Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Tao of Drew

With Drew Butera's addition to the Twins' Opening Day roster becoming more imminent not happening, we should take a closer inspection as to just who this catcher is.
In 2005, Drew Butera was selected by the New York Mets in the 5th round (149th overall) out of the University of Central Florida.  Butera had just completed a breakout junior season in which he improved leaps and bounds offensively from his sophomore season where he batted .282/.332/.331 with seven extra base hits in 181 at bats to hitting .325/.434/.481 with 20 extra base hits (5 home runs) in 208 at bats a year later. What’s more is that Butera demonstrated greater plate discipline, increasing his walks by 218% (from 11 to 35).   But the offensive contributions were a surprisingly pleasant icing as Butera had already earned the reputation as a great defensive catcher – throwing out 48% of potential base stealers in the Atlantic Sun Conference while posting a .993 fielding percentage.  “Drew is arguably the best catcher we have had at UCF,” said UCF's head coach Jay Bergman.  His stellar defense nearly earned him the Johnny Bench Award, an award presented to the nation’s top collegiate catcher.  In the end, Butera would remain a semifinalist and finished behind winner Jeff Clement, a top prospect in the Mariners organization who slugged over .600 at USC, and Taylor Teagarden, the Rangers top catching prospect.  Butera signed with the Mets for $175,000 and was assigned to the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League. 
Butera’s introduction to professional pitching was not without its challenges.  In 55 games for the Cyclones, Butera batted just .217/.305/.297 with 11 extra base hits in 175 at bats (in a league which averages .255/.332/.368) while leading all catchers in the league with 12 errors.  Either way, the Mets were intrigued enough by their new catcher that they extended a non-roster spring training invite to him.  What the Mets found up close was a catching prospect cut from a different cloth.  While most players favor Pop, Hip-Hop, Country and Latin music, Butera showed passion for opera music, listening instead to Andrea Bocelli and Luciano Pavarotti before games.  "This has been an outstanding experience," commented Butera on his first spring training, "You get to see the way the other players carry themselves. There's more maturity here than in college. They are real serious there. Here, you want to win but it seems like they have fun doing it.  I got to be around this a lot growing up with my dad. But to be able to experience it firsthand is amazing. I had to call him yesterday [Thursday] when I got everything set up and let him know what number [92] I was going to be. I told him I was a defensive back but still, everything is exciting."
Lack of knowledge concerning football numeration notwithstanding, the young catcher’s poise was touted by the ever-present scouts.
"I had a conversation with a few scouts about him last night," Former Twin and Drew’s dad Sal, who is a special assistant to the Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi, told MiLB.com during the spring training period, "And I have to be careful because I am his father. But I think for a young receiver, he's the total package in terms of receiving the ball, accuracy, strength, blocking the ball, all of it. He just keeps getting better. Where the Mets took him in the draft, I'm glad [general manager] Omar [Minaya] and his staff had the wherewithal to grab him.  He's been around the game his whole life and that's an advantage in itself. If he goes to Port St. Lucie this season it will be a big jump. But I think he can handle it defensively. It's just a matter of how patient they want to be with his offense. But if you saw him when he was a freshman in college, you've already seen how much better he's gotten."
The Mets sent Butera to Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League (A) after his spring training stint.  Behind the plate Butera showed off his cannon arm, scratching out 47% of would-be base stealers, but next to it was a different story.  After spending time working with Lamar Johnson, a former White Sox star in the 1970s, in the Instructional League on trying to recognize pitches faster, Butera failed to bring the lessons with him to the Sally League.  In 295 at bats in 95 games, Butera hit .186/.297/.281 knocking 18 extra base hits while striking out 72 times and walking 42.  After the season, Butera was enlisted in the Hawaii Winter League where his plate troubles followed him (.232 average, rescued by a 5-for-14 streak the last five games), nevertheless, his reputation as a solid game-calling catcher preceded him.  "Drew Butera did a heck of a job behind the plate; the best catcher I've ever thrown to," said Joe Thatcher, Butera’s North Shore Honu battery mate and a Brewers pitching prospect.
In his third season within the Mets organization, he was assigned to Port St Lucie of the Florida State League (A+).  It was there that Butera made significant progress offensively.  In the first-half of the FSL season, Butera kept his average near .300, earning a place at the FSL All-Star game.  Though his average would slip as the season continued, Butera’s .258/.348/.418 with 19 extra base hits and a 24-to-29 walks-to-strikeouts ratio was by far his best composition of his young career, securing him a midseason promotion to Binghampton (AA).  Despite seeing his offensive number slip upon arrival to the Eastern League, Butera showed maturity beyond his years as the Binghampton receiver.  According to Scout.com, Butera made on-the-fly, in-game adjustments with Mets pitching prospect Brandon Nall, calling for more sliders earlier in the count that helps Nell locate his proper arm slot for his fastball.  A month later in the same publication, Butera exposed more insight to his comprehension of his pitchers saying “his slider helped him [pitcher Michael Devaney] helped him stay on top of the ball and stay through his pitches.”
A catcher who listens to opera and processes a pitcher’s game analytically? 
At the trade deadline in 2007, the Twins shipped Luis Castillo to the Mets in exchange for Butera and outfielder Dustin Martin.  While with the New Britain Rock Cats, Butera caught in 15 games, impressing the manager with his ability to control the game.   Offensively, Butera hit .260/.327/.360 with 4 extra base hits in 50 at bats.  After all the shuffling was said and done, Butera had hit .235/.301/.347 with 26 extra base hits with 31-to-55 walks-to-strikeouts in 349 at bats split between two levels and three teams.  "It's the same game [in New Britain], and I appreciate everything the Mets did for me," Butera told reporters while playing in the Arizona Fall League. "But I thank the Twins because they wanted me. It's another door that opened. And my dad was excited because he played for the Twins. He said it was another door opening, too, and that maybe it was a quicker way to the big leagues."


The Twins invited Butera to their 2008 spring training camp, hoping that the former Mets catcher would have some familiarity with some new faces acquired that past offseason from the Johan Santana trade.  Manager Ron Gardenhire gave Butera’s defense a resounding endorsement sayingI think we've all seen that Butera is a really good catch-and-throw guy.  He handles the pitching staff, blocks balls and that's fun to see. Offensively, he's not ready to play here, but I mean defensively, this guy could catch in the big leagues right now." 

After working with Tony Oliva and Rod Carew in the spring, Butera was placed back at New Britain and made subtle improvements at the plate.  "I think a lot of times when I've been inconsistent is when I try to hit the ball too far out in front," Butera self-diagnosed. "So I'm working on letting the ball travel to me and using the whole field."  Butera made small strides at the plate, increasing his walk rate (from 7.4% in 2007 to 9.9% in 2008) and providing a small nugget of pop (from 31.7% xbh% in 2007 to a 39.3% in 2008) while setting a new career home run high (7).  The Eastern League bestowed upon him the title of Best Defensive Catcher as he would post a 33% caught stealing rate. 
Butera entered camp this year with as much of a likelihood of seeing action behind the plate in the Twin Cities as his dad did.  But when Joe Mauer's injury forced the Twins into re-evaluating their catching situation, Butera's defensive prowess came to the forefront.  Yes, higher on the depth chart is Jose Morales - the switch-hitting catcher with a minor league career .283/.328/.377 - who has experience above the AA level, but by all indications, Butera is a far superior reciever and has the capability of being Joe Mauer's full-time caddy in 2010.  
The pitching staff will be so lucky.