Rays rookie establishing himself on and off the field
By Bill Chastain
ST. PETERSBURG -- Joey Butler? Rays manager Kevin Cash has fielded that question many times this season, so he chuckled before answering. "Joey can hit. Write it."
Yes, the 29-year-old rookie continues to reaffirm what Cash has been saying since early in Spring Training. Butler takes a team-leading .327 average with six home runs and 20 RBIs into Thursday's off-day. Despite his age and baseball pedigree, Butler has inserted himself into the American League Rookie of the Year Award race.
The Rays signed Butler as a free agent in January, invited him to Spring Training, watched him hit the ball all over Charlotte Sports Park, then sent him to Triple-A Durham to start the season. They selected him on May 3, and all he has done since is hit.
How has a player seemingly earmarked to be a career Minor Leaguer been able to sustain his good work? Cash has an idea.
"I think it goes back to the same thoughts we had," Cash said. "His at-bats are very disciplined and [so is] his approach. That doesn't [change]. The pitch selection he gets probably changes on a nightly basis. And as he keeps hitting, guys are going to try different things.
"But I think Joey's been so consistent in his approach of working, stay up the middle, right-center, we said it a month ago. How many times do you see him roll over a ball? It doesn't happen, because he's so committed to letting the ball travel [deeper into the strike zone]. He's a strong guy."
Prior to this season, Butler had just 14 games of Major League experience split between Texas in 2013 and St. Louis in '14. In that brief window of opportunity, he had four hits in 17 at-bats. When asked why he's never had a decent chance at the Major League level, Butler was diplomatic.
"Well, I played with some good teams," Butler said. "I was in the organization with Texas when they were going to World Series. You don't want to mess up anything that's already going good.
"St. Louis, the same way. They had a great team. They ended up going deep into the playoffs, too. I think the timing and the location has always been kind of against me a little bit."
Butler did allow that the journey can be frustrating.
"Especially when you're in the lower levels, [Class] 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."
Given the road Butler has traveled, it's easy to read meaning into his penchant for never leaving the box when he's at bat -- almost like he's afraid that if he steps out, he'll never get to hit again. In reality, Butler's reason for his approach is simple.
"I think it's a mindset," Butler said. "By keeping it simple, I try not to think too much. I feel like the less time I take, the faster I get ready. And the faster I'm ready, the simpler and less time has to creep in."
When told of Butler's explanation for his quick-in-the-box approach, hitting coach Derek Shelton smiled.
"If that's the reason he's doing it, it's a really good reason," Shelton said. "It's kind of old-school. It's kind of interesting to watch. I think one thing it shows is he's ready to hit."
Butler's approach on the field is like his approach off it.
"I just feel like I keep it simple," Butler said.
Regardless of whether he's been in the Minor Leagues or the Major Leagues, there has been one underlying theme to his professional existence.
"The baseball part has always been fun," Butler said.
So, other than the enhanced paycheck, what's been the biggest difference for Butler between the Major Leagues and the Minor Leagues?
"This clubhouse is really special," Butler said. "It's fun, loose and exciting. Fun to be around."
Butler -- who appears to be the great stone face -- is one of the guys who has been making it fun to be on the team this season.
For example, on the bus, Cash told Butler, "You're in the lineup tomorrow, you should be excited."
To which Butler replied, "No, you should be excited."
And there was the time Butler left a guy on third base and returned to the bench to hear bench coach Tom Foley chirping at him, "Man, that was a steak out there at third."
Butler replied, "I must not have been that hungry."
But you can bet Butler has a pretty large appetite for Major League baseball, and he's chowing down. Cash believes Butler is more than a flash in the pan, too.
"For whatever reason [the opportunity for Butler to get to the Major Leagues has not come]," Cash said. "Maybe they had some really good outfielders in front of him in different places. That happens with a lot of players. We're really happy Joey's making the most of this opportunity, because we wouldn't be where we are without him."
Butler can indeed hit.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.