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Billy Butler’s “Ownage” of Justin Verlander


September 24, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) pitches to Kansas City Royals designated hitter Billy Butler (16) at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot of talk yesterday, after Billy Butler went 2-3 with a walk in the first game of the doubleheader, of how the Kansas City Royals’ designated hitter “owns” Justin Verlander.

The numbers seem to support this. In their careers against each other (71 plate appearances), Butler has certainly gotten the better of Verlander with a slash line of .435/.507/.597. But is this necessarily predictive for future batter-pitcher matchups? I don’t think so. A lot of the heavy damage in this particular matchup was served up early in Verlander’s career. Since 2010, however, Bulter has only recorded one extra base hit against Justin, and that was a double that came all the way back in 2010.

Let’s set aside the impressive-looking .444/.545/.472 slash line over this period (44 PA), and look at a few other peripherals. Since 2010 Butler has struck out more vs. Verlander (16%) than he has against the rest of the league (14%), and he’s hit for significantly less power (.028 ISO) than his overall line (.166 ISO). Those numbers aren’t commensurate with a batter who supposedly “owns” a particular pitcher.

Butler’s 1.018 BABIP over this range is still significant, but it’s inflated by a rather ridiculous .552 BABIP. Now BABIP is of course not all luck — especially for hitters — but even if the BABIP was a still-incredibly-high .400, Butler’s OPS would fall below .800. I usually consider the upper bound for hitter BABIP skill to be around .365. That’s basically what Miguel Cabrera has put up this year, and it’s what some of the better hitters in the game can maintain over a stretch of a few years. If we adjust Butler’s BABIP vs. Verlander in the last four years to .365, his matchup OPS falls to .744. That’s certainly not a bad line, but it’s not an ownage line.

I think, in their future matchups, that Bulter will hit for a little bit more power but a lot less average. I think his OPS will lane between .750 and .800 — pretty much be exactly what we would expect given their respective career lines. Batter-pitcher history is interesting to look at, but it’s rarely predictive of future matchups, even when the history covers more than 71 plate appearances. I’m willing to bet that his will be the case going forward with Butler and Verlander.