CHARLOTTE, N.C.—After taking a circuitous route to his third school, Charlotte righthander Ryan Butler produced arguably his best collegiate start against Evansville, throwing a complete game and brandishing stuff that could get him drafted in the top five rounds.
Within one week of his two-year anniversary from Tommy John surgery, the fourth-year junior threw his first complete game since high school, allowing a lone run on six hits.
The big, strong and physical 6-foot-6, 230-pound Butler looks like a Texan on the mound and has a power approach to pitching, working heavily off his heater that he threw on more than 80 percent of all pitches. He sustained 92-94 mph velocity throughout his start and hit 97 in the early going before painting 96 mph on the outside black on his 115th and final pitch of the day.
Butler’s heavy fastball also played up beyond the velocity readings because of its above-average life and sink with downhill plane. He produced 17 groundballs (16 outs) against just three flyouts to the outfield and would have broken many wooden bats on the day.
“He is a big kid with a big fastball,” an American League scout said. “He is a groundball machine when he gets the ball down. It was heavy, dense and it was downhill. It is like a bowling ball when it is down in the zone. He is throwing strikes now and has the big fastball, which eluded him earlier in the year.”
He has a 2.5 groundball-flyball ratio on the year (infield errors included). This is the first time since high school he has been stretched out in a rotation during the spring and his ability to hold his velocity has improved significantly in just a few months after he was 87-93 in an early season start, sitting 90-91.
His second offering was an 80-84 mph changeup that he demonstrated feel for and flashed average.
“My changeup has been my pitch my go to whole life,” Butler said. “I missed it a few times but had a few good ones. I have always been a fastball-changeup guy. The fastball-changeup combo has been my main priority with how I attack hitters.”
Butler used the offering early in counts with aplomb, throwing first-pitch changeups to lefthanded hitters six times.
“I thought the changeup was a little flat and had more sideways movement and it didn't really have much vertical movement, but when he gets to where he is driving the changeup down it plays well off the fastball,” the scout said. “But I think it is at least an average changeup. When the angle is right and when it comes out of his hand it is tough to pick up and the guys don't see it.”
Butler relied primarily on his fastball-changeup combination with his below-average breaking ball his third offering. His breaking ball has been a work in progress since his elbow injury.
“I had a curveball but I was scared of the slider because I tore my UCL on a slider,” Butler said. “It was just not taught correctly. I literally was taught the slider and two weeks later I tore it. It was completely wrong. The slider was scary. So (Charlotte pitching) coach (Brandon) Hall taught me the slider this past year and he had been ingraining it in my head as a cutter. Eventually like two weeks ago he told me that the pitch was actually a slider. He said he was just trying to get it into my head to be able to throw it confidently. The breaking ball was a get me over pitch but now I am trying to use it as both a get me over pitch and a strikeout pitch to see if I can have three pitches.”
Seeing Evansville lefthander Kyle Freeland’s mid-80s plus slider the day before his start helped him throw his breaking ball harder.
“That was as aggressive as he has been with the breaking ball,” Hall said. “He remarked watching Freeland throw and seeing how aggressive he was with his hand speed through his slider helped him. Then all of a sudden he was throwing his slider with more aggressive hand speed. That was as good as the slider has been top to bottom.”
The 22-year-old threw strikes against Evansville at a similar rate to what he has done throughout the year. He walked three of the 36 hitters he faced (8.3 percent) and has walked 7.8 percent on the year for a per-nine rate of 3.2 with a strikeout-walk ratio of 2. Butler also struck out three on the day and did not garner his first swinging strike until the seventh inning, finishing with three on the day.
Working from the far first base side of the rubber, Butler’s delivery does have some effort.
“Mechanically it is not real easy at times and there is some effort in the mechanics, but that is cleaning up every time he throws,” Hall said.
But evaluators expect him to throw enough strikes to compete in the rotation and the development of his offspeed stuff and command will likely determine his role.
“He throws plenty of strikes to start,” the scout said. “I think the changeup and the slider will be complementary more than solid pitches. The key to his success as a big leaguer, like a fourth starter, is really going to depend on how well he can pitch in the bottom of the zone with his fastball. He is either going to be an innings-eater fourth starter kind of guy where some nights he will have big enough stuff to look like a middle of the rotation guy but overall the secondary stuff plays closer to average. Or he could be a 7th-inning guy that ends up throwing 100 mph. Either way, it is a big fastball.”
Butler’s path to this juncture of the draft process has not been prototypical after pitching at Ardrey Kell High in Charlotte alongside teammates such as Braves lefthander Alex Wood and North Carolina righthanders Trent Thornton and Chris McCue.
“My college career started when I went to Marshall University, who was the only school to offer me out of high school,” Butler said. “I was irresponsible. I didn't do the things I should have done off the field and freshman year I had some trouble and wasn't doing well grades-wise. Then I left Marshall and went to a junior college in Florida called Northwest Florida State College. I was pitching well and then had to have TJ. So then I am a sophomore and have no offers and no draft interest going so I didn't know what I was going to do so I came back to Charlotte. I rehabbed and worked like crazy with two jobs. I was just a regular person trying to make it back and I didn't know if I was going to. My first bullpen back I hit 96 when I was 13 months in. I was like ‘Wow, I can still do it.’ I called UNC Charlotte immediately. Little did I know that when I threw for Charlotte the Yankees were there. They invited me down for a workout and I got drafted.”
Butler, who had only 39 career innings in three years of college, turned down an over-slot deal from the Yankees in the 16th round and figures to go significantly higher in two months. He comes from baseball bloodlines as his father, Mike, was a lefthander who reached Triple-A in the Angels organization.