Eddie Butler: A Pitching Gem in Colorado?

Most prospect hounds are beginning to take notice of Rockies pitching prospect Eddie Butler. He entered the 2013 season with significant pedigree–he was selected 46th overall in last year’s draft–and has pulled off the rare feat of advancing two levels in his first full professional season. Butler made nine starts with Low-A Asheville and thirteen with High-A Modesto before the team deemed him done with the lower minors; he’s thrown ten scoreless, walkless innings with 12 strikeouts across his first two Double-A outings. That’s some serious prospect helium over the past four months.

Of course, this is a fantasy website. The notion of betting on a pitching prospect in fantasy can be terrifying in its own right, but betting on one destined for Coors Field is certainly unappetizing. Unfortunate environmental situation aside, Butler is definitely an arm to keep track of.

Eddie Butler has a lot of things going for him. The first and most obvious is that he has an absolutely premium fastball, one of the best in the minor leagues. He’ll work anywhere from 92-97 mph with the offering, averaging a solid 94. Anyone who can bring it at that velocity as a starting pitcher is worth following, regardless of anything else, because the ability to sustain mid-90s heat for 5+ innings is a rare gift: just under 10% of pitchers who have started a major league game this year (25 of 271) have managed the feat.

Of course, throwing 94, or even touching 97, does little good if the pitcher has no other skills. Thankfully, fastball velocity is just the beginning of Butler’s list of assets, even if it is the one that jumps out most prominently on first glance. Just as important, though, is the tremendous run and sink on the pitch. Look at how much it’s moving here, even at 95-97 mph:

That massive armside action translates to Butler’s changeup, an offering that comes in at 86-90 mph. Carson Cistulli sure was impressed by the life on the offering, which comes in as hard as many pitchers’ two-seam fastballs. One might like to see Butler learn how to take just a bit more velocity off with the pitch, but it has plenty of promise on movement alone. Just look at the filthy downward snap and fade on the first two pitches of this at-bat:

Butler’s other pitch is a slider that has–you guessed it–plus velocity. It comes in about 10 mph slower than the fastball, at 82-87, and he’ll occasionally dial it even slower and give it more of a curve look at 79-81. With its big velocity, Butler’s slider is hard enough that he can run it inside on lefties as a cutter, like he does to Joey Gallo here:

Even at its peak velocity, Butler can still coax bigtime late movement from the pitch that can make it a putaway offering to righthanded hitters. Here, he makes Jordan Akins look silly with one at 87 for the strikeout:

And here, he freezes Joe Maloney with a big 83-mph breaker:

Clearly, Butler has plus stuff overall. All three of his pitches have excellent velocity and above-average movement, which is quite the rare combination. All three also project to be weapons to batters from both sides of the plate, which cements Butler as somebody who should be able to stick in a rotation, not just a mere flamethrower destined for late relief.

And that leaves one question: Can he put the ball where he wants to? Butler’s delivery isn’t exactly textbook, as he generates his velocity with a very long arm action in the back, and there are some moving parts in his motion. To his credit, though, he usually gets everything synced up and moving in the right direction, though he’s prone to occasionally missing badly when he doesn’t quite get all that motion in rhythm, as he’s uncorked ten wild pitches this year.

Butler seems to be improving at throwing strikes as the year has progressed, though, which is a great sign. He walked 11.6% of the hitters he faced in Low-A, just 7.5% in High-A, and as I mentioned earlier, he has yet to walk a batter in ten Double-A innings. In his last thirteen starts, only three times has he walked multiple batters. I’m not sure the mechanics will ever allow him to have truly plus command, but Butler doesn’t project to be some sort of frustrating Ubaldo Jimenez type either.

Is he immune to Coors Field, though? It sure helps when you throw stuff that moves all over the place like Butler’s does. According to Minor League Central, he has a 54.6% groundball rate this year, and it’s not hard to imagine his sinking array of pitches producing well-above-average groundball numbers as a big leaguer. For fantasy purposes, it’s probably fair to give him a slight downward push on prospect lists compared to where he deserves to sit on non-fantasy prospect lists, but he’s easily a Top 50 real-life prospect in my book, so he still is one of the top 25 or 30 most intriguing pitching prospects for fantasy owners. Further, his quick ascent and positive response to it means he could be up sooner than we think; I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he’s started his major league career a few weeks into the 2014 season. Yes, it’s tough to buy into Rockies pitching prospects, but Butler is a special arm and his progress should definitely be monitored closely. He has #2 starter upside if the aspects of his game that flash plus (slider, change, control) reach that status more consistently, and will still be a solid MLB starting pitcher even if he never quite takes that final big step.

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Nathaniel Stoltz is a prospect writer for FanGraphs. A resident of Bowie, MD and University of Maryland graduate student, he frequently views prospects in the Carolina and South Atlantic Leagues. He can be followed on Twitter at @stoltz_baseball.

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The amount of movement on that fastball, at that velocity, is pretty dirty. If he can get his changeup down 2-3mph, then he’ll definitely have a good change to become a high starter when he’s in the bigs.