"Quality at-bat" means different things to different people in baseball. To Babe Ruth, it meant a three-run homer. To Rickey Henderson, it might mean a bunt single, a steal of second and third, and home on a passed ball.
But by and large, it means making the pitcher sweat for his out. Or making him sweat and get no out.
A leadoff man is expected to produce quality at-bats. He must be pesky, patient, even ornery at the plate. He must make the pitcher curse and wish mightily for the free-swinging slugger who will swing at anything, including passing hot-dog wrappers or overflying planes.
The Dodgers' Brett Butler doesn't swing at anything but quality pitches. That's why he probably produces as many quality at-bats as anyone in the game. Pitchers hate to see him coming. One of them--Mike Krukow--once told him bitterly: "You're a walking three-ball count! I look at you and I think, 'Oh-oh, here comes Ball Three in the flesh!' "
Being a quality at-batter means never swinging at the first pitch--unless it's a certified lollipop. Steve Garvey and Willie Davis used to swing at the first pitch so often some managers had an automatic fine for the pitcher who threw them a strike. Willie was a Will Rogers hitter: He never met a pitch he didn't like.
Butler looks over pitches like a woman picking out a dress at a sale. He waits for one that, so to speak, goes with his shoes. Some batters figure of a pitch, "Well, that's as good as it's gonna get."
Many years ago, in an All-Star game, the great Carl Hubbell was pitching his patented knee-high strikes, and the great Lou Gehrig came disgustedly back to the dugout. "You might as well swing," he growled to his teammates. "It's not going to get any higher."
Butler doesn't subscribe to this. His motto for the pitcher is, "You can do better than that."
He makes a three-act drama out of an at-bat. He even brings the umpire into the plot. "Was that a strike?" he'll ask the umpire after a pitch he considers marginal. Says Butler: "If he says, 'All night long!' you'll know he's going to call that pitch a strike. I can deal with an umpire who's consistent. You adjust. If it's a strike one time and a ball the next, you got your work cut out for you."
Butler looked at more pitches--2,092 of them--than anyone in the league last year. He not only had more quality at-bats, he had more at-bats period--732. He was the best two-strike hitter in the league, averaging .275 in those situations.
He believes in making the pitcher run through his whole repertoire. "I like to come up in the third inning and say: 'I've seen all his pitches.' I also like the team to see all his pitches, what he's throwing and how he's mixing them up. The more pitches I can make him throw, the less surprises he's got left."
Butler wasn't always this selective. "Chris Chambliss tipped me off," he recalls, citing an old Atlanta Brave teammate. "Once, I had hit this ground ball to shortstop, and when I got thrown out, Chris stopped me and said: 'What did you want to swing at the pitcher's pitch for? Why wouldn't you wait till you got him to throw your pitch?' That set me to thinking."
Butler made a career out of waiting for his pitch. "I can't manipulate a bat like a Wade Boggs or a Tony Gwynn," he says. "I can't overpower a pitch like a Rickey Henderson."
What he does is get on base 300 times a year, give or take a few. He scores 100 runs, steals 40-50 bases--51 last year. He would get 200 hits a season except he walks 90-97 times a year.
"He is our Magic Johnson," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda, boasts. "Magic brings the ball upcourt and gives it to the big guys to score. Brett sets the table, gets on base for our big guys to drive in."
In other words, he is a perfect Butler. Always at the team service. His other contribution is getting the opposing pitcher muttering to himself, wondering what he has to do to get past this first batter. It isn't as if Butler stands there like a guy waiting for a bus. He'll foul off a pitch he doesn't care for but is afraid the umpire might. Nor does he strike out a lot--62 times last year, which would only be a good month for a Reggie Jackson.
A Jose Canseco or a Darryl Strawberry might scare pitchers. The Butler simply infuriates them. "He's waiting for a batting practice pitch," Krukow complains. "He's harder to get rid of than dandruff," complains another pitcher.
"If I could hit the first pitch into the seats, I would," Butler insists. Instead, he gets his runs home 90 feet at a time. Last year, he got 108 of them, which indicates his National League-leading 160 singles were their own form of slugging.
The other night against the Montreal Expos, he stepped in to start the game. The count went to 3 and 1. He fouled off a bunt attempt. He fouled off an inside strike. He fouled off a marginal pitch. Then he walked. Then he scored. Then the Dodgers won, 6-2.
It was vintage stuff for the aptly named leadoff hitter. Whenever they want things done right, the Dodgers know what to do: They ring for their Butler.