A number of prospects did wonders for their stocks in 2013, and near the top of this year's list of risers is Eddie Butler. Riding a rocket of a right arm, the Rockies' 2012 first-round (46th overall) Draft selection soared up prospect lists in 2013, closing the season ranked third among Colorado prospects and 88th on MLB.com's Top 100.
Butler came out of Radford (Va.) University a relative unknown but began the year dominating the Class A South Atlantic League with a mid-to-high 90-mph fastball, a hard-breaking slider and dive-bombing changeup. The three-pitch mix -- he also has a curveball -- was better than expected, and Butler's control and mound presence improved so much that questions about whether the 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-hander would stick as a starting pitcher were muzzled by a season's worth of lights-out performances.
The Rockies needed just nine starts to decide Butler was too polished for the SAL, and he only needed 13 starts to blow through the Class A Advanced California League. The 22-year-old finished 2013 with six starts at Double-A Tulsa, where he posted a 0.65 ERA and a 25-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 27 2/3 innings.
MiLB.com caught up with Butler recently and asked him about his breakout campaign, his path through the Big South Conference and what he has planned for an encore in 2014.
MiLB.com: You mentioned to us during the season that you were disappointed to begin the year with Class A Asheville. You ended up finishing the year with Double-A Tulsa -- and very successfully. How gratifying was it to move that quickly after being frustrated by your starting point?
Butler: It was a great thing. I was very happy to get that call to say I was going up and finishing the season there. I think it helped me for this coming season, whether I start it in Double-A or have the possibility of trying to win a spot in big league camp.
MiLB.com: You pitched really well in your six starts with Tulsa. What do you think allowed you to be effective in your first taste there?
Butler: We had a set plan on what to work on throughout the year. It started from Spring Training. We made a plan and I stuck to it the whole season. The pitching coaches were keen on it, and I was sure to be working on what I was supposed to be doing through the year.
MiLB.com: You also mentioned earlier this year that you'd started keeping scouting notes on hitters you've faced. After a year of that, what is your biggest takeaway on why that's beneficial?
Butler: I think the advantages are going to be in the long run. Having faced some guys I'm sure I'll face again, guys who are good competition, it's useful to have some notes to get the upper hand. I think it's going to be a big benefit.
MiLB.com: With how quickly you moved in 2013, did you get a chance to put those notes to much use?
Butler: When I was in Modesto, I got to use them a lot. We faced Stockton and San Jose a lot, and those notes came in handy to remember what I did against this guy or in certain situations.
MiLB.com: What was the biggest difference between Double-A hitters and the guys at lower levels?
Butler: I think the biggest thing with the hitters is they pick a pitch to swing at versus swinging at pitches in the zone. In Double-A, they might take a fastball inside first pitch for a strike, compared to a lower-level guy who will swing just because it's a first-pitch fastball in the zone. The Double-A hitters have a much better plan of what to do. One of the big things is it gives you a little bit better opportunity for success if you're throwing a pitch that's not in their plan, but then if you do throw them a pitch in their plan, they're going to hit it well.
MiLB.com: Did you figure out any ways to anticipate what a guy's plan might be? Can you guess at that from a stance or reputation, or is that something you lean on your catcher for more often?
Butler: You definitely need a lot of trust in your catcher. They're working against those guys all season, and there are only eight teams in the Texas League, so they know the hitters pretty well by the end of the season.
MiLB.com: You were drafted out of Radford and became the highest-selected player both from Radford and from the Big South Conference. What was it like to go from being the big guy in a small conference to a small-conference guy in pro ball?
Butler: I think it was a great opportunity the Rockies gave to me. It's definitely going to help out with the conference name and the school name, make some guys want to go there more. It definitely will help make the Big South be considered more and Radford considered more for guys than it may have been before. For me, I felt like I kind of had to fight a little more. Guys look at you and say, 'You didn't come from the ACC or SEC or a big-name school.' You have to go tooth-and-nail against people with that.
MiLB.com: What was the big draw for you to head to Radford?
Butler: The coaching staff. I went up there for a visit, and they really seemed to care about me and wanted to get me further along in my career. They looked after my health. I think I only had one game where I went more than 120 pitches, and that was a complete-game shutout where we were winning 1-0, I think. That was the only time. They still monitored my velocity and command, asked how I felt. They really cared about my health.
MiLB.com: I'm sure a lot of coaches try to create that impression while recruiting. What did Radford do to make you buy in?
Butler: It just seemed like a good fit. Between me and my family, we considered it the best option. I had some bigger schools look at me, but they seemed to care more about the program compared to helping me in my career. I think that was a big part of it. They wanted to see me succeed.
MiLB.com: What was the biggest difference for you coming out of high school and then getting drafted after college? What improved most?
Butler: I think definitely getting away from home and going to college, you grow up a lot more. You think you're ready out of high school, or at least I thought I was, but to see the difference it made even since I've been in pro ball has been outstanding. I'm a completely different person mentally. I'm still working on that. It's always going to be that way. The game's a mental game. That's always going to be the biggest difference. [ed. note: Butler is from Chesapeake, Va., about a five-hour drive from Radford. He went to high school in his hometown at Greenbrier Christian Academy, which also produced B.J. Upton.]
MiLB.com: Are you talking more about maturity off the field and offseason workouts, or more about being able to handle adversity during a given game?
Butler: It's all of it. My maturity on the field is better. I used to get pissed and try throwing every pitch 100 mph. Now, it's okay. I can control myself if there's an error or if a guy hits a good pitch out of the park. I know I have to make the next pitch. Obviously, getting through the offseason and eating right, that's still tough for me to eat right all the time. I definitely still have a lot of growing up to do, and I'm still a work in progress and always will be.
MiLB.com: What's your experience been trying to eat right during the season when you're on the road all the time?
Butler: It's just trying to find the healthier places to eat. You can't call up Dominos and Pizza Hut every night. You have to perform. I think it can be easy to call them up and they'll bring food right to your room rather than walking down the street half a mile for Subway. There's a struggle there, being on the road and even being home, it's still a struggle. You can hop right off at McDonalds or Wendy's or Burger King and get something real quick rather than getting home and cooking a meal.
MiLB.com: The Rockies picked Jonathan Gray in the first round this summer, and he's another big arm and might be a teammate of yours at Double-A next year. Have you had a chance to get to know him at all? Are you excited to be one of two big arms likely climbing up to the Majors in the near future like that?
Butler: It's going to be a great thing, having two power arms in the front of the line. We're going to run out there and see if anyone else has a 1-2 combo that can beat us. I got to spend a lot of time with him in instructs, play a lot of golf with him. He's a great guy, real down to earth, kind of quiet, too. I'm going to be living with him and I'm getting to know him real well, and it's great that I'll probably be pitching beside him for the next five or so years.
MiLB.com: You guys are already living together, or will be in the future?
Butler: For Spring Training, we're going to be living together in an apartment. If we both end up in Double-A, we'll maybe get a place if we don't kill each other in the spring.
MiLB.com: Do you ever talk to Gray or any other pitchers or coaches about what it'll be like to pitch in Colorado? I imagine that's a lot to face, both being a young pitcher on his way to the Majors and then having to be a young pitcher working in that environment.
Butler: They say the ball moves less there. We'll find out about that. I think the big thing is keeping the ball down. If you leave something up, it's going to get hit really far. You keep the ball down, move it in and out, change speeds, and that should be a pretty good recipe for success. It's definitely a thing they preach to us in Spring Training and instructs and throughout the season -- keeping the ball down. They set up lines at the plate, say, 'Here, hit this three-inch area at the bottom of the zone. We don't want it above this line.'
MiLB.com: Have you heard yet whether you're headed to Major League Spring Training?
Butler: I haven't heard anything yet, but I'm preparing myself for it. If I get called to it, then great, and if not, it'll be a chip on my shoulder to really fight for it. I think it will be a great experience to be around those guys. I'm going to go early either way to try to associate myself with the big league guys up there and the coaching staff, all that.
MiLB.com: Have you started throwing yet? What's the timeline look like for you between now and Spring Training?
Butler: Right now, if I get the call to camp, I'm probably going to go up a week, week and a half early to get to know the people and try to find a place to be within the team. If I don't, I'll probably go up in the middle of February, try to get there two weeks early for Spring Training. I've already started my throwing program, out to 90 feet, a little further some days. I've been working out, too, just trying to get ready.