The one thing the Rays knew about Joey Butler was that he could hit. Team officials determined that looking at his statistical profile as he spent the bulk of seven years battling through the minors and stints in Venezuela, Mexico and Japan, getting just 17 big-league at-bats. New Rays manager Kevin Cash had witnessed it firsthand, when they were teammates on a 2011 Rangers Triple-A Round Rock team that featured Chris Davis and other future big-leaguers.
And now the rest of the baseball world is seeing it.
Butler, 29, has emerged as one of the team's top offensive contributors and went into play Saturday leading all major-league rookies with a .325 average and ranking among the AL leaders with six homers and 20 RBIs.
"Joey," Cash said, "can hit."
So well, in fact, that Cash is talking about having T-shirts made with Butler's face on the front and that apt description on the back. Here is more about how Butler did it:
A long road
Butler took a long time getting his first real shot in the majors with the Rays, a victim of circumstance as much as anything given the players ahead of him in Texas and St. Louis.
"I think the timing and the location has always been kind of against me a little bit," he said.
A 15th-round pick by the Rangers in 2008 from the University of New Orleans, Butler got to Triple A by 2011 — and hit .322 with 12 homers and 57 RBIs in 113 games — but spent pretty much three full seasons there, making an eight-game cameo in the majors in late 2013. He was claimed off waivers by the Cardinals and was in the midst of yet another season at Triple A when he got another quick May 2014 stint in the majors, then was released so he could sign with Japan's Orix Buffaloes, making some money but spending time with their minor-league squad. The Rays were working this past offseason — before they hired Cash — to sign Butler as a minor-league free agent, with plans to stash him at, yep, Triple A.
But Desmond Jennings' knee injury created the opening Butler had been waiting so long for, wiping away some of that frustration that had built up.
"It can seem like that, especially when you're in the lower levels, A ball," Butler said. "But it takes time. I always felt like I had quite a few games left in my career. Plus, it's out of my control. All I can control is going out and playing hard. So that's what I do."
And though the success has been both rewarding and "humbling," Butler said "it feels like I just got here. … I haven't had a chance to focus in on what's actually happening, but keeping it simple and coming to the field and playing hard seems to work, so that's what I try to do."
A southern man
Butler was born, raised and schooled in Pascagoula, Miss., which is slightly better known — at least to this point — as the hometown of singer Jimmy Buffett. Butler played football (wide receiver, tight end), basketball and baseball for the Pascagoula High Panthers, then played baseball at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, then UNO, the only Division I school to recruit him. Other athletes from Pascagoula include NFLers Terrell Buckley and Eric Butler (no relation) and Astros LHP Tony Sipp. Butler learned how to hit initially from older brother Enrico Jones, who was good enough to play at Mississippi State.
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A simple approach
The key to Butler's success at the plate is remaining committed to what he and Cash call a simple approach. In short, Butler waits for the ball to get deep in the zone and consistently tries to hit it up the middle. "I think the approach helps a lot," Cash said. "How many times do you see him roll over a ball? It just doesn't happen very often. To not do that means you're letting the ball travel, and he's given himself every opportunity to see the ball as long as possible."
Butler typically gets set early in the batter's box and rarely steps out, which is amusing to opponents — and seems like a metaphor for never wanting to leave — but is actually part of his approach. "I think that's a mind-set," Butler said. "By keeping it simple I try not to think too much. I think the less time I take, the faster I get ready, and the faster I'm ready, the simpler and less time other stuff has to creep in."
Looks can be deceiving
Butler plays with a scowl that makes it look like he's not having fun, and he keeps relatively quiet in the clubhouse. But Cash said it's all a ruse, as he's one of the funniest and most entertaining players on the team. "He's hilarious," Cash said. "A lot of personality." An example, from a recent exchange on the team bus: Cash told him, "You're in the lineup tomorrow, you should be excited." Butler replied, "No, you should be excited.' "
More on Butler
He is married, with a 7-year-old daughter and a 9-month-old son, home in Texas. … He chose his walkup song, No Flex Zone by Rae Sremmurd, because he happened to hear it and liked the beat: "It gets me going a little bit." … His full name is Joseph Frank Butler Jr., but he goes by Joey "because that's what it's always been since I've been little." … After subsisting on Subway steak and chicken sandwiches in the minors, Butler said his favorite meal is chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. … Though the big-league money and travel accommodations are nice, the coolest thing about his experience has been hitting home runs, especially his first over the Green Monster at Fenway Park.
. All-Star rosters will be announced next Sunday and Monday, and RHP Chris Archer (below) is by far the most deserving candidate to represent the Rays. If not voted in by the players, he would need to be one of AL/Royals manager Ned Yost's picks. Archer not only should he be on the team but a strong candidate to start, given his dominating performance and AL-leading 2.01 ERA. (And he'll be on full rest.) Merit aside, Archer would have great marketing appeal for MLB, a fresh and appealing personality to present on a national stage, being biracial, well-spoken, youth-oriented, charismatic, civic-minded and thoughtful.
. Thursday's opening of the international signing period won't be as splashy for the Rays, who can't sign any player for more $300,000 as a sanction for exceeding spending limits last year, when they paid a hefty $2.95 million for No. 1 prospect SS Adrian Rondon. But this will still be a busy week, not only as they seek under-the-radar, lower-priced talent but also in weighing trade offers for the bonus slots that make up their $2.6 million pool and can be swapped for actual players. Last year, for example, the team traded minor-league RHP Matt Ramsey to the Marlins to get three slots worth $1,000,800 so they could do the Rondon deal. Demand seems higher now, and the Rays' top slot alone is worth around $1,000,000. While signing more 16- and 17-year-old players could possibly pay off down the road, the chance to add someone playing in the upper minors now might be worth more.
Top draft pick OF Garrett Whitley is expected to be at the Trop this week for a physical and negotiations, with the No. 2 pick, C Chris Betts, to make a return visit. There's a chance both get signed. … Senior VP/chief sales officer Mark Fernandez's resignation after 10 years seemed truly amicable, a matter of him wanting a new challenge and the team now getting an opportunity for new ideas. Expect corporate partnerships VP Josh Bullock to take an increased role. … Amazing that consecutive losses last week were due in part to catchers not being able to get down bunts. … It seemed the Rays waited a few weeks too many in getting Marc Krauss to help fill the void at first base, but a number of teams were reluctant to part with depth, such as — how cool would that have been? — Dan Johnson, who is with St. Louis' Triple-A team. … The Rays had mixed results in their 10 drafts under scouting director R.J. Harrison but as he moves up to a senior adviser position with Rob Metzler taking over, it's worth acknowledging how much time and effort Harrison put into it, and how hard he graded himself. … Whitley and Betts were named second-team All-Americans by Baseball America. … A gift basket of OF Kevin Kiermaier's favorite things netted a $12,000 donation at last week's Rays on the Runway fashion show, which raised $130,000 for the Children's Dream Fund. … ESPN.com's David Schoenfield suggests RHP Chris Archer is not only a candidate for the AL Cy Young Award but — through the first half, anyway — AL MVP. … Longtime MLB pitcher Dennis Martinez said a prime reason he is pleased fellow Nicaraguan RHP Erasmo Ramirez is with the Rays is because he considers Jim Hickey "the best pitching coach in baseball right now."
You make the call
. On his favorite player: Pedro Martinez. Growing up in the Boston area, he was obviously one of the greatest pitchers ever. Also, not being the biggest guy in the league. I had his model glove when I was in college. Tried to emulate him.
. On his favorite road city: Seattle. The weather's always been ridiculous. It's a great walking-around city, a beautiful place. Plus the field and clubhouse are excellent.