Justin Verlander’s Billy Butler Problem

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It’s become so predictable that it’s something of a running joke among Tigers fans and followers: Justin Verlander can’t get Billy Butler out. He just can’t do it. Every time Verlander faces the Royals, we accept it as a forgone conclusion that Butler will reach base at least twice against the Tigers’ star pitcher.

To open, Verlander is an excellent starting pitcher despite a somewhat down season, posting an MLB best 31.9 WAR (what’s WAR?) since the start of 2009. In the same period, he has a 3.04 ERA and 3.00 FIP in 161 starts. Even if he’s handed his title of best pitcher alive over to Clayton Kershaw, no one can argue that across the last several seasons, Verlander has been one of baseball’s best.

Butler isn’t a bad hitter, so it’s not like JV is getting owned by some scrub, AAAA player, but it’s not like Verlander routinely has trouble with the game’s best hitters. Butler’s ownership of Verlander is unique to Butler and not to good hitters. Since 2009, Butler has turned in a very impressive 128 wRC+ (what’s wRC+?), good for 34th among qualifying hitters. He’s mostly a DH and this post is about hitting, so we really don’t care about anything else Butler does.

Since 2007, Verlander and Butler have squared off quite a few times thanks to intradivisional play at things don’t look good for Verlander at all. In 71 PA, Butler is hitting a robust .435/.507/.597, good for a 1.104 OPS. To give you an idea, Miguel Cabrera currently has a 1.141 OPS. When you put Butler in front of Verlander, Butler turns into the best hitter in the league. That’s hilarious and strange.

Here are all 71 PA. Scroll down to get a sense of what we’re dealing with:

PA Play Description
1 Double to RF (Ground Ball)
2 Lineout: 1B (2B-1B)
3 Single to CF (Line Drive)
4 Single to CF (Line Drive to Short CF); DeJesus Scores
5 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak SS)
6 Walk
7 Home Run (Line Drive to Deep LF)
8 Flyball: LF
9 Lineout: CF (Deep CF)
10 Lineout: RF (Deep RF)
11 Single to LF (Ground Ball thru Weak 3B); Gordon to 2B
12 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
13 Single to RF (Line Drive to CF-RF)
14 Flyball: LF (LF-CF)
15 Lineout: 3B (Weak 3B)
16 Groundout: 2B-1B
17 Flyball: CF
18 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF-CF); Guillen to 2B
19 Flyball: LF (Deep LF-CF)
20 Single to CF (Line Drive)
21 Flyball: RF (Deep CF-RF)
22 Double to RF (Line Drive to RF Line)
23 Flyball: LF (Deep LF)
24 Home Run (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
25 Strikeout Swinging
26 Double to RF (Line Drive to Deep RF Line)
27 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak SS); Maier to 2B
28 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B)
29 Groundout: SS-1B (Weak SS)
30 Single to RF (Line Drive); Getz Scores; DeJesus Scores; Podsednik to 3B
31 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
32 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B)
33 Double to LF (Ground Ball)
34 Walk
35 Groundout: SS-1B (Weak SS)
36 Walk
37 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF-CF)
38 Flyball: CF (Deep CF)
39 Strikeout Looking
40 Strikeout Looking
41 Flyball: CF (Deep CF-RF)
42 Groundout: P-1B (Front of Home)
43 Single to RF (Fly Ball to Deep 1B); Gordon Scores; Hosmer to 2B
44 Groundout: 2B-1B
45 Flyball: RF (Deep RF Line)
46 Single to LF (Line Drive)
47 Strikeout Swinging
48 Groundout: 3B-1B (Weak 3B); Gordon to 2B
49 Hit By Pitch; Gordon to 2B
50 Strikeout Looking
51 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Gordon Scores
52 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Gordon Scores
53 Strikeout Swinging
54 Intentional Walk
55 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF Line)
56 Strikeout Swinging
57 Single to LF (Ground Ball thru Weak SS)
58 Single to CF (Ground Ball thru SS-2B); Escobar Scores
59 Walk
60 Single to RF (Line Drive to Short RF); Escobar Scores
61 Single to LF (Line Drive to LF Line)
62 Single to SS (Ground Ball)
63 Walk
64 Strikeout Swinging
65 Single to LF (Line Drive to Short LF-CF); Gordon to 3B
66 Walk
67 Groundout: 3B unassisted/Forceout at 3B; Hosmer to 2B
68 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
69 Lineout: RF (Deep RF)
70 Single to LF (Line Drive to Deep LF-CF)
71 Walk

By my count, Verlander retired Butler in more than 3 consecutive plate appearances just one time out of 71. We’re talking about a pitcher who, over the last 5 seasons, typically allows less than three out of every ten hitters he faces to reach. Since 2009, he’s allowed a .225/.281/.345 batting line. Butler has a higher batting average against Verlander than the rest of the league does slugging percentage.  Even if we go all the back to Verlander and Butler’s first meeting in 2007, Verlander’s line against is .230/.293/.351. If we include his poor 2008 season, it’s still great. MLB hitters get on base less than 30% of the time against JV and slug around .350. Butler gets on base 50% of the time and slugs about .600.

He owns Verlander. It has to be something about Butler’s approach that allows him to get to JV. Verlander puts most hitters away pretty easily, but not Butler. What does Butler do that most hitters don’t?

Since the start of 2012, they’ve met 29 times and Butler has reached base in 18 of those PA, good for a Bondsian .620 OBP. You might say small sample size, but the pattern has held across 71 PA for the most part and I don’t want to overload the analysis. What you see in the data is that Butler lays off Verlander’s stuff outside and looks to swing at pitches on the inside part of the plate:



And you’ll also see evidence of this in the spray chart:


Butler ignores most pitches unless they are inside fastballs and when he gets one, he pulls it to left for a hit. The pattern is the same dating back to 2008 (when Pitch F/X data became available), but it’s a less clear visual. In fact, Verlander throws Butler fastballs about 60% of the time overall despite obvious evidence that Butler can handle it. Verlander has relied less on his fastball as he’s matured overall, but he still seems to be throwing it a lot to Butler and Butler doesn’t mind.

Everyone seems to have their Kryptonite  and Verlander’s just happens to be the Royals’ DH. He can’t seem to get him out. It’s not getting better, it’s not influenced by a cluster of data points, and it doesn’t seem like something that will get better. Butler knows Verlander’s plan and Verlander hasn’t adapted despite lots of evidence that his current mindset isn’t working.

Luckily for Tigers’ fans, Butler only shows up in the other box for 18 games a season and Verlander can’t pitch in more than six of those games because when Butler steps into the box, Verlander doesn’t seen Billy Butler, he sees Miguel Cabrera. And that’s a terrifying sight.


2 responses

  1. Nicely done. Funny how some batters “see” a pitcher better than others.

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