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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