Joey Butler‘s story with the Tampa Bay Rays is over, at least for now. The 29 year old entered 2015 with a grand total of 15 major league plate appearances under his belt and had finished the previous year with a stint in Japan. But could he really complain? He had been a 15th round draft pick by the Texas Rangers in 2008 as a senior sign out of the University of New Orleans. Not once had he been ranked as a top prospect in the Rangers organization. Nonetheless, he had cracked the majors in two different seasons, coming away with 4 hits, 2 doubles, and a run batted in.
Then injuries brought Butler to the major leagues with the Rays this season after a strong stint with the Triple-A Durham Bulls, and he found a taste of perfection. For 164 plate appearances, he was the Rays’ best hitter, delivering a slash line of .338/.378/.519 with 10 doubles, 6 homers, and 20 RBI in 44 games. He emerged as the Rays’ number two hitter in their lineup against both lefties and righties as he both sprayed the ball around the field and delivered legitimate power. The Rays’ lineup needed a savior, and Butler was exactly that.
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However, before we knew it, the fairy dust was gone. In that torrid stretch, Butler struck out 42 times against 7 walks, and analytically-minded fans knew that his collapse was around the corner. It is just about impossible to survive in the major leagues while striking out in over a quarter of your plate appearances and barely walking at all. Butler was a great story, so we all wanted to root for him and believe that when the league adjusted to him, he could adapt. Butler did show improved plate discipline in his last 82 PA’s, walking 9 times against 29 strikeouts. But his line slipped to .151/.244/.178 in that span, and now he is back at Triple-A.
Now Grady Sizemore has filled Joey Butler’s shoes, but the story has fundamental difference–Sizemore used to be one of the best players in baseball. From 2005 to 2008, Sizemore hit to a .281/.372/.496 line with an average of 41 doubles, 27 homers, 81 RBI, and 29 stolen bases per season. He was an All-Star three times, earned two Gold Gloves in centerfield, and finished in the top-12 in the AL MVP voting three times. According to Baseball-Reference WAR, he was the best position player in baseball in 2006. He was one of baseball’s rising young stars.
Then Sizemore dealt with elbow injuries in 2009 and was held to 106 games. He required microfracture surgery in his knee in 2010 before sports hernia and knee problems sidelined him in 2011. Up next was back surgery and another knee surgery, and suddenly Sizemore had missed two full seasons. He showed enough to sign with the Boston Red Sox as a free agent for 2014, but he was released in June after poor play. He signed with the Phllies shortly thereafter and played better the rest of the season, earning a one-year extension. But when June came around the following year, Sizemore wasn’t performing and was let go again.
When Sizemore signed with the Tampa Bay Rays, fans could not have expected much. After how poorly he had played in Boston and Philadelphia, it looked like he could be no more than minor league depth. Instead, there were more injuries and Sizemore spent nearly a month with the Rays. He had his moments, drilling a home run against his former team, the Indians, to break up a no-hitter, but he hit to just a .235/.245/.392 line overall with 13 strikeouts against 1 walk, and that wasn’t good enough to stick around. He was sent down to Triple-A Durham.
As it turned out, Sizemore’s Butler-esque story just took a little while to get going. Since returning to the Rays on August 1st, Sizemore has a .267/.290/.733 line with 2 doubles, 4 homers, and 6 RBI in 31 plate appearances. His power has been prolific, a throwback to his Indians days, and has been critical to the Rays’ 7-3 record in August. Sizemore’s formula has been different than Butler’s–a lot more power but little finesse and no semblance of on-base skills–but the result has been the same, another middle-aged outfielder in baseball years coming out of nowhere to give the Rays a lift out of the number two spot in their lineup.
No surprise, Sizemore’s strikeout to walk ratio with the Rays this season is 19-2, including 6-1 even in this recent hot streak. A player who drew 101 walks in 2007 and 98 more in 2008, Sizemore no longer has the bat speed to be patient. His power remains present, and the Rays’ new approach of being aggressive early in the count has served him well. But can we possibly expect this to last? Won’t teams throw him more breaking pitches and fastballs out of the zone to send him right back down to earth?
The way the world works is that most players like Joey Butler and Grady Sizemore fail. It is awfully difficult to be a successfully major league baseball player, and the same flaws that prevented guys like Butler and Sizemore from being successful in recent years inevitably get exposed. The odds are a million to one that a story the slightest bit like The Natural is playing itself out in front of our eyes.
But there is something to be said about having the talent to have even one stretch of strong play in the majors. Butler will be able to tell his kids about those few precious weeks while Sizemore will have the story about his last hurrah after injuries had derailed him. The Rays needed all the help they could get, and Butler and Sizemore were able to provide some. And if Butler could last 164 plate appearances, maybe Sizemore has a few more good weeks left in him and that could make all the difference for the Rays. It would be improbable for Sizemore to keep succeeding for that long, but it was unlikely enough that he reached this point at all.