Top 100 Indians: #50 Brett Butler

LGT's countdown of the greatest players in franchise history continues with Brett Butler, the Indians' best player during the mid 1980s.

Brett Morgan Butler

Center Fielder, 1984-1987

Height: 5'10" Weight: 160 lbs

Throws: Left Bats: Left

How Acquired: Traded with Brook Jacoby by Atlanta on October 21, 1983 to complete an earlier deal for Len Barker

Left Via: Free Agency, November 9, 1987

Brett Butler was born on June 15, 1957 in Los Angeles, but when he was 12 his family moved to Libertyville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, which is where he played his high school ball. Unlike most great Major League players, Butler was not a star in high school, in fact, he didn't even start. This probably had something to do with his size; Butler wrestled at just 119 pounds during his senior year. "The best advice I ever got was from my father, who told me, 'If you don't believe in yourself, son, nobody else is going to believe in you."

When Butler declared an interest in playing collegiate ball, his high school coach Ernie Ritta scoffed. "Ritta gave me the drive,' Butler said, "I always wanted to prove to him that I could play." Butler wound up at Southeastern Oklahoma State University and played well enough to be drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 23rd round in 1979.

Butler dominated A-ball in 1980, posting a line of .342/.445/.513 and continuing to hit in AAA the following year, he made his MLB debut on August 20, 1981, hitting a double and scoring two runs. Butler established himself in Atlanta as a strong fielder and aggressive baserunner. During a pennant push that ultimately fell short, the Braves acquired pitcher Len Barker for a pair of players to be named later. After the season ended, Butler was named, sending the 26-year-old to the Tribe. "All I've heard about Cleveland has been bad," Butler said at the time, "but I'm not going to worry about it. The Indians want me, and I'll judge things for myself."

On Opening Day of 1984, Butler was in center field and the leadoff spot, right where he spent most of his time with the Indians. He collected two walks that day, a sign of things to come. Butler raised his walk rate substantially in that first season with the team, drawing 86 bases on balls, 6th-best in the American League. He also led the team in runs, triples, and stolen bases. He had 52 SB, which at the time tied as the second-highest total in franchise history (Kenny Lofton has since altered that leader board). Butler put up a line of .287/.367/.479 during September, setting the stage for an even bigger breakout the following season.

In 1985 Butler led the Indians in runs, hits, triples, stolen bases, BA, OBP, SLG, and OPS, finishing among the top ten in the league in many categories. Among AL center fielders, only Rickey Henderson was better. Butler's 14 triples were the most by an Indian since 1938, and to this day only Earl Averill ever hit more in a season for the team. If the Indians hadn't lost 102 games, Butler likely would have been named on some AL MVP ballots.

Butler's production dropped a bit in 1986, his BA fell from .311 to .278, with other numbers also dipping. He still managed to lead the team in runs, stolen bases, and walks, and to hit another 14 triples, enough to lead the American League. Also, as he had each of the two previous seasons, Butler finished on a strong kick, with an outstanding line of .381/.444/.508 over 31 games in September and October, helping the Tribe to a 19-12 record over that time.

Early in 1987, Butler struggled with his equilibrium. Doctors never determined the exact cause, but he exited the season's fourth game and had to miss the next three weeks. When he returned, he went about the business of putting together another fine season. Butler's intensity was on display on July 8, when Kansas City's Danny Jackson sent two pitches sailing over his head. Butler charged the mound and was suspended for three games. At season's end he'd again led the team in runs, triples, stolen bases, and OBP.

1987 was the first season I was paying any real attention to the Indians. I wasn't old enough to grasp how disappointing that season was for the team, but Butler, Tom Candiotti, Joe Carter, Julio Franco, Brook Jacoby, and Cory Snyder became my first baseball heroes as I found their cards in packs I bought at the drug store around the corner and saw their names in the box scores of the newspaper each morning. Butler will always be special to me, for being part of that first summer of loving the Indians.

After the season ended, Butler signed with the San Francisco Giants, ending his time as an Indian. "If the Indians had offered a 3-year contract, I'd have stayed. But they kept saying, 'Give us another three or four days.' They kept putting me off. It was as if they weren't really interested." Upon his departure, Butler said, "I have only sadness when I think about leaving my friends and teammates in Cleveland. Over the four years Butler spent as an Indian, only Rickey Henderson and Dale Murphy were better among MLB center fielders. Among all MLB players in those seasons, Butler placed in the top ten in runs scored, triples, and stolen bases. He was one of the finest leadoff men in franchise history and the Tribe's best player during his years with the team.

Butler had great success with the Giants and later with the Dodgers, for whom he played a total of eight seasons. He set the record for most bunts for hits (since at least 1959, when that data began to be fully recorded), he played in the 1989 World Series and the 1991 All-Star Game, and he received MVP votes in six different seasons, finishing as high as 7th place (in 1991). In May of 1996, Butler was diagnosed with throat cancer (linked to chewing tobacco). Even after successful surgery to remove the tumor, many doubted Butler would play again. But once more, he proved 'them' wrong, returning in September and then playing one final season in 1997.

Butler began coaching the following spring and since 2005 he has been in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. He managed their high-A team for one season, their AA club for two, and since 2008 he's been the manager of the Reno Aces, their AAA affiliate. In 2012 Butler led the Aces to the Pacific Coast League crown and a victory in the AAA championship (over Pawtucket of the International League). Butler hopes to get the chance to manage in the Major Leagues eventually. "The only thing I've wanted to do after my playing days and raising my kids is to manage in the big leagues. I love being on the field."

Statistics with Indians:

Year Tm PA R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
1984 CLE 709 108 162 25 9 3 49 52 22 86 62 .269 .361 .355 .717 98
1985 CLE 666 106 184 28 14 5 50 47 20 63 42 .311 .377 .431 .808 123
1986 CLE 683 92 163 17 14 4 51 32 15 70 65 .278 .356 .375 .731 102
1987 CLE 618 91 154 25 8 9 41 33 16 91 55 .295 .399 .425 .825 120
CLE (4 yrs) 2676 397 663 95 45 21 191 164 73 310 224 .288 .373 .396 .768 110

Provided by Baseball-Reference.com


American League Leader

  • oWAR: 8th, 1985 (5.0); 8th, 1987 (5.0)
  • Batting Average: 5th, 1985 (.311)
  • On-Base Percentage: 7th, 1987 (.399); 9th, 1985 (.377)
  • Runs Scored: 4th, 1985 (108); 8th, 1985 (106)
  • Hits: 8th, 1985 (184)
  • Triples: 1st, 1986 (14); 2nd, 1985 (14); 5th, 1984 (9); 5th, 1987 (8)
  • Bases on Balls: 5th, 1987 (91); 6th, 1984 (86)
  • Stolen Bases: 3rd, 1984 (52); 3rd, 1985 (47); 8th, 1986 (32); 9th, 1987 (33)
  • Sacrifice Hits: 2nd, 1986 (17); 7th, 1984 (11)
  • Caught Stealing: 1st, 1984 (22); 1st, 1985 (20); 3rd, 1987 (16); 5th, 1986 (15)
  • Assists (CF): 2nd, 1985 (16); 3rd, 1984 (12); 4th, 1986 (8)
  • Range Factor (CF): 1st, 1987 (2.90); 4th, 1985 (3.00); 5th, 1986 (2.75)

Cleveland Indians Career Leader

  • t-36th oWAR (17.5)
  • t-38th Average (.288)
  • t-29th On Base Percentage (.373)
  • 49th Runs Scored (397)
  • t-21st Triples (45)
  • 42nd Bases On Balls (310)
  • 8th Stolen Bases (164)
  • 4th Caught Stealing (73)
  • 31st Win Probability Added (5.6)

Cleveland Indians Single-Season Leader

  • t-18th Plate Appearances (709, 1984)
  • t-42nd Runs Scored (108, 1984)
  • t-47th Runs Scored (106, 1985)
  • t-21st Triples (14, 1985, 1986)
  • t-42nd Bases On Balls (91, 1987)
  • t-8th Stolen Bases (52, 1984)
  • 11th Stolen Bases (47, 1985)
  • t-39th Stolen Bases (33, 1987)
  • t-42nd Stolen Bases (32, 1986)
  • t-48th Singles (137, 1985)

Sources:

Baseball-Reference.com

Sarasota Herald-Tribune, September 18, 1983

Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1988

Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1989

AZCentral.com, August 23, 2012

Wikipedia

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