Power hitters are by definition feast-or-famine at the plate, and that’s just the reason University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball coach Tony Robichaux doesn’t call Dylan Butler a “power” hitter anymore.
Cajuns fans might disagree, especially after watching the Belle Chasse senior outfielder win the team’s home run derby during Sunday’s Fan Day activities. In a streak of five pitches, Butler launched three shots over Moore Field’s left-field wall on his way to five total homers.
It’s also an overlooked fact that, with the power the Cajuns had throughout their lineup over the past two years, it was the freshman Butler that led the 2012 team in home runs with eight.
“Being able to hit the ball out of the ballpark, it’s a gift and a curse,” Robichaux said this week. “With that comes strikeouts. He has gotten better at trying to become a good hitter with power. There’s a difference.”
The numbers bear that out. Butler had the eight homers and 45 RBIs as a freshman, but he hit only .249. He increased that to .295 and .298 the last two years while still keeping his power numbers. More significantly, Butler has gone from a .284 on-base percentage to a .379 mark during last season’s stellar 58-10 march to the NCAA super regionals.
His team has gone from a 23-30 record in his first year to a 43-20 mark and an NCAA regional in 2013, before last year’s successes that included being ranked No. 1 nationally in the final month of the season.
“For the people that were a part of that my freshman year, it’s been special,” Butler said. “The losing, and then the winning. You realized last year that these guys hate losing more than they enjoyed winning. ... That’s why we kept our beards and went until the end of the season before we lost two in a row.”
When Butler talks about players who were still around since that last losing season in 2012, he’s only talking about himself and infielder Tyler Girouard, who rejoined the team just before spring drills. If it weren’t for Girouard, who redshirted his first year and just turned 23, the 22-year-old Butler would be the grand old man of the Cajun clubhouse.
“I do feel old,” Butler said as he and his teammates went through final workouts this week in advance of Friday’s season opener at Texas-San Antonio. “But I’m also thankful to be back to have one more chance. I want to help take these kids and help them grow. ... I want them to feel how it felt for us last year.
“They abuse us, me and Shug (Girouard), but when we step in the box, we show them how it’s done.”
Butler’s home run derby escapades didn’t come as a surprise. He had six homers and 31 RBIs in a strong top-to-bottom Cajun lineup last season. He also had a career low in strikeouts and had 23 free passes after totaling only 17 walks the previous two years combined.
Robichaux knows how valuable Butler is, as one of only two position players back from last season, and so does the rest of the Sun Belt Conference. The conference coaches named him to the preseason all-league team after he had 11 doubles, scored 40 runs and had a .491 slugging mark. Four of his homers and 18 RBIs came in conference play, when he hit .316.
But it’s not just those hitting numbers.
“He’s been in the clubhouse before,” Robichaux said. “He knows when to speed them up, when to slow them down, when to calm them down. Most freshmen play the game out of control because they’re over-trying.”
Butler himself was a victim of that as a freshman, but his development paralleled the program’s uprising the past two years.
“I remember opening night, I remember how scared I was,” Butler said of his first appearance. “I got three straight fast balls and didn’t swing the bat. If I popped up that year, I’d go mope in the dugout. I’ve matured a lot with my actions on and off the field.
“Our record that year was something to forget, but we used that as motivation. To be a part of a losing team, we said that was never going to happen again. We did what we did last year because we loved each other, and we’re growing into that this year.”
Butler figures to be one of the starting outfielders for the opening weekend series at San Antonio, and his fourth opening day doesn’t diminish the enthusiasm.
“Friday’s going to feel like a year away,” he said. “I’m going to have the biggest smile on my face just when I start packing for the trip.”