Byron Buxton’s Second Half Surge

I’ll never be confused for a Byron Buxton fanboy. The tremendous hype of being a top-2 prospect for three straight seasons set outsized expectations that few could realistically meet. Buxton fell waaay short, though. He totaled just 138 games in 2015-16 with a paltry .220/.274/.398 line including 12 HR and 12 SB in the 469 PA. He was even worse for the first three months of 2017, hitting .195/.272/.280 through 78 games (263 PA). From there, he started a six-game hitting streak before going on the DL only to return as one of the league’s best players for the final two months. How’d that happen?

One factor I mentioned a while ago was that the Twins had a cake schedule that helped Buxton and others feast, turning several Twins into key fantasy assets down the stretch and pushing the team to a wildcard bid. I don’t point out the schedule as a way to dismiss what Buxton did, but I think it played a role. Of course, as part of the AL Central they will be seeing a lot of the Tigers, Royals, and White Sox, only the latter of which has an upward trajectory heading into 2018. Buxton faced bad teams in the first half of the season and was terrible against them, so he’s not just a creation of the schedule.

In his first 78 games, he simply couldn’t hit the ball. It wasn’t just a matter of chasing and flailing, either, he couldn’t hit the ball in the strike zone. Through July 3rd, he was dead-last with a .531 OPS on pitches in the zone (min. 150 PA, 196 players). The league average was .850. His 24% K rate was “only” 24th-worst and markedly worse than the 14% average. Buxton did have a .248 BABIP in this sample, but looking at the rest of the skills has me thinking it was more earned than bad luck.

This pitch is a good microcosm of Buxton’s first half – indecisive and tentative. He struck me as someone deep in his head from pitch-to-pitch trying to make up for all the bad work in one fell swoop. His approach required a fundamental change. Buxton ditched his leg kick and sought more contact whether on the ground or in the air whereas he’d been targeting in-air contact and more specifically, power, with the complicated leg kick. Look how much more still and deliberate he is at the dish in this August plate appearance against Joe Biagini:

That was the fifth straight curveball he’d seen, spanning back to the previous plate appearance. He spit on a good one that was low, took two high ones for strikes (one in each PA), couldn’t lay off another good one low and bounced into a fielder’s choice, and then the homer. He obliterated another slider and fastball for his second and third homers of that game, going 4-for-5 with 5 RBI and 4 R.

 

So, about that schedule… Buxton was on fire in August (.973 OPS) and then solid in September (.790), but the combined two months yielded a .298/.342/.541 with 11 HR and 13 SB in 225 PA. He played 56 of the team’s 59 games, missing a late-August game against the White Sox and then two of the last four (one at CLE, one v. DET). The Twins saw 43 of those 59 games (73%) come against sub-.500 teams, against whom they scored 6.2 runs per game.

Nearly 60% (25 of 43) of those games were against the AL Central bottom feeders: CWS, DET, and KC. Add in SD, TB, TEX, and TOR to finish the list of sub-.500s they played. He posted a .300/.344/.560 line with 9 HR and 9 SB against those teams. The 16 games against .500+ teams included three playoff clubs – CLE, ARI, NYY – and four-game set against Milwaukee split between the two venues. The Twins scored 5.0 runs per game in those contests. Buxton didn’t cower against the quality teams, hitting .291/.339/.491 with 2 HR and 4 SB.

Buxton and his teammates undoubtedly benefitted from that schedule, but it wasn’t the impetus behind his surge. He made tangible approach changes and saw results against all comers. The biggest result change that came from the swing alterations was his ability to actually hit stuff in the zone. Whether you use just the final two months or fold in the big week in July before he hit the DL, Buxton was markedly better in the strike zone.

Remember earlier that he was dead last in the zone through July 3rd (.531 OPS). From July 4th on, he was 5th out of 179 batters (min. 150 PA) with a 1.130 OPS and his .400 AVG was a league-best. A .420 BABIP – also a league-best – helped fuel that success and would be unrealistic to expect going forward, but for the first time I’ve seen some advancement from Buxton that looks legit and should help drive his success in 2018… or at the very least keep him from bottoming out yet again.

Of course, you know that once I’m on board with Buxton, his cost has to be through the roof since my barrier to entry was set so high. The market is currently taking him as the 50th player off the board. I get it. I can’t see myself doing it, but I get it. I’m a “get your guys” drafter, even if it means bucking ADP by a few rounds. Just be reasonable.

Don’t take your obvious mid-teens round *sleeper* in the sixth round, but the values we generate and adhere to aren’t nearly as precise as we sometimes like to think (though the projection makers themselves are usually first to say they aren’t a bible by any stretch). If you generally believe that Buxton will be about the 80th-best guy while carrying 15-20 upside, I don’t see a problem taking him in the late-3rd/early-4th round (pick 40-50), especially if you’ve determined that it’s your last chance to get him.



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Paul is the Editor of Rotographs and contributes to ESPN's Daily Notes. He is the purveyor of the SP Guide (on hiatus for '17). Follow Paul on Twitter @sporer, on Snapchat at psporer, and on Twitch at psporer24.

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Is .850 OPS league average correct? On the whole season, BR has the league average at .750. Haven’t found avg k rate but 14% seems low. Love Buxton’s potential now that he’s settled on technical adjustments

Edit: “on pitches in the zone” … my mistake. That makes way more sense.