Watching Ryan Braun tear through the National League this year, I couldn’t help but sit back and wonder how so many people could have overlooked such an obvious steal in the card market. Going into 2007, his Bowman Chrome autos were somewhere in the neighborhood of $30-40, a ridiculously low price for a player of Braun’s caliber. While most of the attention at the time was focused on Alex Gordon, Braun had already shown a propensity for the long ball, and even had a fantastic season in the Arizona League. His AB/HR ratios were very low, his ISOP was very high, his ability to make contact was established, he was playing for a team desperate for an offensive boost, and would be hitting ahead of Prince Fielder. Put it all together, and Braun was a prime prospect for a nice breakout rookie season. Of course, he put up some very unexpected numbers, but even if his numbers had been more conservative, he would have still been a great buy at the beginning of the season.
Though prices have dropped back down towards the lower $100’s, at one point this season thepit.com had a Braun Bowman Chrome auto card sale at $210, which I expect to be a regular trading price in another 6 months. Since I wasn’t back into cards at the time, I can’t say that I would have stocked up on Braun’s cards or not, but I hope I would have. That would have been a nice profit.
Anyways, going into 2008, the question on every collector’s mind is, “Who will it be this year?” We all have our short list of possible candidates, and one player that you might be considering is Billy Butler. I think he is certainly worth a look and I think his card prices are a good buy right now. But how good will he be next year, and what will that mean in terms of prices? Let’s take a look…
Butler’s 2007 major league debut wasn’t nearly the spectacular breakout year that some people had hoped for, and his card prices have slowly dropped down to about half of what they were at their peak. But if you look at what Butler actually did in his 365 PA’s, you’ll see some numbers that might be of interest:
To sum up his 2007 performance, at 21 years of age, Butler batted nearly .300, had 33 extra base hits, and maintained solid K and BB rates. If you extend his numbers to 600 PA’s and throw out his May and June numbers (Butler wasn’t given a full time position until the end of June, so I think for a most accurate projection we should overlook early adjustment periods during 2007) we’d end up with stats that looked something like this:
Those numbers would not have been spectacular, but for a 21 year old they would have been very respectable, especially if you take into account that Butler was playing for a team that did not have a single player hit over 20 HR’s, and he was hitting in a line-up that relied completely on David DeJesus, Alex Gordon and John Buck for run production. Even without adjusting his numbers, Butler led his team in OPS, Slugging and was 3rd on the team in terms of average. The one glaring weakness Butler has comes against right-handed pitchers, who held him to a stat line of .272/ .323/ .392/ .715, whereas he hit .340/ .404/ .577/ .981 against lefties.
Before I go much further, I want to point out one stat that says a lot to me:
Man on 3rd, >2 out
AVE OBP SLG OBP
.520 .533 .720 1.253
When I first saw that stat line, I tried to rationalize it by saying that everyone becomes a great hitter when the pitcher has to throw strikes. To support my theory, I went and looked through players from both leagues that ended the season as leaders in all the major hitting categories. Generally speaking, my theory was true, but Butler still ranked close to the top and consistently posted better numbers than most of the best hitters in baseball.
Player Man on 3rd, >2 out
Alex Rodriguez .452/ .500/ .742/ 1.242
David Ortiz .444/ .514/ .815/ 1.328
Chipper Jones .556/ .575/ 1.037/ 1.612
Prince Fielder .353/ .381/ .794/ 1.175
Albert Pujols .346/ .457/ .423/ .880
David Wright .559/ .569/ .853/ 1.422
The main purpose of pointing this out is to show that when a pitcher is forced to throw strikes to Butler, he’s very good. Unfortunately for Butler, most pitchers didn’t have to throw him strikes because there wasn’t anybody in the Royals line-up to protect him. I know that some people will argue that Alex Gordon was often hitting behind Butler and thus provided adequate protection, but to be perfectly honest, Gordon literally provided less protection than J.D. Drew. To really get into the gritty details, we’d also have to break down Butler’s ball vs strike counts per at-bat to see how often he’s seeing early strikes, how well he makes contact, and how many hits are line drives vs fly balls vs ground balls, etc. etc, but for the sake of this post we’ll keep things simple: When there’s something to hit, Butler can hit it, and he’ll hit it hard (not surprisingly, Butler had 3 of his 8 HRs come on 0-0 counts when the pitcher was trying to throw a strike to get ahead early – oddly enough, Butler rarely swings at the first pitch, as was noted by this article on firstinning.com http://firstinning.com/content/200705116).
Looking ahead to 2008, I don’t think that Butler will have a considerably better line-up around him, but it will be a more experienced line-up, and guys like Alex Gordon should provide pitchers with a few more reasons to throw to Butler (some may even argue that Gordon is going to be the guy to watch, but I won’t get into that argument right now). Without getting too optimistic, I think we’ll see Butler hit somewhere in the ballpark of .300/.400/.500 with 20-25 HRs and 100 RBIs. With those types of numbers and considering his age and existing hype surrounding him, I think his cards will rise back above the $100 level. If the Royals as a team can make some improvements (which I think they will) and Butler develops a little more power against righties (which I think he could) he may post even better numbers and approach 30 HRs. If you want a good comparison in terms of card prices, I think Ryan Zimmerman is very good base line comparable player. They both play for a less-than-popular team, and Butler will probably match or post better than Zimmerman’s stats for the next couple for years.
In the event that someone reads this and decides to drop a large sum of cash on Butler cards, do not under any circumstances unload all those prized cards at the end of ’08 if Butler doesn’t come through in a big way. I think Butler will be a consistent .300 hitter with 30 HRs by the time he reaches the age of 25 and by then his card prices will be well worth the wait. He most likely will not match Ryan Braun’s power numbers, and therefore will not see quite the price spike that Braun did, but he will definitely be a highly valued prospect and at the very worst his card prices will increase by 10-15%. Sure beats a savings bond, doesn’t it?