You could say Byron Buxton hasn't acclimated smoothly to the big leagues. You could also say he's been bad, with a .195/.239/.316 line across 187 PAs between 2015 and 2016. Plenty of young players struggle in their first exposure to the big leagues; what's been particularly worrisome is the way in which Buxton has struggled. Before getting sent back to Triple-A Rochester on Monday, Buxton had struck out 24 times in 49 plate appearances, and while he wasn't quite so strikeout-prone in 2015, in both years combined he has a 36.4% strikeout rate.
There's been increasing acceptance of the strikeout as not inherently bad and a part of some guys' offensive profiles. Chris Davis struck out in 31.0% of his plate appearances in 2015; he also hit 47 home runs, so, you know. If a player makes less contact, though, they generally need to crush the ball when they do get a bat on it, so high strikeout rates certainly limit the ways in which a player can thrive. Buxton is still young, and he comes with massive prospect pedigree, so it is certainly way, way too early to do anything even resembling writing him off. Worrying a bit, however, is allowed.
Buxton's dubious feat isn't exactly unprecedented, but it's close. Using Baseball Reference's Play Index, we can look for similar debuts. It can't pull out strings of plate appearances to begin a career that span multiple seasons, but it can identify similar stretches to Buxton's that occurred in a single season. There aren't that many, though; in the last 50 years, there have been only 15 players to get at least 100 PAs and strike out at least 32.0% of the time in their debut season.
This is a mixed list, with the only clear positives being Reggie Jackson, the most exciting and successful player on the list by far, and Gorman Thomas, who had a solid career after his shaky debut. What's perhaps most interesting is the number of players who have had similar debuts recently, and who, like Buxton, are still developing. The young Twin is getting a lot of attention due to his eye-catching rate from this year, but when you compare his first 100ish PAs to the first 100ish of others, it's certainly not unprecedented. Some of the similar debuts are more promising than others – names like Kyle Blanks, Brad Eldred, and Brett Jackson aren't inspiring – but it's not as if Buxton is alone in this situation.
What is perhaps a little worrisome is that many of the successful players on this list were true power threats, who like the aforementioned Davis could make the most of their limited contact abilities. George Springer, Jon Singleton, Miguel Sano, and especially Joey Gallo have demonstrated the ability to hit balls a huge distance. Buxton seems a little less likely to develop that kind of power, and therefore less likely to make a lot of strikeouts a part of a successful offensive profile.
All that said, basing this list only off strikeout rate means this isn't truly a group of comparable players; I'm not trying to suggest Buxton has a 1/15th chance of becoming a Hall of Famer, or anything like that. It merely shows that this is definitely a stumbling block for Buxton, but not an insurmountable one.
It's also not as if this debut has been totally without merit, either. Buxton has shown flashes of what prompted Baseball Prospectus to rank him second overall in their 2016 prospect rankings and FanGraphs to slap a 70 grade on his future potential. He's got more tools than an auto mechanic, which has let him do things like this:
Not only should plays like that give Twins fans some optimism despite Buxton's disappointing start, it means that he has an extremely high floor. Even if the bat simply never comes together to the degree it seems likely to, Buxton can still play a mean defensive center field, which means he's almost guaranteed to have a role on a team someday.
Finally, there's also the chance Buxton just wasn't ready to be promoted, and his stint in the majors says little about his future. While it feels like we've been hearing about Buxton forever, he's only 22, and he missed substantial development time in 2014 and 2015 with injuries to his wrist and thumb and a concussion. That means he's had only 330 PAs at Double-A and Triple-A combined.
A conversation among BtBS writers led to the realization that Buxton isn't the only Twins outfield prospect who was promoted aggressively and struggled in the majors; Aaron Hicks was promoted directly from Double-A to start the 2013 season as the Twins' center fielder, and he went 3-for-63 with 21 strikeouts to start his career. It could be that the Twins simply can't tell when players are ready for the majors. In any case, given Buxton's lack of experience, maybe his struggles shouldn't be surprising. They certainly aren't unprecedented among rookies, and they do not mean he'll be a bust.
. . .
Henry Druschel is a Contributing Editor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.