Both Lemond and Butler were seen more as relief prospects coming into the San Diego system. The Padres however chose to be more aggressive and put both of them into the High-A Lake Elsinore rotation. In seven starts with the Storm Butler posted an ERA of 1.96 in 41.1 innings and San Diego pushed the big right-hander to Double-A San Antonio in mid-May.
Butler, 23, made three starts with the Missions before being shut down with a tired arm. After a rough first outing where he game up five earned runs, he bounced back in his next start with one earned run in six innings. In his third outing he gave up three earned runs in five innings.
What gets people excited about Butler is pure ceiling. At a very solid six-foot four and 225 pounds he has a fastball that sits in the mid-90s. Right now his change-up and slider are very much works in progress, but he has good fastball command and the secondary pitches only lack consistency.
He was a seventh round pick of the Padres in the 2014 draft out of UNC-Charlotte after earlier stops at Marshall University and Northwest Florida State Junior College, where he went down with Tommy John surgery and didn’t get to pitch.
At UNC-Charlotte, after being drafted by the Yankees in the sixteenth round of 2013 based off of a bullpen before he even appeared in a game as a 49er, Butler turned down the Yankees and went 5-7 with a 3.47 ERA with 49 strikeouts against 27 walks in 83 innings.
One other interesting thing about Butler is that he isn’t really the classic strikeout pitcher you would expect to see with his size and velocity. His ball has a natural sink and he will induce a lot of weak contact.
Most importantly, he is the type of high upside prospect San Diego fans should enjoy watching develop.
We caught up with Ryan in late May and he should rejoin the Missions in early July.
Getting up to Double-A so quickly after you were drafted is very impressive. Coming into the pros did you expect to be a starter or in relief?
Ryan Butler: My first thought was as a starter because it is what I’ve done my whole life. But I was also open to going to the bullpen because I wanted to pitch more than anything else.
I think the Padres saw that I was close to 90 innings coming out of college - and it was my first year after Tommy John - they wanted to limit my innings and being in the bullpen was a way to do that.
When I got to Fort Wayne it was in the closing role and I really enjoyed it - the pressure, the adrenaline was just different from starting. There is adrenaline as a starter, but when you are a closer it is right there in front of your face.
Closing is just about getting three outs, right now - with whatever you got. It’s a whole different ball game.
Did you ever do that role in college?
Ryan Butler: No. I had mostly been a starter, I had a few relief appearances at Marshall, but for the most part I had been always been a starter when I pitched. But when I came into the pros, I knew that if I was going to the bullpen I wanted to close and was lucky to get a chance.
I knew it was a win-win situation for me if I did well. If I dominated the closer role it was a quicker way to get to the big leagues or if I did well in that role they might make me a starter.
t seems like being hurt made you appreciate how much you enjoy playing baseball.
Ryan Butler: It did. I had one injury, the Tommy John surgery in 2012. Before I had never even sprained an ankle.
I was in my second year at junior college when I got injured, so I really didn’t know what to do. I went home back in Charlotte, North Carolina and was working two jobs because I wasn’t in school. I didn’t want to have my parents spend money on classes that might not even transfer to another school.
I rehabbed every morning and I wasn’t sure that I was going to play again. My junior year, which is supposed to be your draft year, and all of my friends that I have played with my whole life are getting picked. I felt like I was being left behind but I knew I still wanted to do it.
I got an walk-on opportunity with UNC-Charlotte. When I went out to throw my first bullpen I wasn’t aware that the Yankees scouts were watching and they ended up drafting me in the sixteenth round off of just a bullpen.
How did you not take that opportunity?
Ryan Butler: There were a couple of things. One, I wasn’t sure I was ready because I was throwing fastballs only after 13 month back from the surgery. The fastball ticked up from before surgery - which I was really happy about. Also, UNC-Charlotte ended up giving me a full-ride. I thought if I just got drafted off of my first bullpen, what could I do with a full year?
Honestly, it was the hardest decision of my life and it went up to the last day. The Yankees really thought I was going to go; but I didn’t.
The downside is it was a gamble, especially if you got hurt again.
Ryan Butler: They definitely entered into the thought process - but I also knew how hard I rehabbed. You can never be sure, but I had a real good feeling that I wasn’t going to get hurt again because I knew how hard I worked to get healthy.
It did work out and I couldn’t ask for a better situation than I am in now. I was picked in the seventh, as opposed to the sixteenth, so I am pretty happy.
A lot of people claim their velocity comes back before their feel. What did you have to work on the most?
Ryan Butler: I took my time with the rehab. I was out of school - and I don’t like to say people get rushed back - but I didn’t have a team, so I didn’t have the pressure to return as quickly as others do.
I didn’t pitch in a game until 15 months and it was one inning. I pitched seven innings the rest of the summer, so it was only eight in total. I didn’t incorporate a change-up until 20 months. I wanted to get my fastball and fastball command back first. As much as you practice dry drills, until you throw off of the mound you haven’t done it yet.
I didn’t throw a slider until 23 months and it was awful, my college coach can attest to that. I just threw to get them off of my fastball. I would throw a spinner in there to change their eye level.
I learned a new slider from the Marlins’ Scouting Director a week before the draft and it really helped me out.
So many of the guys in Fort Wayne that I know just raved about you coming in as the closer last year - particularly you’re velocity and command. As we just talked about, did you think you would get to the majors quicker in the bullpen?
Ryan Butler: I did, but I also thought if I was going to make the big leagues, I will make the big leagues. I’ve always dreamed of being there, but it was as a starter. I grew up watching guys like Martiniez and Josh Becket - and that is the path I thought I saw for myself.
When they told me in Instructs they wanted to make me a starter, I was all for it. If I perform, I will get there.
You adjusted pretty well - you put up some good numbers in Lake Elsinore. We know about your velocity, so I assuming they are all four-seamers...
Ryan Butler: If I am throwing inside to righties is a two-seamer and away to a lefty is a two-seamer.
And it’s coming in at that type of velocity?
Ryan Butler: Yeah, I have good sink on it which is why I tend to get more ground outs than strike outs right now - it generates a lot of weak contact. At Double-A you have to hit your spots more, you can’t get by just on velocity.
How do you divide up between the four and two-seamers and what are you’re other pitches?
Ryan Butler: It is about fifty-fifty between the four and two-seamers. I throw a change-up and my slider right now is more of a slurve. That is the main pitch that I am still focused and working on.
It’s getting there, but I still needs some work.
How is the change-up?
Ryan Butler: I am using the one I’ve thrown my entire life. I didn’t throw it that much last year coming out of the pen, because you want to stay hard coming out of the bullpen. If you are getting them out with the fastball, you want to keep doing it and not speed up their bat.
As a starter you have to keep them off balance more, because hitters rely more on timing.
You come across as a fan as well as a player, so it must be a lot of fun getting an opportunity to work with Trevor Hoffman [the Padres’ upper-level pitching coordinator who was in San Antonio]
Ryan Butler: It is unbelievable. His change-up is probably unteachable because it is so much a feel pitch, but he can point you in the right direction.
He’s not telling you about different grips, so how is he directing you?
Ryan Butler: It is more of a teaching point. Pro coaches are here to help you but he comes from a different level. He knows the game and pitching so well.
He teaches you how to pitch and points different things out to you, like sequencing and pitch selection. He helps you to read hitter’s swings and gets you to ask why you are throwing things.
He’s unbelievable with the mental side of the game.