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Shoulders, Elbows, Mavericks and Larks: The NSIC’s Unheralded Elite Reliever

10/15/2018 - 10:00 AM

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Shoulders, Elbows, Mavericks and Larks: The NSIC’s Unheralded Elite Reliever
Matt Butler delivers a pitch in the 2018 NSIC Tournament

It hasn’t been an easy path to success for St. Cloud State’s Matt Butler.

In the summer of 2017, the idea of success was practically unimaginable.

Butler had just completed his redshirt sophomore season, one that saw him make just three appearances out of a loaded Huskies bullpen. After debuting with a scoreless outing in the Tucson Invitational against #7 Azusa Pacific, allowing one hit and a walk while retiring one, Butler gave up one run on 2 hits and a walk against Oklahoma Panhandle State. Fourteen days later, he had the worst outing of his career at Wayne State College. Five runs, all earned, on 3 hits and 2 walks. Butler retired just one man before being pulled. He didn’t make another appearance for the rest of the spring.

Now, the 2017 St. Cloud State bullpen certainly wasn’t an easy one for a sophomore to find a role in. Not since 2011 had Head Coach Pat Dolan wielded such a deep stable of arms. Much like that year’s foursome of closer Ryne Schwenke and setup men Austen Bosch, Chris Kubitz, and David Koenig; 2017’s pen’ boasted the dominance of Miles Nablo’s 2.37 ERA and 7 saves, Kevin Bolder’s 3.38 ERA, David Kroger’s 4.42 FIP, and Kyle Boser’s 3.57 ERA and .516 OPS against. Mixing in plenty of relief outings for Aaron Hammann, Shannon Ahern, and Zach Siggelkow, innings were very difficult to come by for a righthander that had struggled with injuries and consistency.

When Matt Butler committed to SCSU during his senior year of high school in Naperville, Illinois, he was certainly anything but “unheralded.” An All-Conference outfielder and pitcher, Butler threw for a 9-2 record with a 1.75 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 80.0 innings during his national summer schedule with the Naperville Renegades. Then, in his high school playoffs during his senior year, disaster struck. Although he isn’t exactly certain when the injury occurred, Butler remembers throwing a warmup pitch halfway up the backstop during one of his postseason outings. He went in to get his arm checked out over the summer, and was diagnosed with a SLAP tear of the labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder.

A SLAP tear, or a Superior Labrum Anterior to Posterior, is a front-to-back tear of the upper labrum.

Labrum injuries are known as one of the most career-threatening injuries for Major League pitchers. Imagine a just-graduated high school senior receiving the diagnosis. Jay Jaffe of Baseball Prospectus did an in-depth study of labrum injuries to professional pitchers in 2012 and discovered some jarring realities. Of the 67 pitchers he identified, 20 didn’t return to the Major Leagues, and 58% pitched in 50.0 or fewer innings following the surgery.

Butler underwent surgery seven days before stepping on campus.

“It was very disappointing. I wasn’t…in a very good place mentally. I was very upset because of how everything happened, but it worked out for the best.” said Butler.

So, instead of coming on campus as a true freshman, ready to get to work in fall ball with one of the top teams in the country, Butler came to St. Cloud in a sling. He ended up being far from the only redshirt in that 2015 class. Mat Meyer, Mitch Mallek, Judd Davis, Ryan Wesley, Cal Giese, Boser, and Sigglekow joined Butler as redshirts, although none joining him as a med-red. Sheldon Miks and Bolder were the only members of the class to play as true freshmen. Butler became extremely close with his teammates, finding positivity throughout his rehab in his bond with them.

He finally was cleared to throw off a mound near the end of the 2015 season, firing a few bullpens before heading back to Naperville after the Huskies’ loss in the NCAA Regional Tournament. Butler’s brother is a catcher, which provided an easy opportunity for him to continue throwing throughout the summer.

Healthy and hungry for an opportunity to show what he could do, Butler entered fall ball in 2015-16 as a redshirt-freshman just off a labrum injury. Although he felt he threw well that fall, he struggled to find innings on a staff that included two All-Americans in Reese Gregory and Miks, along with a deep bullpen anchored by Logan Spitzak, Nablo, and Kroger. Butler made just five appearances in his 2016 season, striking out 4 and walking 1 over 4.1 frames.

Despite an unsightly 8.31 ERA, his stellar 2.64 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, .235 opponent batting average and .594 opponent OPS gave the first hints of Butler’s potential.
Butler began his summer of 2016 with the Joliet Admirals, a summer collegiate baseball club. Two years after his shoulder failed him, this time his elbow began to bark. Lingering soreness kept him from consistency and effectiveness, as he walked 17.6% of the batters he faced in 4 appearances and a start with Joliet, posting a 6.75 ERA. He made the decision to shut himself down in hopes that the elbow would heal and to prepare for his redshirt-sophomore season.

Butler wasn’t quite 100% healthy for the start of fall ball in 2016-17, his elbow still nagging with pain. He entered the 2017 season without a defined role, and after posting a 32.40 ERA in his three outings, the elbow wasn’t the only thing bothering him as he returned to Naperville after the Huskies’ exit in the Regional.

In the summer of 2017, Matt Butler weighed a major life decision: did he want to continue playing college baseball?

“I was sitting at home, I didn’t know if I was going to come back. I was going to come back for school, but I didn’t know if I was going to play baseball. I was still pretty upset from that season…I would say I was pretty close (to retiring), I had talked to my parents about it and they were supportive about it…I was pretty close to it, but I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I didn’t want to give up on it. Everything I’ve said before about how close my class is, I wanted to finish it out with them.”

Butler returned to campus in the fall of 2017. Finally, everything seemed to come together for the redshirt-junior. One afternoon at practice that fall, then-SCSU Pitching Coach Brett DeGagne had a man-to-man conversation with his righthander. The message was simple: If you want it, go get it. Butler found himself with a revitalized focus on baseball. A full three years removed from his labrum surgery, and his elbow as quiet as could be, Butler raised eyebrows in the fall. His velocity was up. DeGagne moved Butler across the rubber, and worked on repeating his delivery in hopes of unlocking the talent hidden in his pitcher’s right arm.

Finally, in his fourth year on campus, Butler had a role in the St. Cloud State bullpen. He made his debut with a scoreless frame on Opening Day at Missouri Western State, working around a pair of walks. Then, on March 2nd in the Tucson Invitational, he had an outing that could have derailed him in the past.


3.0 innings, 8 hits, 6 runs, 5 earned, one walk, and just 2 strikeouts against Ottawa University.

However, despite the ugly numbers, there were immensely promising signs for Butler.

Facing a team in its first season as a program, scouting reports were scarce. Ottawa’s lineup was tooled to utilize their speed to beat out infield hits and force errors, and the Huskies infield defense was far from mid-season form. Butler worked at a mind-blowing 85.7% ground ball rate and a 64.3% soft contact rate in the outing, surrendering a miniscule 7.1% hard hit rate. Bleeders, rollers, and would-be outs did Butler in, not hard hit balls and nonexistent command.

DeGagne’s confidence didn’t waver in his righthander, but high-leverage outings were still out of reach for the middle reliever. He threw three consecutive scoreless outings to open NSIC play, punching out 2 and allowing just one hit over 2.0 frames. A low-leverage outing in an 8 run game at Minnesota-Crookston capped off that stretch.

Then, on a cold night in Bemidji, Butler got his chance to enter the ring with the Mavericks.

After the Huskies’ starter exited early and their first relief option struggled to record the third out in the fourth inning, St. Cloud State trailed archrival Minnesota State-Mankato 6-2. The Huskies were nearly out of relievers in the finale of the four-game series. They needed someone to step up and save the pen, and after a walk loaded the bases, Pat Dolan handed the ball to Butler. After walking Kato shortstop Luke Waldek on a 3-2 count, Butler bore down and struck out All-NSIC senior Dylan Dresel to leave the bases loaded. He went on to have the best outing of his career, going the final 5.1 innings and allowing one unearned run on 5 hits and a walk while striking out a career-high 6 Mavericks. Butler worked at a 53.3% ground ball rate, a 40% soft contact rate, and a 13.6% swinging strike rate. His sinker sawed off batters, and his curveball was sharper than ever.

St. Cloud State went on to lose the game, still earning a crucial series split with Mankato.

In Pat Dolan’s postgame message to the team on the bus ride to St. Cloud, he spoke about opportunities and making the most of them, then praised Butler’s patience in awaiting his, then running with it. Butler quickly ascended the bullpen, joining Zach Iten and the soon-to-be returning Miks as SCSU’s top high-leverage firemen.

Butler’s 2018 showed the promise of an elite reliever in the Northern Sun. Many casual baseball fans will see his 5.17 ERA and allow that to write the story of his season, but a deeper look into his numbers give Huskies fans a whirlwind of excitement for his senior season. An elite 3.04 FIP, a 25.7% strikeout rate, a 53.2% groundball rate, a 10.6% pop-up rate, and a team-leading 51.1% soft contact rate scream late-inning leverage man. He was a bit plagued by walks, with a 10.8% walk rate, but relievers are allowed to have higher base on ball totals, as long as they produce punchouts and ground balls. Butler also posted the second-lowest hard-hit rate on the staff at 19.1%, just behind closer Nathan Strobel.

So, what attributed to the high ERA? If all the above performance-indicating numbers were so elite, why the 5.17 ERA? It’s actually very easy to find the answer: BABiP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play. In the NSIC, which is statistically a very offensive-friendly environment, league average BABiP is roughly in the .330 range, or approximately 20 points higher than the MLB average. What does that tell us? Take a player’s BABiP, then look at their spray rates. Butler excels at using his plus sinker-curve combination at generating a great deal of weak ground balls and pop ups, which are far and away the most reliable out in baseball, and he avoids hard hit line drives and fly balls, which statistically go for the most hits. However, with a look at Butler’s stats, you can very quickly see that he was debatably the unluckiest pitcher in the NSIC a season ago, as his BABiP stood at a whopping .488, attributing to his .355 batting average against. As the “luck pendulum” swings back his way in 2019 (just as it did in Bismarck, which we’ll get to shortly), Butler’s BAA and ERA should both easily fall into much more dominant numbers.

After his 2018 Huskies season, Butler spent a short while back in Naperville with his family, then came back to St. Cloud to play amateur ball with Sauk Rapids. During the Huskies season, Brett DeGagne had been hired as the Pitching Coach for the Northwoods League’s Bismarck Larks, beginning in the 2018 summer season. DeGagne had discussed the possibility of bringing Butler with him to the Larks, and that came to fruition just a few weeks into June. The Larks needed a long reliever, and were headed through St. Cloud on their way to Rochester. Butler signed his contract and met the team at a gas station.

The Northwoods League is a 72-game summer collegiate league, widely recognized among baseball circles as best in the Midwest and second only to the Cape Cod League in terms of talent. With its excellent simulation of a Minor League season, the Northwoods is often a hitters’ haven. Right on que, Butler made his Northwoods debut in one of the friendlier hitting environments in the league, Copeland Park in La Crosse. Brought on in relief against a fearsome Loggers lineup that featured two 40-RBI men in San Diego’s Shane McGuire and Butler University’s Harrison Freed, Butler managed to go 3.0 innings while allowing just one earned on 5 hits, 2 walks and 3 strikeouts. Butler quickly ascended yet another pitching staff, ending his Northwoods season with a sparkling 2.63 ERA in 12 appearances and 5 starts. He was named Northwoods League Pitcher of the Night after throwing a “no-hitter” on July 29th against Eau Claire, firing 6.0 official innings of no-hit ball while striking out 7 and walking 4 in a 0-0 tie. Butler did allow a hit in the seventh, but the game was called due to rain at the seventh inning stretch, giving him the official no-hitter. Butler’s finest start came against the Mankato MoonDogs on August 4th, receiving a no-decision despite throwing 6.0 innings of 1-run ball on 3 hits and 3 walks while recording 8 punchouts versus one of the league’s most powerful lineups.

Across 37.2 innings with the Larks, Butler posted a 21.5% strikeout rate, a 12.7% walk rate, a 3.31 FIP, a 1.35 WHIP, and an elite .226/.329/.299 opponent slash line for a .628 opponent OPS. Finally, Butler’s luck factors went in his favor, as his BABiP cratered to a .294 mark.

Injuries and past struggles behind him, Matt Butler is prepared to enter the 2019 season as one of the NSIC’s most unheralded elite relievers. He’ll be one of the anchors for a bullpen that has the potential to be the best in Pat Dolan’s time at SCSU, and for Butler, only one thing is on his mind in terms of goals he hopes to accomplish.

“Most importantly, I want this team to go to the World Series. We’ve been close, made a regional every year I was here, we got a huge senior class, lots of senior leadership, I want to make that step and make it to the World Series this year…I’m ready to do whatever they ask of me, whether it’s a spot start, close, long relief, whatever they need, I’m ready to go, I just want to help this team win. And we’re going to win. So, I just want to contribute to it.”

Matt Butler’s path to success hasn’t been an easy one.

Some just might say it’s been the best one.

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