The pint-sized, 160-lb. Butler developed into one of baseball’s surest and most wide-ranging centerfielders, with errorless seasons in 1991 (when his 380 total chances tied for the NL lead) and 1993. As a hitter, Butler was largely perceived as a throwback, with talents better suited to the deadball-era style of play. Butler had very little power, so if he wasn’t slapping the ball to the opposite field, he was often bunting for a hit. His four consecutive years leading the NL in singles (1990-93) is a league record.
Despite leading the NL in triples (13) in 1983, Butler was sent by the Braves to the Indians as part of an ill-conceived trade for starter Len Barker. From 1984 through 1987, he averaged 41 stolen bases as Cleveland’s [left-handed] leadoff hitter. In 1985 he led AL outfielders with a .998 fielding percentage, and his 14 triples in 1986 topped the league.
Butler left the Indians for his hometown Giants as a free agent for 1988, prompting Cleveland’s Andy Allanson to call Butler a selfish player. Back in the NL, Butler led the league with 109 runs for his new team.
Always patient at the plate, Butler grew more selective as he got older, tying the NL record with five walks in one game while with the Giants on April 12, 1990. His OBP was above .400 three of his first four years with the Dodgers, and in 1991 he led the NL with 108 walks and 112 runs. An aggressive base stealer with a below-average success rate, he led his league in caught stealing three times. Still, his skills made him the prototypical pesky leadoff hitter, and he scored 100 or more runs six times and topped 90 runs eight straight years (1984-’91).
The bitter 1994-’95 strike/lockout made the outspokenly pro-player Butler temporarily unpopular with the L.A. fans and management. He was let go, and signed with the Mets. After a poor start, he caught fire in mid-season and was reacquired by the Dodgers for their successful pennant drive.
A born-again Christian who publicly proclaimed his faith, Butler proved his toughness and desire in the remarkable 1996 season when he came back from a mid-season throat cancer operation, inspiring his pennant-chasing teammates. He suffered a broken hand in his fifth game back in September — his second “season-ending” injury of the year, though he hoped to come back had the Dodgers had lasted further into the post-season. He did return the following year, though by the end of the season the Dodgers’ acquisitions of Darren Lewis and Otis Nixon reduced Butler to part-time status.