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.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the rest of Saturday’s scores and highlights:

Giants 5, Padres 4 (12 innings): A big fourth inning from both the Padres and Giants gave the teams the backing they needed for another extra-innings affair, but this time, it was the Giants who prevailed in the end. Hours before the seagulls of McCovey Cove even entertained the thought of swarming the field, Nick Hundley broke a 4-4 tie in the 12th inning with a walk-off RBI single, his first walk-off hit for the Giants in 2017:

Cubs 3, Cardinals 2: The Cubs fueled their hot streak with another win on Saturday, resting on 5 2/3 perfect innings from Jon Lester to lock down a one-run lead over the Cardinals. The win, Lester’s seventh of the season, was made all the more poignant by its circumstances. He took the mound just one day after the death of his uncle on Friday, and dedicated his performance to him with the letters “PLACT” (“Play Like a Champion Today,” a motto from his uncle’s alma mater, Notre Dame) etched on the front of his cap.

Lester was phenomenal on the mound, retiring 17 consecutive batters to start the game and losing the perfecto with Adam Wainwright‘s first-pitch single in the sixth. The Cardinals eventually took the lead in the eighth inning, plating a pair of runs with back-to-back homers from Paul DeJong and Randal Grichuk to gain a two-run edge. They were met with three runs in the bottom of the inning, however, and Anthony Rizzo‘s two-out, go-ahead double secured the win.

Astros 8, Orioles 4: Marwin Gonzalez became the unlikely hero of Saturday’s win over the Orioles when he blasted a 387-foot home run out of Camden Yards:

The dramatic three-run knock was the product of unusual circumstances: Astros’ starting third baseman Colin Moran was removed from the game in the sixth inning when a foul ball deflected off of his bat and struck him near the left eye. He crumpled to the ground and was carted off the field before finishing his at-bat, at which point Gonzalez subbed in and promptly clubbed his 18th homer of the year. Houston ran with the two-run lead, earning their 65th win after another two-run effort from Evan Gattis and Carlos Beltran in the ninth.

Brewers 9, Phillies 8: The Brewers huffed and puffed their way to a win on Saturday, snapping a horrendous six-game skid to stay atop the NL Central standings, albeit by a narrow margin. They carried a seven-run lead into the seventh inning, highlighted by Ryan Braun‘s incredible dash from first to home plate after first baseman Tommy Joseph overthrew the bag at second base.

The Brewers nearly lost it all when the Phillies mounted a massive rally to tie the game in the eighth, but Domingo Santana persevered with a clutch RBI single in the ninth, saving the team from another extra-inning debacle and netting the team’s 52nd win of 2017.

Twins 6, Tigers 5: Kyle Gibson went the distance for the Twins on Saturday — that is, he lasted more than seven innings, a feat in and of itself for the 29-year-old hurler. It was his longest start since September 2016 and a much-needed winning effort for the Twins, who have gone 4-4 since the All-Star break. The Twins backed Gibson’s three-run, five-strikeout outing with six runs, but nearly lost it all when the Tigers rebounded for five runs in the eighth.

Marlins 5, Reds 4: An hour of rain did little to upset the Marlins’ plans on Saturday night. Chris O’Grady got shelled by the Reds’ offense, giving up three runs on four hits and six walks in just 4 1/3 innings, but the club found their salvation in a two-homer performance from J.T. Realmuto:

Not only did the win position the Marlins to execute their first sweep of the second half, but it set a new franchise record:

Mets 6, Athletics 5: With the trade deadline only a week away, it stands to reason that most teams want to put their best foot forward. For the Mets, that meant sticking Asdrubal Cabrera at third base for his first career start in the hot corner.

Luckily for the veteran infielder, nothing tricky or unusual broke his way. He fielded two easy ground balls and only missed Ryon Healy‘s line drive single into left field in the eighth. While that might not have been the most convincing showcase for Cabrera’s versatility around the horn, the 31-year-old upped his marketability with a single and double at the plate. The spotlight quickly shifted to Wilmer Flores in the ninth inning, though, as the second baseman broke a 5-5 tie with a two-out, walk-off home run.

Rangers 4, Rays 3: Chris Archer was left hanging after another dominant performance on Saturday night, turning in four runs, a walk and 11 strikeouts in a losing effort against the Rangers. In six starts with at least 11 strikeouts this season, the Rays’ hurler carries a 2-4 record and an average 4.67 runs of support (skewed slightly by a 12-1 win over the Royals in May).

A lack of run support wasn’t the only thing to blame for Archer’s defeat, however. He lost the game on a tie-breaking wild pitch to give Adrian Beltre the go-ahead run in the sixth:

Indians 2, Blue Jays 1 (10 innings): Francisco Lindor was all smiles after notching his first career walk-off home run during Saturday’s extra-inning win. The Indians’ shortstop waded through a seven-pitch at-bat before selecting Danny Barnes‘ 2-2 heater for a 438-foot homer in the 10th:

The blast backed an impressive start from Cleveland right-hander Danny Salazar, who made his first appearance of the second half after rehabbing a strained right shoulder. He fired seven pristine innings of one-hit ball and struck out eight of 21 batters in his fifth no-decision of the season.

Royals 7, White Sox 2: “Dingers” was the name of the game on Saturday, when the Royals fueled Jason Vargas‘ winning efforts with five home runs to secure the lead. Melky Cabrera got the White Sox on the board with a solo home run and RBI double, but the rest of the offense failed to materialize as the Royals crafted a seven-run rally. Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas went back-to-back in the sixth…

…shortly followed by another solo blast from Brandon Moss, his 12th of the season:

Jorge Bonifacio plugged another home run in the seventh, while Moustakas returned for a second helping in the eighth. It was the second time the Royals combined for five home runs in 2017, following another five-homer performance back in June, but they still fell one dinger shy of the all-time franchise record set against the Mariners in 2003.

Rockies 7, Pirates 3: The Pirates’ six-game win streak came to an abrupt end at the hands of rookie right-hander German Marquez, who held the Bucs to just three hits and two runs over seven innings on Saturday. His one mistake? Plunking Andrew McCutchen in the sixth, which resulted in some old-fashioned retaliation from Colorado starter Chad Kuhl and a predictable, benches-clearing dispute:

Nationals 4, Diamondbacks 3: Anthony Banda finally got the call he’d been waiting for this weekend. The Diamondbacks plucked him from Triple-A Reno and inserted him into Saturday’s lineup for his first big league start, though things didn’t go quite as smoothly as expected. Banda punctuated his first major league inning with a home run to Bryce Harper, one that cleared the wall in center field and landed on the concourse. The Nats returned in full force in the sixth inning, amassing another three runs on RBI doubles from Harper and Ryan Zimmerman and an RBI single by Anthony Rendon and preserving their 11-game lead in the NL East with their first win of the series.

Angels 7, Red Sox 3: When Mike Trout is at bat, there are few less enviable positions than that of the opposing pitcher. Except, maybe, the photographer crouching in foul territory:

The end result of that at-bat was only slightly less thrilling: Trout worked a nine-pitch walk and scored on Albert Pujols‘ two-run double for the club’s first two runs of the evening. Andrelton Simmons clubbed a go-ahead home run to finish off the four-run inning, bringing the Angels within four games of a wild card berth.

Dodgers 6, Braves 2: A modified delivery appears to be working wonders for Dodgers’ southpaw Rich Hill, whose resurgence proved instrumental to the team’s first win of the weekend. Hill lasted 6 1/3 innings — the fourth time he’s pitched into the sixth inning this season — and issued six hits, two runs and eight strikeouts as he improved to 7-4 on the year. Chris Taylor powered Hill’s efforts, padding the Dodgers’ one-run lead with a solo shot in the seventh inning and a bases-clearing triple in the eighth.

Mariners 6, Yankees 5 (10 innings): Aaron Judge packs a mighty punch with his home runs, and Saturday was no exception. The slugger produced his 32nd homer of the season, though this one didn’t find the crevices of Safeco Field quite as easily as Friday’s epic blast.

Judge’s penchant for dingers wasn’t quite enough to get the job done for the Yankees, however, and the teams found themselves at an impasse by the ninth inning. Nelson Cruz came through in the clutch, pushing the Mariners within a win of .500 after scoring Clint Frazier on a walk-off single — the first walk-off Seattle had seen since June 20.

Astros place Colin Moran on 10-day disabled list with facial fracture

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The Astros placed third baseman Colin Moran on the 10-day disabled list with a facial fracture, the team announced Sunday. Moran sustained both a concussion and a fracture during the sixth inning of Saturday’s 8-4 win against the Orioles, when he was carted off the field after a foul ball struck him in the face near his left eye. An estimated return date has yet to be specified by the club.

Postgame comments from Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch revealed that Moran immediately felt faint after sustaining the injury. Via MLB.com’s Mandy Bell:

He wasn’t feeling very well and he wanted to get off the field, like all players do. Nobody wants to sit down, and as soon as he got up, he thought he was going to pass out, kind of got nauseous,” Hinch said. “So we put him back down and called for the cart.

While Moran was treated at a nearby hospital in Baltimore, he was replaced on the field by pinch-hitter/third baseman Marwin Gonzalez, who finished the at-bat with a three-run home run to give the Astros a late-game lead. Gonzalez won’t be the only one shouldering infield duties in Moran’s absence, however, as the team penciled in Alex Bregman at the hot corner for Sunday’s series finale.

In a corresponding move, the Astros also recalled infielder Tyler White from Triple-A Fresno. White, 26, broke into the big leagues in 2016 with a .217/.286/.378 and eight home runs in 276 PA for the Astros. He’s off to a hot start in Triple-A this season, slashing .299/.371/.517 with 19 homers in his first 408 PA of 2017.