This weekend’s tilt in Cleveland has become a pivotal series in the battle for fourth in the AL Central.  Win two of three and the Royals will extend their lead to four games with about a month remaining.  If the Royals somehow stumble and get swept, the two teams will be tied and then it’s game on.  With 10 games remaining between this pair between now and the end of the regular season, this promises to be quite heated.

Hooray, made up races for position in the standings!

(flickr/rynomp)

It won’t help the Royals cause that it appears Billy Butler may sit for the entire Cleveland series.  Butler has inflammation in his right hand, which the Royals believe has affected his swing and limited his power.  Perhaps.  Apparently, he’s been bothered for the last month or so, but his power has been on walkabout since the start of July.   His ISO over his last 200 plate appearances is .126 compared to a .158 ISO in his first 337 plate appearances of the season.

There’s been a ton of talk about Butler’s lack of power development, and it’s talk that’s justified.  Here’s a graph of his ISO covering his four year career.  We all know his bump last season was very real… A hearty increase in both doubles and home runs.  This year, both numbers have declined.

(FanGraphs)

After homering once every 29 at bats last season, Butler is homering once every 43 at bats in 2010.  Yeah, this is a concern.

Unfortunately, Butler’s decline in power has been coupled with an increase in double plays as Butler has ground into a league leading 26 twin killings this year.  His rate of grounding into double plays is also the highest among hitters with at least 100 double play opportunities (runner on first, less than two outs). The leaders:

Butler – 25%
Adrian Beltre – 22%
Michael Cuddyler – 18%
Mike Young – 17%
Torii Hunter – 17%

Wow.  Butler is hitting into a double play a full quarter of his opportunities.  (That almost matches Yuni’s on base percentage.)  And has quite a bit of distance between himself and second place.  The gap between first and third place is enormous.  Butler himself remains philosophical about this – he understands this is what happens when a guy hits a ton of grounds balls (which he does) and is slow (which he is.)

About those ground balls… Butler’s batted ball rates have remained incredibly static from one year to the next.

Last season’s bump in ISO and slugging was a mirage… It was going to be extremely difficult for Butler to repeat that power performance if he didn’t cut some percentage from his ground ball category and paste it into the fly ball side of the ledger.  While we could expect his power numbers to decline, the amount of decline is larger than we would have hoped.  (Again, the injury may have something to do with this.  Despite the new training staff, the Royals remain a difficult team when it comes to deciphering injury info.  They say it’s been a month his hand has been bothering him.  The numbers say his power has been in decline for over two months…)

The increase double plays, though… This is kind of a surprise.  Obviously this is always going to be part of Butler’s game.  Last year, he grounded into 20 double plays in 131 opportunities.  That works to a 15% double play rate.  (Plus, those raw numbers are in about 150 fewer plate appearances.)

So, while there’s an air of inevitability when Butler comes to the plate with a runner on first and less than two down, it doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.

The Royals are eighth in the league in OBP.  That sounds OK, I guess, but there .327 OBP is lower than the league average of .329.  Because this team doesn’t walk, as their team batting average has declined, so has the team OBP.  So while it can be difficult for the Royals to find base runners, it doesn’t help that Butler is doing his level best to erase those runners.

Kevin Seitzer has taken a fair share of credit for the Royals increased batting average, but that’s empty praise.  For a hitting coach to truly make a difference, he needs to work with players on an individual basis to get the most out of their abilities.  This year, Butler has fallen short of his potential.  He and Seitzer need to get together and work on refining his swing so he can generate more loft.

More loft equals more power.  More power equals fewer ground balls.  Fewer ground balls equal more runs.

Simple, isn’t it?