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Byron Buxton is the second fastest player in MLB. Why can’t he steal third base?

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The Twins’ young centerfielder has yet to use his mind-bending speed to burgle the hottest corner of them all.

Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton possesses frightening speed, but he has yet to steal third in his young career.
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Byron Buxton is the second-fastest player in baseball, according to MLB Statcast’s new Sprint Speed metric, which is only surprising in that he’s not first. Watching him bolt around the bases, it’s difficult to fathom a faster human. Buxton looks like a man who’s discovered a heretofore unknown turbo button — and he rarely removes his finger from R2.

At his peak speed, Buxton covers a jaw-dropping 29.9 feet per second, second behind only Billy Hamilton, this era’s Vince Coleman and a truly anomalous player. (For context, the MLB average is 27 feet per second.)

Buxton is also a savvy, successful base-stealer: in his career, Buxton has stolen 25 bases in 30 attempts, good for a 83% success rate. This year, Buxton is 13-for-14 in stolen base attempts, the fourth-best rate in the American League, and ranks sixth in MLB in Fangraphs’ Weighted Stolen Base Runs Above Average (wSB), which calculates a player’s runs above/below average per stolen-base attempts.

But Buxton also boasts more than just sheer speed. Deadspin published an interesting bit of research Thursday, in which author Lindsay Adler used the newly released Sprint Speed and two extant baserunning metrics — Fangraphs’ BsR and UBR — to determine which baserunners are making the most of their speed (or lack thereof.)

Buxton performed well, again just about as well as anyone besides Billy Hamilton. (I’ve featured the 2016 data due to this season’s small sample size.)

Image via Deadspin

Byron Buxton combines breakneck speed with smarts on the bases, which, when you throw in his otherwordly abilities with the glove in centerfield, have managed to boost his Wins Above Replacement to respectable levels despite hitting like MJ at the beginning of Space Jam.

But a closer look at Buxton’s baserunning numbers reveals something surprising. Byron Buxton, the second-fastest player in baseball this season and the fastest last season, has never stolen third base in the majors — in fact, he’s only bothered to try once in 210 career games (all stats through Wednesday).

We all know that Byron Buxton can fly; but will he ever take the restrictor plate off and truly soar?

Oakland Athletics v Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton has tried to steal third once in his career, on July 26, 2016 against the Braves
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Turbo-powered but too timid?

Buxton has flashed premium speed since he entered the big-leagues.

But for a turbo-powered man, Buxton has displayed a surprising cowardice when it comes to unleashing that top-level speed in the most high-profile running situation: stealing bases.

Of 2017’s 10 fastest baserunners according to Statcast’s Sprint Speed, no one has attempted fewer stolen bases than Buxton over the last two seasons. (Minimum 500 combined plate appearances.) And before you point out that Buxton’s pathetic OBP doesn’t exactly allow for a lot of stolen-base opportunities, Buxton is ahead of only the 31-year-old Lorenzo Cain in stolen base attempts on a rate basis. (“Run Rate” is what I’m calling Stolen Base Attempts / Stolen Base Opportunities.)

That’s what speed do

Player Team Sprint Speed SB Opportunities SB Attempts Run Rate
Player Team Sprint Speed SB Opportunities SB Attempts Run Rate
Billy Hamilton CIN 30.1 163 104 0.64
Byron Buxton MIN 29.9 178 23 0.13
Keon Broxton MIL 29.4 136 46 0.34
Dee Gordon MIA 29.3 157 70 0.45
Kevin Kiermaier TB 29.2 241 38 0.16
Trea Turner WAS 29.2 248 79 0.32
Jarrod Dyson KC/SEA 29.2 190 60 0.32
Lorenzo Cain KC 29.2 275 33 0.12
Rajai Davis CLE/OAK 29.1 218 62 0.28
Ben Revere WAS/LAA 28.8 175 25 0.14

Buxton’s reticence to steal is even more pronounced when we add attempted steals of third base into the mix. (I’ve highlighted Buxton, Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon because I found their outlier-ness interesting. As you can see from the trend line, there’s a pretty decent correlation between willingness to steal third and willingness to steal generally.)

Data via Baseball-Reference; graph via Louie

The 29-year-old Ben Revere and Cain are the only two players near Buxton in terms of lack of third-base aggressiveness (three and five attempts, respectively), and both are considerably more experienced and older than Buxton — a huge factor in foot speed, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello noted on Thursday.

Hamilton serves as an interesting comparison to Buxton; the two have been the fastest baserunners in the Statcast era and have both parlayed that speed into superlative defensive play in center, while at the plate struggling to reach base (a career .297 OBP for Hamilton and .272 for Buxton), hindering their respective opportunities to use that speed.

Speed-wise, Buxton and Hamilton are essentially in a dead heat. Buxton was clocked at 30.7 feet/second at max effort last season, Hamilton at 30.2. This year, Hamilton is at 30.1, Buxton 29.9. Hamilton and Buxton stride past the rest of the field as the two fastest gents in baseball, according to Sprint Speed.

To continue the similarities, over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Buxton and Hamilton have worked their way into a pretty even amount of base-stealing opportunities — 178 and 163, respectively. Buxton has had 15 more opportunities to steal a base (which Baseball Reference define as “plate appearances through which a runner was on first or second with the next base open”) than Hamilton.

But where Hamilton has embraced his scant chances to run, Buxton has squandered his: in 15 fewer opportunities, Hamilton has attempted to steal 81 more times than Buxton, including a staggering 35-to-1 gulf when it comes to trying to steal third.

Byron Buxton clearly doesn’t feel comfortable trying to steal third. Perhaps a closer look at his one career attempt at doing so will help us uncover the paradox of Byron Buxton, World-Class Baserunning Man Who Abstains from Stealing Third Base for Potentially Beguiling Reasons.

Chicago White Sox v Minnesota Twins
Byron gets some well-deserved high fives
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Trying to steal third is a flat circle

Let’s flash back, shall we, to the Twins’ 99th game of the 2016 season on July 26 at Target Field.

Young Byron Buxton, having survived an early-season demotion to Triple-A, had recently raised his batting average above .200 to a robust .207/.256/.335 and was clearly feeling himself, because he was fixing to steal third for the first time, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, one must reach second base to find one’s self with the opportunity to steal third, so let’s watch Buxton do just that on an Eduardo Nuñez single in the bottom of the third inning.

OK, not ideal. If/when I use phrases like “first time roller-skating” or “desert-dweller’s first ice-fishing excursion” to describe Byron Buxton’s flailing — but still somehow faster than 99.9% of humans! — body, remember this image.

That is not how you bump chests, gentlemen.

Anyway, Buxton found himself on second base, and, after a Joe Mauer strikeout, decided it was time to feel the air blow through his hair as he galloped toward third.

Here’s Buxton’s lead before the first pitch to Mauer.

Screenshot via MLB.tv

On the one hand, that’s a shorter lead off second than you’d like; on the other, Braves shortstop Erick Aybar is awfully close to the bag, and if Buxton gets too much farther away, Aybar could beat him to there on a daylight play. Verdict: I’m OK with the lead. It wasn’t the lead that screwed poor Byron.

Braves pitcher Lucas Harrell was paying plenty of attention to Buxton, which didn’t give Buxton much of a chance to extend that lead much.

That’s actually a very well-executed timing pickoff play to second, and Buxton’s lead is appropriate; he certainly got back in time, but not with tons of ticks to spare. Harrell’s keeping an eye on him, and Aybar’s lurking.

After Mauer struck out, Aybar shifted to his right to deal with the approaching Miguel Sano, but Braves second baseman Gordon Beckham stuck around to lurk, creep, and keep an eye on Buxton. Check out Beckham breathing down Buxton’s neck as the camera zooms out.

Harrell certainly showed crazy levels of concern for Buxton, a respect that acknowledged the youngster’s speed — despite Buxton’s zero career stolen base attempts at third and general tentativeness in base-stealing situations.

And then it happened.

On an 0-1 pitch to Sano, Buxton made his move. And, in a great bit of Twins symmetry, Buxton was thrown out by one Anthony John Pierzynski, the former Twins catcher who was drafted by the club before Byron Buxton’s first birthday.

There’s a smoothness to the throw, slide and tag that I think undersells how close this was. It’s just so easy on the eyes that it feels predestined, almost. But Buxton was inches/moments away from nabbing that base.

Let’s watch the whole sequence from the reverse angle, which gives the viewer the opportunity to see the jump and context more clearly.

Hmm. Again, the lead isn’t long enough, but the Braves’ middle infielders have made getting a longer lead tricky under the circumstances. Buxton’s main issue comes with his break. He doesn’t get moving quickly enough, and for his first few steps seems more fixated on the pitch — which a baserunner can always check on later, as the batter is swinging — then getting a killer jump. Granted, his preposterous speed takes over after a step or two, but in, this one instance, that’s just one thing that speed won’t do.

I am picking nits. Buxton really had no business being thrown out there. The pitch was up, hard and to Pierzynski’s glove side, and though he had to throw through Sano, Miguel got his big head out of the way right quick. And then Pierzynski made a perfect throw. Sometimes the catcher just makes a perfect throw.

I’m not suggesting that Pierzynski somehow scared Buxton off of stealing third with this CS, or that Byron contracted some bizarro mutation of the yips that’s infected his base-stealing ability. Stealing third is much more about comfort, confidence, knowledge, and getting a good read than stealing second. Us slow guys loved stealing third, because if you knew what to look for you could always burgle a quick base and piss off a catcher. As I’m sure Miguel Montero would tell you, third base, like all bases, is usually stolen off the pitcher.

But, all joking aside, it usually is. Stealing second, like the basement of Los Pollos Hermanos, is an exercise in unadulterated speed. Stealing second is a numbers game. Get the correct lead, go on first move, run like hell and avoid the tag. Stealing third is more nuanced; you have less time, sure, because of the shorter throw from the catcher.

But pitchers get much more routine and lazy in their habits with a runner on second, and — unless there’s an unfortunate shift being deployed — you’ve got a lot more room to jump off the bag or take a walking lead. You’re always closer to second than any fielder, barring some goofy shift. You can get back if you trust your footwork and know what to look for from the pitcher. If you prefer patterns to the pitter-patter of feet racing, stealing third can be much easier.

All of this conjecture to say: I could get behind an argument that a younger, less experienced player may feel less comfortable and confident to try and steal third than second. Buxton knows he’s fast, and stealing second (especially against a righty) is primarily about speed. Buxton’s uneasiness or unwillingness could stem from his discomfort and unfamiliarity with snagging bases at the major-league level.

Maybe the Twins coaching staff doesn’t feel Buxton is ready to unleash his speed on the world, and has essentially given him the red light when he’s second and the yellow white when he’s on first? Perhaps Molitor and company don’t feel he’s ready to start running wild.

Another possibility: Buxton knows that he can score from second anyway, so why bother? In his short MLB career, Buxton has been on second when a single was hit 21 times; he’s scored 14 times. This year he’s scored on six of the seven singles hit when he was on second. (Those numbers don’t factor in a hit’s placement or velocity or where/how it was fielded.)

If you can score from second on nearly any single, perhaps stealing third feels like an unnecessary risk? Sure, there are still myriad ways to score from third that are impossible from second, but perhaps Buxton doesn’t feel the risk is worth it.

Or maybe Buxton doesn’t even know, doesn’t even care. Maybe if you asked him about it he’d say, “Huh. Really?” and steal third twice that night. I don’t know.

I do know that Byron Buxton is too fast to stand still this often, and he’s certainly too fast to go his whole career without stealing third base once. Life is a cruel, unrelenting bastard; you’ll never be as fast as you are right now. Sports are degradation, decay and death playing out in real time. Byron, stave off death while you still can. Show us what you’re capable of. Steal third base.