Byron Buxton Is Playing Excellent Baseball

Regardless of whether you believe that they’re good, the Twins are presently sitting in a would-be playoff position. In a crowded field for the American League’s second wild card, the Twins are alone in front, even after having sold off a closer and re-gifted a starter. That the Twins sold pieces is as good an indication as any that they didn’t expect to be here, but here they are, a team with a chance. Most of the AL teams count as teams with a chance, but who are the Twins to deny themselves an opportunity?

There’s no such thing as an organizational plan that revolves around three players, and yet there’s nothing more valuable than a young and cost-controlled star. For that reason, so much of the Twins’ greater outlook seems to depend on the development of Miguel Sano, Jose Berrios, and Byron Buxton. Last year’s Twins lost 103 games, with those three players combining for 2.6 WAR. This year’s Twins are vying for the one-game playoff, with those same three players combining already for 6.5 WAR. Very obviously, there’s been more that’s gone on. But the core has been more promising than not, with Buxton now making another attempt to emerge.

I don’t need to tell you about Buxton’s prospect pedigree. I don’t need to remind you that we’ve been teased by Buxton before. Great players have great whole seasons; talented players have great whole months. Buxton’s more of the latter than the former, but of late, he has shown something new. Buxton is teasing again, in a different way.

This season began with Buxton performing worse than perhaps anyone else in the majors. That was disappointing for many reasons, chief among them that Buxton finished 2016 so well. It seemed like Buxton might’ve been lining himself up for a breakout with a big September, but upon closer inspection, one notices that the 165 wRC+ was paired with a 34% strikeout rate. Good Buxton was still low-contact Buxton, and low-contact Buxton probably isn’t strong enough to be productive.

When August Fagerstrom wrote about late-summer Buxton, he highlighted the aggressive leg kick that preceded the swing. That’s something Buxton had toyed around with. For various times, Buxton had had a leg kick, and he’d stood in there quieter. September Buxton lifted his leg. One was tempted to connect the dots. With players like this, one of our biases is that we’re forever looking for reasons to believe.

I’m subject to the same bias. I’m looking for a reason, myself. But, see, now Buxton has changed course. Back in May, Travis wrote about Buxton trying to slow things down. And then Buxton decided to abandon the leg kick entirely. Here’s a post from Jake Depue, and here’s a post from Rhett Bollinger. Buxton wanted to make more contact. His coaches wanted to see him give himself more time. As I’m sure you’ve read several times before, it can be difficult to make these swing adjustments during the season on the fly, but Buxton up and made the effort. Said effort is being rewarded.

Here’s a clip of Buxton from early in April:

Here is Buxton from Monday:

And again, later:

The difference is pronounced. This isn’t one of those subtle mechanical things that only an expert could identify. Your own mother or father or neighbor or friend could see that the hitter is trying to do something different in those clips. In all cases, Buxton has been trying to hit the ball and hit it hard, but Buxton more recently has simplified. Every frustrating young player just wants to find a tactic that works.

One benefit of mechanical simplification can be adding a split-second or two to make a decision. There’s some evidence to suggest that the recent version of Buxton has done a better job of swinging at strikes instead of balls:

This plot, meanwhile, is the even more promising one. Buxton’s problem all along has been making consistent contact. He’s starting to make more contact:

Whether it’ll hold, I can’t say. That’s always the second issue. The first issue is making a helpful tweak; then you have to make it permanent. There’s a long, long way to go before we can safely conclude that Byron Buxton has gotten a lot better at getting the bat on the ball. Yet, he hasn’t previously shown this. And it’s not as if he’s up there taking half-swings, either. Buxton isn’t intentionally sacrificing a bunch of swing speed for balls in play. His hard-hit rate is fine. He’s taking more of an all-fields approach. Buxton doesn’t have Aaron Judge’s raw power, but he doesn’t need it. He needs, simply, to not strike out in a third of his chances.

It’s not too hard to understand why Buxton’s so very exciting. Why he doesn’t need to hit all that much in order to be an All-Star. The other day, he recorded the fastest inside-the-park home run that Statcast has seen, breaking his own record. Only Billy Hamilton has put up a higher average sprint speed. Since Buxton broke into the majors the first time, he’s ranked seventh overall in baserunning runs per 600 plate appearances. Buxton has always been able to move, and it makes him all the more dangerous.

More dangerous on the bases, and more dangerous in the field. Again, since breaking in, Buxton has been the third-best defensive center fielder by DRS, and the 12th-best defensive center fielder by UZR. I believe more in the former. Messing around with Statcast catch probabilities, I find that Buxton was a good fly-catcher a season ago. This season, no one has been better. Buxton this year has the league’s highest difference between actual catches and expected catches, based on league-average figures. Both DRS and UZR agree Buxton’s been better than ever. Which explains the following quote, from Brian Dozier:

“People say, ‘Numbers don’t lie,’ ” Dozier said. “Numbers lie more than anything in the game. It’s biggest lie in all of sports, the numbers. Because that guy has changed the game for our pitching staff more than anybody. And I’m not talking about the running-up-against-the-wall catches; I’m talking about even little bloopers in the gaps, plays that people don’t really see.

“I don’t care if he hits .180; that guy changes the game more than anybody I’ve seen in this game over my six years, defensively.”

Dozier is correct to note that Buxton can be a helpful everyday player even when his offense is down. He wouldn’t be the first light-hitting center fielder to slot in there on a regular basis. And that’s precisely why these recent offensive developments are so encouraging. Suddenly, Byron Buxton is showing the ability to make more consistent contact. Perhaps he could hit closer to .280 than .180. Perhaps not, but this is a new kind of tease. A tease and a breakout look the same at the beginning.

We hoped you liked reading Byron Buxton Is Playing Excellent Baseball by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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YKnotDisco
Member
YKnotDisco

Over the last calendar year he has hit exactly league average. If he at least maintains that level of production at the plate, he becomes a 4+WAR player with the chance he will eventually tap into that huge upside that came with his pedigree.

I’m rooting big time for him. The game needs more raw athletes like him.

I hope Moncada learns to put the bat on the ball more frequently too. Turning singles to doubles. Doubles to triples. Triples to – the most exciting play in baseball – inside-the-park HR’s.

RonnieDobbs
Member
RonnieDobbs

I don’t think the game needs more raw athletes. I think it needs more quality baseball players and fewer raw athletes. To each his own though. I really like watching guys like Chase Utley play. I don’t like watching dudes swinging out of their ass and throwing balls all over the field very much (imagine peak Puig). If all I did was watch highlights, and browse Statcast rates then I would have a different opinion.

YKnotDisco
Member
YKnotDisco

In regards to offense: I respectfully disagree. I think the game needs more raw athletes that are dripping with tools – that carry over to defense too – to put the ball in play. What the game needs less of is – watching the best athlete on the team take a slow stroll back to the dugout.

Not every player is built for this day and age of the long ball. When some are getting under the ball often – but only resulting in weak fly balls and IFFB, it seems counter productive. A lot of these type of players could benefit from more of an 80’s style of play. Not to the extreme of “slash and dash” but more of a level swing line drive approach.

Maybe i’m just selfish and prefer more action than todays game provides?