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Byron Buxton’s strikeout problem persists

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Minimum 400 plate appearances, Buxton’s 35.5 percent strikeout rate since 2015 is the second-highest in baseball, and it doesn’t look to fall anytime soon.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins
Byron Buxton has a ton of talent, but he just hasn’t quite put it all together.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that Minnesota Twins outfielder Byron Buxton was baseball’s consensus number 1 prospect prior to 2014, and was ranked number 1 again before the 2015 season. Buxton, the number 2 pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, had the combination of tools to make him one of the most exciting young players in the league. He could hit for contact and some power, add blazing speed and play excellent defense. Buxton was thought to be “the future” for the Twins.

But, as pitchers became more advanced, they began to exploit Buxton’s biggest weakness inducing massive amounts of strikeout. Buxton struck out in 18 percent of plate appearances at Class-A and Class-A Advanced in 2013, in 19 percent of plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015, and in over 30 percent of plate appearances since joining the big league club in Minnesota.

The strikeout problem, unfortunately, has suppressed many of Buxton’s other skills. He’s just a career .212/.265/.382 hitter with a 70 wRC+ over 496 plate appearances at the Major League level. Last season, Buxton’s poor start led to a midseason demotion in a year in which many expected him to break-out and showcase his potential.

He returned to the Major League club on September 1 and promptly hit .287/.357/.653 over his final 113 plate appearances, swatting nine home runs and driving 22 RBI. This was the type of performance that the Twins had been waiting for and something that they thought Buxton could build on into 2017. Behind those sparkling numbers, though, were 38 strikeouts and a 34 percent strikeout rate. Doubters questioned whether Buxton was for real.

And, despite the sample size this year, those doubters have been proven correct so far. It’s only been six games, but the strikeouts are still piling up for Buxton. Of his 27 plate appearances, Buxton has struck out in 14 of them – a 52 percent strikeout rate. He’s collected just two hits and is currently the third-worst hitter in the Majors by wRC+ (-52).

Locating Buxton’s strikeout problem

Hitting big league pitching is hard, there’s no about it. I’m just a guy typing into a computer, while Buxton’s trying to hit a ball thrown 95 mph. Still, the evidence is interesting.

Byron Buxton’s percentage of whiffs per swing.
Image via BrooksBaseball.net

Buxton’s biggest problem since his call-up to the big leagues, is low-and-in or low-and-away. He has whiffed at a combined 65 pitches (out of 78 pitches) in those portions of the zone, for an 83.3 percent whiff per swing rate. According to FanGraphs, the average whiff rate for those portions of the zone is about 72 percent, so Buxton is struggling to make contact in an area that big leaguers already struggle to make contact with in the first place.

And, as expected because pitchers can keep hitters off-balance in two-strike counts, most of those whiffs are occurring with two strikes.

Byron Buxton’s percentage of whiffs per swing with two strikes.
Image via BrooksBaseball.net.

There again, it’s those two lowest quadrants, on the inside and outside parts of the plate. Buxton’s plate discipline isn’t good. Those pitches clearly aren’t strikes, but pitchers know that he’ll be tempted to chase them anyway. They have adjusted to his weakness.

Raw number of pitches in each part of the zone that Buxton sees.
Image via BrooksBaseball.net

Of course, when pitchers know that a hitter is weak in a particular area, they will try to exploit it. That’s what is happening here with Buxton. About 13 percent of pitches that he has seen over the course of his career have come in the parts of the zone that he has struggled with the most. To compare, just 6 percent of all pitches across the league were in those two areas last season, leading to a bloated amount of strikeouts from Buxton.

Here’s a prime example of Buxton swinging and missing on a pitch in one of those parts of the zone, from last April. Brewers pitcher Taylor Jungmann throws him a bounce pitch on the lower outside part of the plate, and Buxton easily chases.

Now, from last September, Danny Duffy strikes out Buxton on a pitch on the lower inside portion of the plate. It’s another bouncer, and it’s another ugly whiff. This, for what it’s worth, was during the best stretch of his big league career, mentioned above.

And, now here’s Peter Moylan from just a few days ago striking out Buxton. His pitch doesn’t bounce, but once again it’s a low pitch and far off the plate. Royals catcher Salvador Perez sets up so far outside the plate that his right foot would be in the middle of the left-handed batter’s box.

The pitches of Buxton’s strikeouts

We have now established where Buxton is swinging and missing, but we have yet to dive into which pitches are the culprit. On the three examples above, Jungmann, Duffy and Moylan all threw Buxton some sort of off-speed pitch. Jungmann’s pitch registered at 76 mph, Duffy’s registered at 87 and Moylan’s registered at 79.

According to Brooks Baseball, Buxton’s worst pitch is the change-up, which he has whiffed at on 27.7 percent of the 170 he has seen. The slider (which is likely what Duffy threw to him) and cutter are not far behind the change-up, at 22.6 percent and 21.9 percent, respectively.

Compare this to say, Mike Trout, and you begin to see the real problem. Trout has whiffed at just 13.2 percent of change-ups, 12.3 percent of sliders and 9.0 percent of cutters, making him a much tougher out. Still, though, these are the career swing-and-miss numbers for a player who led the American League in strikeouts in 2014, and they are about half that of Buxton.

It isn’t all bad. Buxton whiffs at “only” 10.6 percent of four-seam fastballs, something Trout does 7.1 percent of the time. There is much less disparity there. But, in order to be a successful big league hitter, one must be able to hit more than just the fastball, and that’s why Buxton’s career numbers have been so bad.

Buxton’s aggressiveness

Buxton’s last issue, other than location and pitch selection, is his aggressiveness.

First off, as already established, Buxton has poor pitch selection. He swung at 33.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone in 2016, according to PITCHF/x data, a good 4.2 percentage point above league average. Even though MLB hitters will swing at about 3 of 10 pitches outside the zone, they still make contact on those pitches 62.0 percent of the time. Buxton, though, only made contact on pitches outside the zone 43.4 percent of the time.

Here are the 10 worst hitters at making contact outside the strike zone, minimum 300 plate appearances:

Worst Contact Outside Zone, 2016

Name O-Swing% O-Contact%
Name O-Swing% O-Contact%
Miguel Sano 23.7% 41.7%
Chris Carter 25.9% 42.2%
Kirk Nieuwenhuis 23.4% 43.6%
Colby Rasmus 28.2% 44.4%
Sean Rodriguez 28.3% 44.8%
Giancarlo Stanton 32.3% 46.6%
Brandon Moss 34.0% 47.2%
Byron Buxton 33.2% 47.5%
Alex Gordon 24.9% 48.7%
Steve Pearce 24.9% 49.4%
Minimum 300 plate appearances.

Interestingly enough, Buxton was not the worst at making contact on pitches outside of the strike zone. He was, though, one of the worst when in combination with the amount of pitches he swung at outside the zone. On this list, only Brandon Moss swung at more pitches outside the zone than Buxton. Generally, the rest of the hitters were at least five percent better in that regard.

Comparing Buxton to Moss is interesting. Moss also strikes out a ton (30.4 percent of plate appearances in 2016 ended in a strikeout), but he keeps his on-base percentage above water with a walk rate that has neared 10 percent over his career. That’s where he differs greatly from Buxton, who owns just a six percent walk clip over his MLB tenure. Plus, with Moss’ power, it is more acceptable to strike out a lot. His .259 isolated power last season ranked 15th in the Majors, minimum 300 plate appearances. Buxton’s .205 mark had him at 73rd of 268 hitters.

Moss aside, it’s important to look at Buxton’s plate discipline holistically, not just the percentage of pitches he swings at outside the zone. Doing so, Buxton swung at 46.7 percent of total pitches, right in line with the MLB average 46.0 percent. His contact on all pitches was 67.7 percent, and that was almost 10 percentage points below the league average (77.0 percent). This is a problem.

Even more nit-picky, Buxton made less contact on pitches inside the zone than the average hitter, too. So, it’s obvious that he struggles to determine which pitches are the best to hit, and there also may be an underlying hole in his swing that has yet to be ironed out.

Putting it all together

Buxton is a toolsy player that needs polish. He has what it takes to be a good big leaguer, and we have seen flashes of that during his short (yet, seemingly long) big league stay. His strike outs continue to be a problem, though, there are multiple ways to address this:

Have a more discerning eye

One of Buxton’s biggest issues at the plate is that he strikes out a lot but does not walk at all. As we saw with Brandon Moss, he is able to keep his head above water with a decent walk rate.

Of course, there is some power that Buxton does not have, and he would still need to cut his strikeout rate considerably to be successful under this “plan.” But a strikeout rate of 22-25 percent with a 10-12 percent walk rate would not be the worst thing in the world for Buxton. And, if you don’t think so, consider that Mike Trout has a 13.4 percent career walk rate and a 22.0 percent strike out rate. (He, too, has more power.) It can be done, but it would take some major adjustments on Buxton’s part.

Choose better pitches to hit

There are a lot of times that Buxton just seems lost at the plate. Yes, he’s young, but he’s seen thousands of pitches in his baseball career, and we have come to the point where he should start understanding which pitches to swing at and which pitches he should lay off. While that does come with experience, and he has had lots of breaks in his big league time—that’s more on the Twins than anything else—Buxton still needs to take the time to understand where the pitch will be in the zone. This should improve with time, but someone on the Twins’ staff needs to instruct him because he is clearly lacking in his plate discipline now.

Improve his contact rate

Hitting is a skill that takes lots of time and experience, but Buxton often just looks like he wants to do more than he can handle while at the plate. He needs to focus on just putting the ball in play, and good things will happen. While at the plate, Buxton hits the ball hard, and the power is beginning to show. None of it will happen, of course, until he starts making more consistent contact. Some of this requires a change of mindset. Buxton does not need to worry about hitting the pitch out of the stadium on every at bat. A better approach to just hit singles and gappers will do, and better results will surely follow.

This all sounds easy, but in reality it’s not. Buxton is still just a 23 year old trying to figure out how to play Major League Baseball. That is not a simple task by any stretch of the imagination. With that said, though, without a change in what he is doing, Buxton will quickly turn from top prospect to a bust very quickly which could mean doing a complete overhaul of everything he knows.

. . .

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @DevanFink.