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Byron Buxton was rushed, but not ruined

Despite the Twins’ best efforts to mess up his development, Buxton still has plenty of time to blossom.

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MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles
Buxton chillaxes in Sarasota.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Fangraphs contributor Neil Weinberg published a post earlier this week he called “The Top Prospect Who Technically Isn’t,” and as I clicked on the title I wondered, “Could this be about Twins centerfielder Byron Buxton?” before I found out, yes, it could be and in fact was.

Because, as you surely know, devoted Twins fan, Byron Buxton is part of a cadre of young Twins — including Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco and Jose Berrios — who graduated from “prospect” to “big-leaguer” last season.

This puts them in that odd purgatorial state of being too experienced to find themselves atop glamorous lists from Baseball America or Keith Law, but not good or experienced enough to be depended upon at the big-league level. Once our hopes and daydreams and fantasies are supplanted by the cold, big-league realities of godawful fastball command or shocking whiff rates — not to mention that these jabronis have the gall to struggle, day in and day out, on OUR TELEVISIONS — it’s easy to write off former top prospects as “has beens/never will bes” when they’re not yet the age of the average Double-A player.

The prevalence and prominence of myriad top-prospects lists and rankings of course only compounds our collective impatience (“Why isn’t Jose Berrios a stud yet? I’ve been hearing about him for years!). Our wealth of prospect information has hastened an already-unrealistic timeline.

Which brings us back to Byron Buxton.

Through two injury-marred, up-and-down MLB seasons, Buxton has logged roughly one full-season of big-league baseball — and the results haven’t been pretty.

In 138 games and 469 plate appearances, the young centerfielder is hitting a career .220/.274/.398 with a 34.5% strikeout rate (MLB average is 20.8%) and 6.2% walk rate (MLB average is 7.9%).

There are bright(er) spots. Buxton flashes frightening speed, which he has used to swipe 12 bases in 16 attempts — pretty good rate, not many attempts — and rack up a bunch of extra bases for the Twins with his top-of-the-league speed. Buxton has clocked the fastest time from home to first and home to home (as a righty!) according to Statcast data, and this speed also comes in handy in center, where he’s proven to be one of the league’s best at one of its toughest positions.

Buxton’s premium defense and base-running are all that’s kept his Wins Above Replacement, well, above replacement. He’s managed to be above replacement-level — 1.2 career WAR via Fangraphs, 2.1 career via B-R and 2.1 career WARP via Baseball Prospectus — while posting a batting line 23% below the average hitter. That’s oddly impressive!

And, as any concerned observer of Buxton and the Twins knows, things got markedly better down the stretch last season.

Weinberg demonstrates this progression through two nifty graphs: one illustrates Buxton’s improvement through his rising Weighted Runs Created Plus (100 being league-average) and another through his spike in pulled-ball percentage last season; an increase in pulled balls usually indicates a corresponding rise in power.

Screenshot via Fangraphs
Screenshot via Fangraphs

Things are trending in the right direction, which has helped Twins fans rediscover their excitement about Buxton’s burgeoning career.

If you’d like a visual representation of what Buxton beating the bejesus out of a baseball looked like during his September surge, try this on for size.

The point is, Buxton’s late-season improvements augur well for his arrival as the legitimate, top-tier talent for which we’ve waited.

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Baltimore Orioles
Byron Buxton is cool. I like him.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t ignore the hype

Weinberg does a good job reminding us how preposterously sky-high industry expectations for Buxton were soon after he was drafted out of Georgia’s Appling County High School.

In the summer of 2013 — Buxton’s first full season as a professional — we were only a year-plus into the Mike Trout experience and we were decidedly not taking it in stride. J.J. Cooper, writing for Baseball America, stoked the fire of comparisons between Trout and Buxton. As baseball fans are wont to do, the crowd took Cooper’s consideration of the subject to another level, and the layman’s impression of Buxton went from “really good outfield prospect” to “might be another Trout.” Buxton built his own hype in 2013, racking up a .944 OPS across multiple levels. In his first full year out of high school, Buxton’s numbers were great and people were giving reports to prospect writers suggesting he was truly elite.

His universal prospect rankings from 2013-2016 reflect just how confident the ol’ prospectors were they’d struck gold.

Screenshot via Baseball-Reference

(That image, by the by, comes from the newly designed Baseball-Reference site, which is truly a delight and contains a bunch of fun little doodads like prospect rankings.)

Of course, we all know what’s happened since Buxton actually appeared in the big leagues: elite defense, astonishing speed and abysmal contact at the plate.

But, as Weinberg points out in the article’s most salient section, so much of the chatter around Buxton is utterly devoid of context — or only focuses on the context that paints Buxton as the clear successor to Mike Trout, the Probably Best Baseball Player Ever. Buxton was a victim of his own early success.

In a world where Buxton was a top-20 prospect instead of a top-two prospect, or a world in which no one ranked prospects in numerical order, it’s totally plausible that Buxton’s first MLB reps might not have taken place until last year. Buxton tore up Single-A in 2013, but he missed a ton of time in 2014 with injuries. Other than his two-week stint in the majors in June 2015, Buxton had recorded just 59 plate appearances above Double-A when he was called up in late August of that year. And even in 2016, Buxton had only 209 PA in Triple-A. Phrased differently, Buxton had compiled only 271 PA at Double-A and 268 PA at Triple-A in his entire career. Combined, that’s not even a full season of plate appearances in the minors above A-ball.

Buxton is incredibly talented. That’s obvious to anyone to watches him run or taking batting practice. He’s a gifted individual with a ton of potential, but the Twins offered him very little developmental time and pushed him into major-league games well ahead of the point at which he was probably ready. That’s something they probably wouldn’t have done with even a slightly worse prospect. There’s a world where he spends most of 2015 in Double-A and gets a few late season chances at Triple-A. Then he spends most of 2016 in Triple-A and gets his first major-league time last September. In that world, Buxton likely ranks first or second on 2017’s prospect lists and heads into his age-23 season as a superstar-in-waiting.

Buxton was harmed by the Twins’ aggressive promotions — an aggressiveness only warranted by Buxton’s bananas 2013 in A-ball and the IDS Center-high expectations placed on him, not the Twins’ place in the standings.

The Twins have been abject since 2011. They accidentally won more games than they lost in 2015, sure, but there best-case scenario was reaching a winner-take-all game against the Yankees, at Yankee Stadium, and handing the ball to either Kyle Gibson, Phil Hughes, Ervin Santana, Mike Pelfrey or Tommy Milone.

The Twins’ have struggled to develop or sign a competent center fielder, sure. You could argue Buxton was their best option in 2015, even with almost zero experience in the upper minors — and he probably was in the field and on the bases.

But the only rule to being a major-league laughingstock is to, if nothing else, at least plan wisely for the future. Being terrible affords you the opportunity to throw the youngsters out there and let ‘em get after it, but there are obviously perils to rushing prospects. One would have hoped that the Twins would have learned that after however many dudes they done messed up.

There was just no rush. Buxton’s long-term development was, and is, more important to the team’s future than showing Twins fans a glimpse or two of him to distract from gross organizational incompetence and prehistoric thinking.

But the good news is this: Byron Keiron Buxton is only 23 years old, and will be only 23 years old for the entirety of the 2017 season. Kirby Puckett debuted at 24!

Buxton looked new and improved upon his September return not because of a new strategy from the Twins’ coaching staff but from Buxton returning to a more natural approach that the Twins’ had stamped out, as Fangraphs’ August Fagerstrom detailed in September of last year.

Buxton had a leg kick in high school, which the Twins muted upon their drafting of him in favor of the organization’s go-to “front foot down early” hitting approach. That’s what we saw in 2015. That’s what we saw in the beginning of 2016, too, though after his first demotion to Triple-A in April, he returned a month later with a leg kick. Given the lack of success Buxton experienced in that stint, it was worth wondering whether Buxton and the Twins would stick with the leg kick, or revert to the original plan.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: the Twins demanded a drastic, unnatural change from a supremely talented player to fit a one-size-fits-all organizational approach that has not proven to work.

I still think Byron Buxton is going to be a superstar. I do not think the Twins will have had much to do with it.