Billy Butler and the best young hitters in baseball

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Zack Greinke has obviously been the big story for the Royals this year, but Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star notes
that Billy Butler is at least giving fans a second reason for optimism
while the team tries to avoid losing 90-plus games for the eighth time
in a dozen seasons:

Billy Butler, barely 23 years old, is showing some real signs of
turning into the first legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter the Royals
have developed since, what, Sweeney? Four hits yesterday, including two
doubles, raised his line to .293/.344/.449. … Since June 10–we’re
talking 18 starts and 81 plate appearances, roughly one-eighth of a
season–Billy is hitting .333/.370/.520, with five doubles, three
homers and nine RBIs.

Butler was one of my “breakout” picks this season, so I’m happy to see
him thriving after the Royals demoted him to the minors following a
slow start last year. He hit .336/.416/.561 in the minors despite being
extremely young for every level, never posting a batting average below
.290 at any stop, so it was only a matter of time before Butler started
knocking around big-league pitchers too.

Mellinger’s blurb about Butler got me curious about how well his
production compares to other 23-year-olds and in the bigger picture how
well various other young hitters are faring this season. With that in
mind–and with the help of utterly indispensable
Baseball-Reference.com–here’s a look at how the youngest hitters in
baseball are doing in 2009, broken down by age group:

20-YEAR-OLDS         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Elvis Andrus 232 .269 .330 .380 87

I’ve set the cutoff for this little study at 200 plate appearances,
but Elvis Andrus is actually the only 20-year-old hitter in all of
baseball with even 100 trips to the plate this season. In fact,
Fernando Martinez of the Mets is the only other 20-year-old to bat at
all this year unless you count Tigers starter Rick Porcello’s work at
the plate during interleague play.

While not especially productive Andrus has certainly held his own at
the plate, which is an extremely promising sign from a 20-year-old
shortstop who didn’t do a whole lot of hitting in the minors. Andrus
has been fantastic defensively, rating 5.3 runs above average in 65
games according to Ultimate Zone Rating, so even slight improvements
offensively would make him an All-Star-caliber player.

21-YEAR-OLDS         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Justin Upton 315 .309 .387 .558 141

I’ve been fawning over Justin Upton in this space all season,
so it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that he’s a) the only 21-year-old
with more than 200 plate appearances and b) knocking the cover off the
ball. Upton currently has the 18th-best adjusted OPS+ of all time for a
21-year-old, with Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron tied for the spot above
him. He’s on pace to hit .309 with 30 homers, 40 doubles, 75 walks, and
20 steals, and has also been outstanding defensively in right field.
Stud.

22-YEAR-OLDS         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Pablo Sandoval 298 .327 .379 .548 142
Colby Rasmus 256 .271 .313 .453 102
Jay Bruce 308 .215 .295 .458 94

Pablo Sandoval has quickly become one of my favorite players,
because the man they call “Fat Ichiro” or “Kung Fu Panda” has hit .327
with a .548 slugging percentage despite swinging at everything and running the bases like he’s jonesing for a piece of cake. Combined with his 41-game debut last season Sandoval has hit .333/.372/.528 through 452 plate appearances in the majors.

23-YEAR-OLDS         PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Evan Longoria 316 .297 .377 .558 139
Adam Jones 310 .300 .355 .502 120
Billy Butler 303 .289 .340 .443 107
Asdrubal Cabrera 243 .307 .364 .417 103
Dexter Fowler 293 .250 .340 .381 87
Chris Davis 270 .203 .259 .422 76

This is Butler’s age group and as you can see he fares pretty well,
ranking third in adjusted OPS+ behind only Evan Longoria and Adam
Jones, although he’s also been less valuable than Asdrubal Cabrera once
defense is factored in. Longoria has been one of the most valuable players in the league through three months, while Jones currently has the 27th-best adjusted OPS+ ever for a 23-year-old center fielder.

Diamondbacks sign Jorge De La Rosa to minor league deal

ARLINGTON, TX - AUGUST 10:  Jorge De La Rosa #29 of the Colorado Rockies throws against the Texas Rangers in the first inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on August 10, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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The Diamondbacks have signed free agent left-hander Jorge De La Rosa to a minor league deal, per a team announcement on Sunday. The contract includes an invitation to spring training. Nick Piecoro of AZCentral.com adds that De La Rosa stands to make $2.25 million if he secures a spot on the major league roster, with up to $600,000 in incentives if he pitches out of the bullpen and up to $1 million in incentives if he pitches out of the starting rotation.

The 35-year-old is expected to compete for a bullpen role after spending the better part of a decade in the Rockies’ rotation. He capped a nine-year run with Colorado in 2016, finishing the year with a 5.51 ERA, 4.2 BB/9 and 7.3 SO/9 over 134 innings. Despite his struggles out of the rotation, he found limited success in a three-game stint in the bullpen, striking out 10 of 26 batters and holding the opposition to just three hits and one earned run in eight innings.

The veteran lefty is set to join a bullpen comprised of right-handers Randall Delgado, Jake Barrett and Fernando Rodney, along with a number of unproven candidates on similar minor league contracts. His age and command issues may be off-putting, but the promise he showed as a reliever should give the Diamondbacks some upside as they attempt to redeem a league-worst bullpen in 2017.

Josh Donaldson out 2-3 weeks with calf injury

TORONTO, CANADA - SEPTEMBER 13: Josh Donaldson #20 of the Toronto Blue Jays looks on from the top step of the dugout as he sits out his second straight game during MLB game action against the Tampa Bay Rays on September 13, 2016 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Blue Jays’ third baseman Josh Donaldson is expected to miss up to three weeks with a right calf strain, reports John Lott. Donaldson reportedly felt some discomfort in his calf during sprinting drills on Friday and was diagnosed with what looked like a mild strain after undergoing an MRI on Saturday. According to Lott, the 31-year-old is on crutches for the next few days and will likely miss 2-3 weeks of spring training.

Donaldson had a similar scare at the start of the 2016 season, when he limped out of the batter’s box during the Blue Jays’ first regular season road trip with a right calf strain. He returned to DH two days later, however, and was back on the field in less than a week’s time. Blue Jays’ GM Ross Atkins told MLB.com’s Corey Long that the two calf injuries are unrelated, and expects that Donaldson will recover in similar fashion this spring — well before Opening Day comes around.