It feels like all we’ve written about for the past six weeks is the AL Wild Card race, but it’s just too good not to write about. It’s close, exciting, and filled with surprising contenders, none more so than the Minnesota Twins. As I write this, the Twins are 73–67, currently in possession of the second Wild Card slot, and a game up on their nearest rival (the Angels).
Why is that so surprising? It’s not because the Twins have played poorly and lucked into a great number of those wins; by Baseball Prospectus’s Third-Order Win Percentage, which calculates a win rate based off underlying stats, Minnesota “should” be a smidge below .500, making them somewhat lucky but nowhere near the luckiest teams in the league. FanGraphs’ similar BaseRuns statistic views them similarly. They aren’t the 2016 Rangers.
No, the success of the Twins is surprising precisely because of how well they’ve played. There are twelve Twins batters who have 200 PAs or more, and ten of them have beat their preseason projected wOBA from Steamer. There are lots of players you can point to as examples of this unexpectedly good performance — Joe Mauer, with his moderate resurgence; Miguel Sanó, with his development into a true slugger; Eddie Rosario, with his offensive leap forward — but recently, there’s been one player in particular drawing attention with his play: Byron Buxton.
Buxton has been a top prospect for years, though some of his shine had faded recently as he struggled to make the transition to the big leagues. He was first called up all the way back in 2015, but when he failed to hit well, the Twins sent him back to Triple-A; they would continue to bounce him back and forth between the minors and majors over the next two years. This season, Buxton again struggled mightily in the early going — his wRC+ in 255 first-half PAs was an abysmal 58 — but the Twins let him continue playing. It’s paid off, as his second-half wRC+ is currently an outstanding 145, blowing his preseason projection of 87 out of the water. When combined with his elite defense (which has always been excellent, even when he wasn’t hitting), the result is a very valuable player; in 44 games since July 1, Buxton has been worth 2.4 fWAR, an MVP-caliber pace if sustained over a full season.
It’s unsurprising that the Twins’ surge in the standings has come at the same time as Buxton’s own personal surge. On July 1, Minnesota had a 8.9 percent shot at the playoffs, per FanGraphs’ playoff odds; today, that’s up to 44.1 percent, an enormous increase. Buxton is not, of course, solely responsible for the Twins’ recent success, but he’s played a critical role. The Twins’ hitters have accumulated 11.4 fWAR in the ten weeks since the start of July, meaning Buxton has been responsible for roughly one-fifth of the team’s entire position player output. He’s a critical member of this squad, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that they wouldn’t find themselves in this surprisingly good position if not for Buxton’s outstanding play.
But Minnesota’s fate is tied up with Buxton’s beyond this season as well. While the Twins’ farm system is not exactly barren, per se, it sure isn’t great. They had just one player make Baseball Prospectus’s Top 50 prospect list from this July, Nick Gordon at 33rd; Gordon made 19th on Baseball America’s midseason Top 100, and was joined by Royce Lewis at 39; and finally, on MLB.com’s midseason Top 100, Lewis was 30th and Gordon 33rd, with pitchers Stephen Gonsalves (71st) and Fernando Romero (78th) joining them on the back end. The details vary, but the takeaway is the same: this is not a loaded system.
Similarly, while the Twins aren’t old, there’s not a lot of youthful promise on the roster currently, outside the 23-year-old Buxton himself. There is Sanó, of course, and at 25, Rosario could still conceivably blossom or break out; on the pitching side, José Berríos is extremely exciting. But none of them have the upside of Buxton. The Twins are a franchise with a stable, mediocre core of players, and Buxton. What he becomes matters immensely to this club.
And what Buxton will become is very difficult to predict, given the immense upside and downside he’s displayed in just the last year. He looks outstanding right now — elite defense paired with excellent offense is what scouts projected from him back when he was topping prospect lists, and what generated those notorious Mike Trout comps — but he also looked terrible just a few months ago, and in every major-league stint before that one.
The upshot of all that is that the short- and medium-term future of the Twins will change drastically based on Buxton’s career progression. Or, more simply: as Buxton goes, so goes the Twins. Their future is Buxton; whether that’s Buxton the perennial MVP candidate or Buxton the top-prospect bust remains to be seen.
Henry Druschel is the co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.