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What went wrong with Eddie Butler?

Not long ago, he was a consensus top-30 prospect. Now Eddie Butler has been designated for assignment by the Rockies.

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Colorado Rockies Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

With the popularity of top prospect lists proliferating the internet every offseason, it’s important to constantly remind oneself to temper expectations when dreaming on their futures. These lists are full of extremely talented young men who are attempting to succeed in playing an incredibly difficult game. Sometimes they become superstars, more often they turn into role players, but occasionally these prospects don’t pan out at all. One such case appears to be Rockies pitcher Eddie Butler, who, after just 159 13 innings in the majors has been designated for assignment.

If you are a prospect hound, you surely know his name. Butler was a consensus top-30 prospect on every single prominent ranking in 2014. Alongside Rockies pitcher Jon Gray, it appeared as if Colorado might finally have developed itself some homegrown pitching talent to complement its explosive offense.

Eddie Butler’s 2014 Prospect List Rankings

Publication Rank
Publication Rank
FanGraphs Top 100 #15
ESPN - Keith Law’s Top 100 #17
Minor League Ball Top 150 #19
Baseball America Top 100 #24 Top 100 #26
Baseball Prospectus Top 101 #26

ESPN’s Keith Law was bullish on his future:

With three pitches and the ability to keep the ball down, he's at least a No. 2 starter, and you couldn't find a better fit for Coors Field than this kind of power and life.

One season and 16 unimpressive major league innings later caused Butler to fall considerably on the 2015 prospect lists.

Eddie Butler’s 2015 Prospect List Rankings

Publication Rank
Publication Rank
ESPN - Keith Law’s Top 100 #33
FanGraphs Top 200 #42
Baseball Prospectus Top 101 #64
Minor League Ball Top 175 #88
Baseball America Top 100 n/a Top 100 n/a

The Baseball Prospectus staff explained why Butler dropped:

Stuff backed up in 2014 with slider often showing flat and change losing some bite and handle; inconsistent timing and release exacerbated inconsistencies tied to crossfire release and regularly birthed choppy secondaries and loosened command; shoulder issues and lagging physical maturation strengthen case for future fit in the bullpen.

Once he got some extended big league action in 2015, the faults that precipitated his fall in the rankings manifested in his performance. In 79 13 innings in 2015, Butler tallied a 5.90 ERA with a paltry 11.9 percent strikeout rate and an 11.4 walk rate. A nearly one-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio never bodes well for success. Along with that uninspiring figure, Butler’s advanced numbers showed that the 5.90 ERA was not just an unlucky, Coors Field-induced fluke. He posted a FIP of 5.89, a cFIP of 122, and a DRA of 6.20. Not ideal.

It was his first extended look in the bigs, in the most offense-friendly ballpark in baseball. No reason to panic and jump ship on his potential. In 2016, the Rockies decided to start Butler in AAA and quickly brought him up after four solid, if unspectacular starts.

All told, Butler would start nine games in the majors in 2016, be demoted back to AAA at the end of June, and come back up to appear in five games as a reliever at the end of the year. In a total of 64 big-league innings, he would earn a 7.17 ERA, 5.44 FIP, 110 cFIP, and 5.45 DRA. His strikeout rate jumped to 16 percent and he cut his walk rate to 7.2 percent, but neither improvement proved enough.

To make matters worse, his numbers in Triple A throughout both 2015 and 2016 were also terrible. We’re rightly told not to scout minor league stat lines, but top prospects do need to perform and show SOMETHING before anyone can believe they’ll make an impact at the next level. Take Jose De Leon, for example; despite the valid concerns about his durability and uninspiring fastball, he demolished the minor leagues with a dominant strikeout rate at every level. He is absolutely ready for his chance in the bigs.

There has been no such production from Butler. If he had demonstrated the ability to devastate his minor league competition, the Rockies may have DFA’d someone else and let Butler continue to grow. Unfortunately, the minor league numbers are underwhelming. In 157 13 innings at Triple A, Butler has accrued a 5.03 ERA and a lackluster 1.41 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Certainly it must be noted that these numbers were achieved in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, but the Rockies need their pitchers to perform in adverse environments. He’s given Colorado no reason to believe there’s more than what he’s shown to this point.

So what happened? Why has Butler been so terrible in the majors?

For starters, let’s take a look at the arsenal. Here’s what he was working with in 2016:

Eddie Butler 2016 Pitch Arsenal

Pitch Type Usage (pfx) Velocity (pfx) xMov (pfx) zMov (pfx) SwStr% HR/FB
Pitch Type Usage (pfx) Velocity (pfx) xMov (pfx) zMov (pfx) SwStr% HR/FB
Four-Seam Fastball 44.4% 93.1 -5.3 8.0 4.4% 24.0%
Two-Seam Fastball 15.1% 92,7 -7.7 5.4 14.3% 25.0%
Slider 26.0% 86,9 2.6 1.1 5.6% 20.0%
Curveball 7.7% 79.5 3.6 -3.2 8.4% 50.0%
Changeup 6.9% 87.7 -6.0 4.7 6.8% 25.0%

For the most part, the movement Butler sees on his pitches is around league average. His fastball has a little bit more run than most and doesn’t have top-tier rise, but all of his pitches move within an inch or so of league average.

The lone exception is the curveball; by the numbers the curveball is bad. Butler’s curve had an average horizontal break of just 3.6 inches, compared to the right-hander MLB average of 5.6; its vertical drop was just 3.2 inches, as opposed to the league average of 5.3. He had below-average spin on the pitch, at 2,540 rpm, while the RHP average was 2,996 rpm (when it comes to a curveball, spin translates to drop). Adding the curve’s below-average break and spin to Coors Field — a place where the altitude most affects breaking pitches — it’s a recipe for things like this:

That crushed home run from Neil Walker is just an anecdotal look at one single Butler curveball, but it’s obvious that it lacks movement. His curveball had an average vertical movement of -3.0 inches at home and -3.5 inches on the road; so while Coors may have had an effect, the pitch is still below average regardless of the ballpark.

In 2016, Butler allowed a 45.8 percent ground ball rate, which is just barely above the league average mark of 44.7 percent. Butler did manage to have a fly ball rate is five percentage points less than average, but it wouldnt be correct to call him a ground ball pitcher — the difference is made up in line drives, not ground balls.

It’s a good thing that Butler was slightly below average in fly ball rate, because the fly balls he gave up left the yard at an alarming rate. A 20.3 percent HR/FB ratio is disastrous, and while we can certainly place a little of the blame on Coors Field, Butler's exit velocity of 91.3 mph is well above the league average of 89.0 mph. There’s been nothing to suggest that exit velocity is affected by the altitude in Denver, as Coors Field was in the middle of the pack if you sort exit velocity by ballpark on Baseball Savant. Batters were just consistently able to square him up.

Eddie Butler’s legacy as a top prospect-turned-bust is not set in stone. After all, he’s only 25 years old, and having that top-100 prospect pedigree means he will almost certainly be claimed by another team. It would be foolish for some organization not to try and see if leaving Coors Field will help.

Butler will get another chance, but his time as a starter should probably be over. Whoever does pick him up would be best served by putting him in the bullpen and telling him to ditch the curveball. If that fastball can gain a couple of ticks in relief and he can maintain the league-average movement on the changeup and slider, it just might work. It may be a long shot, but hope is not lost.

. . .

Chris Anders is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.