Tuesday, August 17, 2010

OK, So I Might Not Hate Drew Butera

I've played a lot of organized baseball in my lifetime. From tee-ball up through high school, I was on a team every summer, and during my lengthy involvement with the game I forged a lot of great relationships and created a lot of amazing memories.

But there's one game that stands out above all others as the most memorable in my playing career. It wasn't the best game I've ever played or anything, but it's one that I'll always cherish and think back to as a transcendent moment.

Back in little league, when I was probably just entering my teens, I was playing in a park board league. Our group of guys had been playing together for several years, as had another team in our league called the SlugRats.

The SlugRats were widely reviled. They were the Yankees of park board ball -- they recruited talent and basically played the game with a repellent sense of arrogance. Their coach was a ruthless, scowling disciplinarian reminiscent of Viktor Tikhonov, coach of the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team. Their star pitcher was a "kid" who appeared to be at least five years older than anyone else in the league and whose blazing fastball tended to zip past hitters in the blink of an eye.

That ace pitcher happened to be toeing the rubber for one summer game in which my team was facing off against the SlugRats. The result of the game was nearly a foregone conclusion, for while my team was certainly one of the more talented in this league, we were routinely blown out by the mighty SlugRats (much like all other opponents).

But, on this particular day, our guys had the timing of that scorching fastball down. For whatever reason, I was all over it in particular. We won the game 5-4, and celebrated like we were hoisting a World Series trophy. I drove in four of our team's five runs on that day. You couldn't wipe the smile off my face with napalm.

Sure, the stat sheet would say that I had some hits and four RBI, but those numbers couldn't possibly encapsulate the feeling I had, born out of doing everything in my power to help my team win.

I think a lot of baseball bloggers and analysts played baseball at one point in our lives, but over time we forget about the special moments like that. The stats and numbers are important and they tell an unbiased tale of what has happened on the field, but they can sometimes overlook the smaller niceties of the game. And they can keep us from appreciating a kid like Drew Butera.

I wrote about Butera in late July, noting that his increased presence in the lineup was bound to become a drain on the team's offensive proficiency. Those feelings have not changed; in spite of the fact that he has posted a thoroughly competent .781 OPS in 27 plate appearances since I posted that article, Butera remains an enormous offensive liability. His overall hitting line this year (.208/.245/.333) is surely more reflective of his actual ability than his recent performance.

Yet, as I watched Butera gleefully slap hands with his teammate in the dugout this weekend after perfectly executing a suicide squeeze to help the Twins manufacture a crucial run, I came to a realization: I'm sort of starting to like the kid.

It's ironic, I know. I've been one of Butera's fiercest critics, and by no means does my softened stance indicate that I think he should be in the lineup any more often than he is now.

But one can't overlook Butera's contributions. Despite his relative lack of talent, he's played his ass off and managed to make Joe Mauer's limited availability over the past month a relative non-issue. That the Twins have gone 11-3 in the last 14 games started by Butera doesn't prove he's a lucky charm or a winner by nature, but it does indicate that he hasn't exactly been holding the club back.

Regardless of his recent performance at the plate, Butera is simply never going to be an asset offensively. And the stat-head inside me is still driven mad every time he's written into the starting lineup, essentially erasing the inherent American League advantage of a designated hitter.

But there's no denying that he's a strong defender at a crucial position, and while I don't necessarily believe that his presence behind the plate meaningfully improves any of the Twins pitchers, there's a clear comfort level there.

The fascination with pro athletes who appear to be "having fun" has been completely played out, run into the ground by John Madden's absurd infatuation with Brett Favre. But with Butera, I really can buy it. This is a kid who, based on his complete inability to hit in the minor leagues, might have never gotten a shot to play in the majors under different circumstances. But now he's playing and contributing on a team with playoff aspirations, helping fill the void left by an ailing MVP and Gold Glover. And he's having the time of his life.

How can I tell? Because the smile on his face as he sat in the dugout after pulling off that beautiful squeeze bunt (or after he guns down a base stealer, or hangs on to the ball during a vicious collision at the plate, or manages to muscle a ball over the fence) was the exact same one on my face after I helped lift my team to victory over the SlugRats so many years ago.

In the end, that's what this game is all about.


Beau said...

...or catching a Jim Thome homer and then hitting one of his own the next inning

Anonymous said...

He is a breath of fresh air and seems to be free and clear of ego or arrogance. I doubt he takes much for granted even though he is going to be the 2nd catcher for as far as anyone can see and deserving so. He's answered a lot of critics and something tells me this guy is going to come up huge in a big time spot this year. He's got that "gamer" quality. Good piece!
col. fletcher prouty

Ed Bast said...

I've got to admit, I've come around a little on Butera too, in that it doesn't make me terribly upset anymore when he's in the lineup. Sure, he's an awful hitter, but earlier in the year he looked like he was going to cry every time he came up to the plate; he seems to be past that now, at least.

But what I respect about him most is that unlike the club's other defensively sound/offensively inept player, Nick Punto, Butera understands and embraces his role. He understands he isn't a great hitter, so he works at bunting, situational hitting, etc. Whereas Punto is a terrible bunter, thinks he's a much better hitter than he is, is stupidly aggressive on the bases, swings out of his shoes when a sac fly is needed, etc. Punto is arrogantly oblivious to his role on the team; Butera embraces it and does whatever he can to help the team win. Might not be much, but unlike LNP he actually does do "all the little things" right.

Christopher said...

Love the little league analogy....as far as Butera, the guy seems to hold no illusions as to his role but is making the most of it and contributing. Not bad for a tag-along in the Castillo trade.

SoCalTwinsfan said...

There's no reason to dislike Butera. He gets the most out of his talent and he understands that this role that he's playing is the best he could ever have a shot at other than everyday catcher filling in for an injured starting catcher. Fans sometimes forget that it isn't the player's fault when he's being given a larger role than he should by his manager and that frustration sometimes turns into dislike for a player. Butera has to hustle and be smart and play great defense and with heart and energy, or he would never get out of A ball, let alone get to the major leagues.

Chris said...

Great article. I share your sentiments exactly. But I can't help but knowing that if we weren't pulling oh so slightly away (come on home sweep!), would I still be hearting him?

Ben said...

Beautiful piece --- thank you.

Anonymous said...

Butera is an asset to this team. Not a liability. Don't be blinded by the bad hitting line. The line of a team't #9 hitting catcher is not as important as his defense. Plain and simple. Butera is an average backup catcher all things considered. He has helped stabilize our rotation while letting Mauer rest without us losing ground due to the bat.

Part of this is luck. Of course. But you know what Gardy's #1 reason for success is his ability to create team chemistry and Butera is the type of guy that helps this. I mean, the team rallies behind this kid. Same with Thome. You pull together guys behind this type of player.

I'm probably overstating Butera's value. He's a backup catcher and probably will never be more. But I think he's a dang good backup catcher. Plus there isn't any reason his bat can't get better.

JimCrikket said...

Good piece, Nick.

People tend to forget just how GOOD a player has to be to even get a minor league shot, never mind some time in the Show. If you measure every catcher against Joe Mauer, there won't be many guys you consider worthy of playing time.

I believe Butera is responsible for Pavano giving up fewer successful stolen bases. He's also a hitter capable of taking advantage when a pitcher makes a mistake. And when a pitcher starts thinking "I can't walk a .200 hitter," he tends to make a few mistakes.

I liked Mike Redmond a lot. But there is no doubt that the Twins upgraded their back up catcher spot with Butera this season replacing "RedDog".

Nick N. said...

Punto is arrogantly oblivious to his role on the team; Butera embraces it and does whatever he can to help the team win.

I don't know if I hold the same animosity toward Punto (he works at-bats and takes walks, which is his biggest offensive strength), I would agree that Butera seems to really be embracing his limited role and doing everything he can to succeed in that role. It's refreshing.

I liked Mike Redmond a lot. But there is no doubt that the Twins upgraded their back up catcher spot with Butera this season replacing "RedDog".

Great point. While Butera doesn't give you much offensively, it's easy to forget that the Twins got by with a .237/.299/.289 line from Redmond last year, which is no worse than one might expect from Drew, and Butera's a better defender.

Bill said...

Nice piece. I kind of enjoy watching Butera too, for a lot of the same reasons. Seems like a great guy and all that. But he still just doesn't have any business on a big league roster. Just the facts (as I see 'em)...

Jackson Torse said...

Punto seems arrogantly ignorant to more than his role on the team. He's a horrible baserunner too. His blunder in game 3 of the a.l.d.s and his not understanding he had to score on a sacrfice fly before span tagging to 3rd was thrown out(this year vs. royals) were the two worst baserunning gaffes i've ever seen a major leaguer make.(span has potential to eclipse these)

He is what he is and that's a fantastic glove a 3 positions. He shouldn't start more than twice per week or he's a liability. I dont care how many walks he draws, he's a .248 hitter with absolutely no power. Gardy's really in a box now because he's going to have to sit a clearly better player to keep punto on the field.

Jackson Torse

Nick N. said...

Gardy's really in a box now because he's going to have to sit a clearly better player to keep punto on the field.

We'll see about that. I think it's going to be pretty tough for Gardenhire to sit Valencia with the way he's hitting.

me said...

i have a question for you. what do the twins do with butera in the playoffs? there are plenty of days off so mauer shouldn't need any rest days. the backup catcher will be there for emergency use only in case mauer gets hurt. and if your going to have a player just sitting on the bench wouldn't you rather have morales who showed last year that he is an effective pinch hitter?

butera has been pavano's personal catcher but in the playoff's you have to think mauer will be catching him.

Ed Bast said...

Jackson, I should have said Punto is arrogantly oblivious to both his role and his talents. He seems to think he is both blazingly fast and brilliantly intuitive when it comes to baserunning, neither of which is true.

In addition to the 2 horrific mistakes you mentioned (proof positive that he absolutely without a doubt does the little things very wrong), he had an equally baffling blunder vs. Baltimore this year where he went all the way to 2nd on a fly to left, took a few steps back toward 1st, then went a few steps past 2nd before getting doubled up at first. I can't possibly fathom what he was thinking, but it obviously wasn't anything in the realm of reality.

Sort of like his (excuse after the ALDS last year (I paraphrase): "I thought because of the crowd noise it was a hit, so I decided to run right through my base coach's stop sign." One of the most idiotic things I've ever heard in pro sports.

So yeah, thank you Drew Butera for showing us what it really means to be fundamentally solid.

Bryz said...

He is a breath of fresh air and seems to be free and clear of ego or arrogance.

Totally agree. I met him at TwinsFest and he was very friendly, and when he was done with his autograph session with the other minor leaguers, he was willing to take a picture with my girlfriend because she thought he was cute. Plus, I'll take his "good glove, no bat" over Jose Morales' "good bat, no glove."

Nick N. said...

and if your going to have a player just sitting on the bench wouldn't you rather have morales who showed last year that he is an effective pinch hitter?

The Twins will be able to carry more bench players in the playoffs (since you can get by with fewer pitchers thanks to all the days off), so they'll be able to carry Morales and Butera if they want to.

Anonymous said...

"The stats and numbers are important and they tell an unbiased tale of what has happened on the field"

Actually they don't. They NEVER include context. Particularly at any level of aggrigation.

You could list a box score for one of the teams with or without names, AND it would be a guess IF the team won or lost. Even with your line there is NO WAY to know IF you had a good or bad season or career.

You can list complete season team stats blind, and there is no way (other than lucky guess) what the actual record went with those stats.

Also, welcome to the real world. Players tend to be human, even some bloggers are human. Prescient insights, spectacular plays, and yes, mind numbing blunders on both sides.


David McGraw

Dignan said...

Great post, Nick. I agree completely. And, as for the comparisons/contrasts between Butera and Punto, I say that it's a lot easier to "appreciate the scrappy underdog" when he's only starting once or twice a week versus five or six times (not to mention, as with Punto often times last year, batting 2nd in the line-up).

Anonymous said...

Any comparison with Tim Laudner?

tmeyer said...

Nick I am so happy with the way you wrote this. These playoff races, that SABRmetrics and statistical stuff are a huge part of what make baseball great, but at the end of the day there's an unquantifiable spirit of happiness in the game that truly makes it great. You just put a large smile on my face Nick...great job.