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Is Byron Buxton’s start for real?

Is it all too good to be true?

Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

Byron Buxton has been one of the few bright spots for the Twins so far in 2021. But boy, has he ever been bright. Through 12 games played this year, Buxton is batting .432 with an absurd 1.456 OPS. He’s remained an all-world defender while adding an effective slugging approach at the plate. He’s tied for the league lead in fWAR at 1.6, with two names you might know: Mike Trout and Ronald Acuña Jr; this is despite playing in 5 and 4 less games than those guys, respectively. Can he keep this up?

The short answer: no. Byron Buxton will not bat .432 for the entire season, nor will he post an OPS of 1.456 over the course of the season (both would be the highest in league history). However, it is not unreasonable to think that Buxton could lead the league in WAR if he doesn’t miss any long stretches of time.

Buxton has never been this good, but then again, hardly anybody is this good. What most people don’t realize is that Buxton has been quite good for awhile now. Here’s his stats broken down over the last three years. In 2019 and 2020, OPS numbers of .827 and .844 aren’t 1.456, but they’re nothing to sneeze at.

If we look at these numbers as one united sample, here’s what they come out to:

138 games is a reasonable “full season” sample size, and 5.5 WAR is excellent. Personally, I think that it is reasonable to consider this to be 80-85% of Buxton’s single season ceiling. I could see him getting a few more extra base hits and hitting for a higher average, resulting in better OPS and WAR. One thing that has been clear in 2021 is that he has not been just lucking into hits and homers. He’s hitting the cover off the ball, as we can see from Baseball Savant:

He’s basically in the 100th percentile of all MLB players in every metric that tells you “it’s likely that this guy’s gonna get a hit”. His K% is better than I expected when compared to other MLB’ers, and we all know he’s the fastest man in baseball. Perhaps the most important thing that we can see is the trend charts at the bottom of the image.

xwOBA is an advanced metric that is supposed to be indicative of the batter’s skill, isolating batted balls from defensive play, which takes luck out of the equation. The basic theory is that a batter cannot control what happens after he hits the ball, so this measures the skill better than average or OBP. It simply measures the exit velocity and launch angle of the batted ball, and assigns a value based on similar batted balls. If you really want to understand the ins and outs, click here.

Anyway, 250 plate appearances is still a fairly small sample. Let’s expand that to his entire career.

I am in love with this graph. What we see here is fairly linear progression from Buxton. 2018 was a completely lost season, which explains the dip, and he’s been off-the-charts (unsustainably) good in 2021. It’s been hard to realize it since we’re so used to seeing him in short spurts of 25 to 30 games, but he’s been getting better at the plate all along. He absolutely will not end this season up near .600, but it’s reasonable that he could land in the .375-.425 range (for context, Mike Trout has been between .418 and .455 every season since 2015).

In conclusion, Buxton’s start is absolutely not sustainable. Only 135 games of this production would put him at 18 fWAR, which would be the highest of the live ball era, besting Babe Ruth’s best season by a full 3 fWAR. That’s absurdity. However, and I may be more hopeful than most, but there’s real reasons to believe that Buxton has made sustainable progression and will be a top-5 or 10 position player in the league for the foreseeable future (as always) if he remains healthy.