboShrimp says:

    A few years back you wrote an essay begging the Cards to shun Cuban SS Diaz, based on projections he would be a weak hitter. This goes with the territory of bold predictions, sometimes they turn out well, other times they do not. Predicting the future is intrinsically uncertain.

    Of course hot streaks cool, so Hazlebacks average will ease. .270 is more likely than .540, in the fullness of time.

    One advantage hazelback holds versus butler is he swings left. He enjoys more matchup advantages.

    A second advantage is speed. This enables him to cover all OF positions. I doubt butler would be suited to CF. Also a generally slow team like the birds is helped by adding a good runner. Thus Hazelbaker brings the attributes of speed, defense, and left swing that are not also enjoyed by mr. Butler.

    The Dodgers and Red Sox spend a lot of money on amateurs and were not invested in advancing Jeremy. Projections based on these organizations will be somewhat conservative, if the guy improves his swing, as he says he has.

    • Brian Walton says:

      There is a search box at the upper right of this page. Please use it and show us all the article where I “begged the Cards to shun” Diaz.

      I did express concern about his ability to hit at the MLB level based on comparable data. Since Diaz has just 15 at-bats so far, most reasonable people would agree that the jury remains out.

      As it turned out, his actual price was far more reasonable that the pre-signing estimates. Much less of a financial risk.

      P.S. I did the search myself and found this fun quote from a 2014 AP story about Diaz: “Within the organization, some have compared him to a young Derek Jeter.”

      • blingboy says:

        Here is another quote:

        “Other than a little more pop from Diaz, at a high level, the two look like the essentially the same player at the plate.”


        • Brian Walton says:

          Right. But the Kozma line was mine.

          Remember the buzz when Pete was called up in Sept 2012? He went 22-for-61 (.361) with two home runs and 14 RBI that month. That earned him the every-day job for 2013, when he went on to hit .217 for the season. Ouch!

          P.S. I see that Kozma has opened the Yankees phase of his career with a 1-for-18 start at Triple-A this season. Ouch!

      • JumboShrimp says:

        I was recalling your article of 21 February 2014 that used somebody’s idea of how to project Cuban statistics to major league equivalency. You implied Diaz was Kozma. The cards Were shelling out more signing bonus for Diaz than anyone in the history of the franchise. It seemed unwise to question this based on the highly uncertain evidence of converting Cuban numbers to the majors. Just because somebody generates such forecasts does not make them reliable. Based on the past year, it looks like the cards made a good gamble on Diaz.

        John vuch and scout Kerry Robinson are getting credit on Hazelbaker. Jeremy had a high 900s ops for Memphis last year. If he gets 300 at bats in the majors mostly against rhps, he should contribute constructively iduring 2016.

        In 1967, the cards were valuably helped to a wS flag by 29 year old rookie RHP Hughes. We like production from whoever contributes, regardless of race, religion, or age.

        • Brian Walton says:

          In other words, your assertion that I “begged the Cards to shun” Diaz is another figment of your imagination.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            In other words, you show consistency. You are still the same guy. You are motivated to doubt enthusiasm or personnel voices of the Cards, whether for Diaz or Jeremy. The type of evidence cited is also consistent, forecasting based upon Cuban or minor league data.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            Regardless of how intricately well written a story is, each reader will necessarily simplify in their memories to a short summary. We are hardly going to memorize all the words. This simplificationwill be universal, among readers.

            My take away memory was you objected to the cards pursuing Diaz by tarring him via linkage to Pete Kozma on the basis of public information, specifically a forecast of ml performance based on Cuban baseball. Since this was public information readily available to the cards, and since the largest signing bonus the cards had ever given out, in their history, I assumed they were well aware of this forecast, but had countervailing reasons to sign Diaz. I trusted to the professionals, mo and Matt slater, over a forecast, given how hard it would be to translate from Cuban ball all the way to MLB.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            For a couple of seasons, one of our extra outfielders was Shane Robinson. One year Shane had an ops of 664, while another year he achieved 665. These were his peaks.
            According to the two forecasts you cite above, Hazelbaker is forecast higher, 670 to 690. If Shane was acceptable, Jeremy should be more so.
            I suspect these forecasts are biased low, because they may include introductory weak performance at AAA plus the implausibility of advancement up the Dodgers ladder. If we factor that JH had a circa 980 ops at offensively stingy Memphis as his most recent state of play, a higher ops than 690 seems plausible. If the birds protect him from southpaws and give him moderate playing time matching up versus rhps, his ML performance could further increase.
            We tragically lost Oscar, then traded for Jason and lost him to the lures of a big market team. These loses open a niche on the roster that JH is suited to fill.

  2. blingboy says:

    Whatever the future holds with Diaz, there is no denying he has come in handy.

  3. JumboShrimp says:

    Joey Butler only got about six at bats for the Cards. We had more players than roster slots, so he did not get a chance with the Birds. Butler had to relocate to Tampa Bay to demonstrate he could hit ML pitchers. Good for him!

    Hazelbaker reminds me a bit of Daniel Nava. Nava played college ball at Santa Clara. He did not even get drafted. The Red Sox signed him after one season of independent league play. They brought nava up for a taste of the majors at age 27. Not powerful or fast, just a left swinging LF, who fit their roster at the time. In 2013 World Series, Nava had a couple of RBIs versus Cards. A journeyman, nava is now on the Angels.

    Another journeyman who helped beat the Birds was Travis Ishikawa who slugged an NLCS ending dinger off Wacha in 2014.

    If they get playing time, journeymen can help out their teams a lot. It’s nice the cards have one now helping them.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    Another reason fans like a helpful journeyman is he is not rich. Wainwright for instance is collecting $20million, but after the serious heel injury, is ineffective. It would be better for the cards if Adam pitched at AA, to try to rebuild his skills.

    Hazelbaker provides a refreshing contrast. He is making minimum MLB wage. Not another underperforming millionaire like so many others.

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