Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Ty Buttrey.
The Question: Can Ty Buttrey figure out the command issues that have held him back?
Heading into 2018, I am very interested in the Red Sox bullpen. Granted, it’s kind of my job to be interested in the Red Sox as a whole and over the last few years I’ve built a niche of being interested in bullpens in general, so this isn’t really news. Still, I think this group is a fascinating one. They are coming off a great season, but it’s unclear whether or not the group will be able to repeat that performance. Right now, they are headed by one elite reliever in Craig Kimbrel. They have the potential to have two more outstanding ones behind him in Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. They do not have a lot of intrigue from the left side, though Robby Scott is fine. Then, they are loaded with fine, but flawed, righties that form a logjam of middle relief. That last part affects who we are talking about today. Ty Buttrey is part of a crowded group of right-handed middle relievers who aren’t expected to make a major impact but could very well help out the major-league bullpen in one form or another. If Buttrey is going to get to that point, he has to show some real strides with his command at the outset of the 2018 season.
As I did with Beeks on Tuesday, before we get into this question for Buttrey we should get into a little background. We’ll do this because, as with Beeks, we’re talking about a player who has not yet played in the majors so not everyone may be familiar. Buttrey was Boston’s fourth round pick way back in 2012 out of Providence High School in North Carolina. He has spent most of his professional career as a starter, and while there was once some hope that he could be a solid major-league starter, it soon became clear that wouldn’t happen. The organization transitioned him to relief midway through 2016, making last year his first full season in 2017. He was solid through that season and showed big flashes, and it was enough to get the righty protected from the Rule 5 draft earlier this winter. Buttrey will be playing in his age-25 season in 2018.
So, what makes Buttrey so intriguing? Well, I suppose that depends on your definition of intriguing, but there is a real major-league reliever here. The first thing you notice when you see the righty on the mound is that he is a rather large human being. He’s listed at 6’6”, 230 pounds and is a straight-up intimidating presence on the bump. That size is part of the reason he is able to show off a huge fastball that may be able to reach triple digits and at the very least can consistently touch the upper-90s. He also has a changeup that Baseball America called the best in the Red Sox farm system along with a developing slider with some potential. It’s a strong arsenal that can play up in short stints, but unfortunately the command is a huge issue.
To say it’s an issue may be an understatement, in fact. While Buttrey did take to his first full year in the bullpen, those command issues that forced the move in the first place didn’t go away entirely. There were times when he simply couldn’t find the strike zone with any of his pitches, and it resulted in almost five walks per nine innings between Portland and Pawtucket. He also got hit hard on a regular basis due to an inability to consistently keep that big fastball down and throw it with movement. That was made clear by the fact that he started allowing more home runs in Triple-A as he started to face hitters who are more used to big velocity and can hit a flat, elevated fastball regardless of how fast it’s thrown.
Ultimately, Buttrey is relatively close to being where he needs to be to pitch in the majors. Of course, he should be at that point considering he’s about to turn 25. Still, if he can find a way to get some consistency with all of his pitches, but particularly with his fastball, then there is a strong pitcher here. At his best, Buttrey misses bats at a high rate and that alone is valuable in a major-league bullpen. That being said, there’s big stuff all over the game now and a neat-triple-digits fastball isn’t enough to succeed anymore. Throwing out of the bullpen was still relatively new for Buttrey in 2017, and this coming season will be the year for him to prove his command issues were about adjusting to a new role. If he can show real improvement in the first half of the year, then he should get a chance in Boston at some point in the summer. If not, well, he’ll just be another player who was protected from the Rule 5 draft but couldn’t make the leap to the highest level.