Twins fans might have been spoiled in their expectations for Byron Buxton. As the 2nd overall pick of 2012, the expectations deserved to be high, but they also may have been fueled by the success of the last guy drafted that high-or-higher, Joe Mauer. Love or hate the contract details in the later years of his career, Mauer redefined Minnesota baseball for a couple generations of fans, won gold gloves and batting titles, and exceeded our wildest dreams in his first few years in the league. Buxton has taken a different trajectory.
Debuting in 2015, at just 21 years old, Buxton has never (unless you count rehab stints in 2018 and 2019) played against professional competition his own age, and started slowly at several levels. In hindsight, the Twins likely brought him up too quickly. In the 2020 season, he’s still below the league-average player age, but the gap has closed. He’s playing in his age-26 season, with parts of five majors campaigns under his belt, and finally seems to be showing some payoff in return for the patience (some) Twins fans have had with his development.
As a 2017 Gold Glove winner, he put up his best season to-date, earning 5 WAR, and splitting his value evenly between his fielding and his bat—it felt like a breakout and a sign of things to come. We all know about his struggles in 2018 though. In 28 games, he still provided a little bit of positive value in the field, but his bat was so atrocious that he was a massive liability to the team. Injuries also played a huge role, as they did in 2019. The 2019 season was a much better one for Buxton, when healthy. He played 87 games, roughly half. In that time, he put up his usual positive defensive value, but more encouraging, a positive performance in the field. Enough that we were talking about a potential breakout season.
Buxton finished 2019 hitting .262/.314/.513, and more encouraging, with 19 walks and only 68 strike outs — one K for every 4.33 plate appearances. With his speed, any ball put into play is a potential hit for Buxton, but he also flashed some classic “doubles power.” Thirty of his 71 hits were two-baggers, and he added 10 bombas to the mix (and four triples.)
The small sample size of the abbreviated 2020 season also provides some encouraging news for Buxton’s fans. While he has been largely in a center field platoon with Jake Cave, Buxton has 36 plate appearances (before Monday’s game.) He’s hitting .235/.250/.779, better than many of the “sluggers” on the Twins. He’s also added a double, and most excitingly, three home runs—in three consecutive games. While the batting average is lower than you’d like to see, its a small sample size, and most importantly, he’s making good contact when he hits the ball. He also has a walk, and only ten strikeouts. At ten out of thirty-six, he’s striking out a slightly higher rate than last season, but not by enough to be significant over this sample, and it suggests that he is seeing the ball well, and he has put the ball in play in 25 of the 36 times he’s come to the plate. That has resulted in a BABIP of only .227, which should go up, bringing his other rate stats with it, in a bigger sample.
Buxton, perhaps more than most Twins, also benefits from the shortened season. Its less grind on the body, and less opportunities to crash into the wall. With Rocco Baldelli taking steps to protect his speedy centerfielder, there is reason to believe Buxton will be able to complete the season with the team. If he can keep hitting like he has been, provide his usual value in the field, and stay healthy, Buxton might finally be the guy we’ve been waiting for. The sample is small, but encouraging.
Is this the year Byron Buxton breaks out?
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