Minnesota Twins and the Struggles of Byron Buxton

Jun 8, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) catches a fly ball in the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 8, 2016; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Twins center fielder Byron Buxton (25) catches a fly ball in the second inning against the Miami Marlins at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

The career of Minnesota Twins highly regarded outfielder Byron Buxton has been a trying one thus far, as he finds himself on the all-too-familiar familiar ride back to the minors.

Unfortunately, there have been more downs than ups in his big league career, leading to a couple of stints with Triple-A Rochester this season and recently his fourth demotion since his big-league debut last June. There have been bright spots (well one, his defense), but that has not been enough to overshadow his inability at the plate. Over the course of 109 career games in the majors, the Twins building block is looking more like Jake Marisnick than Mike Trout.

That’s not a knock on Marisnick, who is a fine defensive outfielder, but the hope surrounding Buxton this year was that he would come into his own at the dish and start fulfilling some of that promise. Instead, the 22-year-old holds a .194 batting average (career .199), has one home run (3 career) and a .247 on-base percentage (.248). For the sabermetrically inclined, he has a wRC+ of 46 (with 100 being league average). Somehow (ok, it’s his defense) Buxton still has a positive WAR, even with all of these faults, sitting at 0.2. It’s not a huge upgrade over a replacement player, but it’s something positive.

That defense in center has been responsible for six defensive runs saved per FanGraphs, which is good for 15th among all outfielders this season, and Buxton is giving up at least 110 innings to everyone above him on the list, while some of the leaders in the category like Kevin Pillar in Toronto (21 DRS) and Jason Heyward (17) have accumulated three and four hundred more innings. Given that production, I would say that his defense is among the best in the game already and has the chance to be truly elite in the future. 

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Now onto the offensive struggles, which have not been pretty. There is a great table in a recent FanGraphs piece by August Fagerstrom which details Buxton’s approach at the plate over his four stints in the majors. The two longest stints have resulted in his highest wRC+ at 63 and 51, but his chase percentage (balls swung at outside of the strike zone ) of 34.7 percent in his most recent stint is the highest of the four trips to Minnesota by a slim margin.

His strikeout percentage on the season stands at 36.7 percent which is half of a percentage higher than Max Scherzer‘s rate of 36.2. Max Scherzer is a pitcher. That rate was a tad lower in his second stint with the Twins, at 34.7 percent which is still higher than Baltimore Orioles slugger Chris Davis, who leads baseball with 153 punch-outs and only has a strikeout rate of 33.3 percent.

On the other end of the spectrum, his walk rate sits at just six percent on the season, and while this is an increase over last year’s 4.3 percent rate, it doesn’t quite offset the nearly five percent jump in strikeout rate between the two seasons.

Per Brooks Baseball, Buxton has a steady approach against both fastballs and breaking balls, but whiffs on 27 percent of heaters and 50 percent of breaking pitches. He has been more aggressive against off-speed pitches, but again has a high swing-and-miss rate of 42 percent.

That’s some of the bad news that statistics can provide for us, but now I want to focus on some of the positives. For starters, Buxton is just 22 and will have plenty of time to figure things out and still have a very successful career. He has shown the ability to hit to all fields when he makes contact, which makes him a dangerous hitter if he can cut down on those whiffs and strikeouts.

If he starts making more solid contact, the power numbers should increase, especially as he matures. The main problem right now is hard to pinpoint, but the Minnesota Twins seem to think that it’s swing related, not in his approach. To that end, he has seen 4.08 pitches per plate appearance this season, which isn’t necessarily a direct indicator of success, but does show that he can work the count, potentially in his favor over time, and get better pitches to hit. Three players have the same number of pitches per plate appearance, and all three are pretty darn good: Brandon Belt, Jonathan Lucroy and Jason Kipnis, who rank 30th in baseball among qualified hitters.

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Generally players with speed will attack a pitcher earlier in the count (think Jose Altuve or Billy Burns) and attempt to leg out a single. That isn’t necessarily a plan of action that could work for Buxton just yet with his whiff rates, but it is something to keep in mind for when things start to come together for him.

In all likelihood Buxton will be back in the majors in September when rosters expand, but whether or not three weeks is enough time to completely re-work a swing is enough time, I’m not sure. My fantasy team sure hopes so.