Heading into the 2015 season, Byron Buxton was at or near the top of every prospect list you could find. There was seemingly no doubt that Buxton was the future of Minnesota, and that his defense would give them a center fielder to marvel at for the first time since Torii Hunter’s heyday. But when the Twins called Buxton up on June 14th, 2015, the success they were hoping for didn’t come with him.
It only took two weeks for Buxton to land on the disabled list with a left thumb sprain, unfortunately a recurring theme early in his career, including the minors. Buxton was out until the middle of August rehabbing the injury, and once he recovered, Minnesota gave him time to try and work on things in AAA Rochester. The totals in his first Major League season did not resemble his minor league success he had in the past. Buxton had 138 plate appearances, two home runs, a .252 wOBA, 53 wRC+, and -0.5 fWAR. Speed was supposed to be the best part of his game, but FanGraphs had his baserunning at a below-average -0.4. And while that speed should translate to defensive ability, in 2015 he had a measly 4 DRS. It is safe to say this is not how Minnesota wanted Buxton to start his career, but he remained the center fielder heading into 2016.
Buxton started the year starting for Minnesota, but by the end of a dismal April, the Twins decided he needed a change. Buxton was sent down to Triple-A again, came back up at the end of May, only to be demoted again at the beginning of August. At this time this is what Buxton’s 2016 season looked like (through August 5th):
When rosters expanded on September 1st, the Twins recalled Buxton, and it all began to turn around for him. His basic slash line went from .193/.247/.315 pre-September to .287/.357/.653 post-September. Here are Buxton’s complete stats from that last part of the season:
The improvement in September for Buxton was huge, but what led him to find the success that had alluded him in the beginning of his Major League career? A look at these charts, taken from Brooks Baseball, show that Buxton was hitting the ball harder and hitting more line drives than he had at the beginning of 2016, particularly against breaking balls.
But I think there is another facet of his game Buxton improved upon, one that can be reliable even in short periods of time, and that is his patience at the plate. Along with the increase in his walk percentage (6.0% to 8.8%), Buxton’s out-of-zone swing percentage improved from 34.1 to 32.6. That’s a small improvement, but an improvement nonetheless, and an important improvement, since control of the strike zone was one of the weakest aspects of Buxton’s profile.
2017 will be a very telling season in the career of Byron Buxton. First and foremost, he will have to stay healthy to achieve his full potential. If Buxton can stay on the field for a full season, then I think he can really become the player many thought he would be a few years ago. But in order to do that, Buxton must also continue to develop his patience at the plate and get on base any way possible; with his speed, there is nothing more important to his game than simply being on the base paths. Hand-in-hand with staying patient, Buxton needs to cut down on his strikeouts. His strikeout percentage has been over 30 percent in each of his two seasons, and that is nearly unacceptable for any player, especially one expected to hit at the top of the order.
There is plenty of time for Byron Buxton’s career to take off – he will only be 23 on Opening Day in 2017 – but the sooner he does the brighter the future will look in Minnesota. If September is any indication, the Twins may be starting to see a turn around in their potential star center fielder.
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Carl Triano is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Minor League Ball.