I hate early season stat lines.
I hate getting excited about a hitter off to a torrid start, only for the BABIP monster to even out and eat him alive.
I hate looking at a pitcher’s first couple of outstanding starts before watching him falter throughout the summer months.
I hate the inverse of not having the necessary sample size to declare that a player ‘actually stinks’ at a particular thing (Zack Collins, hello), with nothing but the eye test and some anecdotal evidence to support it.
I also hate that I said that the Minnesota Twins were good, but uninteresting not even two weeks before the season began, only to be currently deploying these words about what makes them so freaking fun to watch right now. Sweeping declarations in baseball just don’t play particularly well before, say, August.
So it is with great disappointment that I present you with this: Byron Buxton is here, he’s healthy, and he’s finally the star we hoped he’d be.
Byron Buxton is a poster child of a player who has worlds of potential, but hasn’t been able to put it together due to injury or lack of opportunity. In Buxton’s case, it’s much more the former. He’s dealt with a multitude of injuries over the course of his career, which has subsequently inhibited his ability to really get his footing at the Major League level.
After a 140-game campaign in 2017, Buxton followed with game totals of 28, 87, and another 39 that came in the shortened campaign of 2020. The Star Tribune has a comprehensive list of the injuries that limited him so much in those seasons here. It’s a trend that’s crushing at every turn, which makes this year’s early developments that much more exciting.
Obviously the figures ahead aren’t anywhere near sustainable. But what they do accomplish, other than being slapped with a NSFW tag, is speaking to the talent that has always been there for Buxton, waiting to be unlocked with the right combination of health and, well, more health. Thus far in 2021, Buxton has slashed a cool .481/.548/1.185/1.734. His ISO is at .704. His wRC+? 354.
He’s already hit the ball over the fence five times in just 31 plate appearances as of this writing. Again, small sample, etc. but some of these underlying trends could have him skyrocketing toward the super stardom that always seemed attached to his upside.
Perhaps the most important development in all of this is Buxton’s early penchant for absolutely mashing baseballs. His current hard hit rate sits at 59.1 percent. Combine that with some elevation (45.0 percent flyball rate) and it makes sense that his HR/FB ratio sits at exactly 50 percent. As silly as percentile rankings are at this point in the year (as is likely the entire concept of getting this excited about a guy less than two weeks in), it’s still worth pointing out that Buxton sits in the 99th in HardHit%, Barrel%, and Avg Exit Velocity. And his approach is likely aiding in that.
Nobody swung the bat more than Byron Buxton in 2020. Despite only registering 135 plate appearances, he featured what was easily the highest swing rate in all of baseball, hacking at a 64.3 percent clip. His 73.0 percent contact rate ranked 160th out of 244 players who had at least as many plate appearances as him. That overly aggressive nature resulted in a 1.5 (!) percent walk rate, along with a CSW% of 28.7. The .241 BABIP didn’t help either.
That big upside with the bat existed, even in the midst of what was kind of an ugly year everywhere else on the stat sheet.
Buxton’s 118 wRC+ still painted him as an above average hitter which was, no doubt, supported by a .323 ISO that was, at that point, the highest mark of his career. He still managed decent percentile numbers as well, ranking in the 89th in HardHit% and the 88th in Barrel%. It’s also not as if Buxton’s wild swing rates was leading to some gross strikeout numbers, either. A strikeout rate over 26 percent isn’t exactly what you want, but the fact that it wasn’t higher does say a lot about Buxton’s natural ability to get the bat on the baseball. Which means that even a mild improvement in his swing rates and general approach could unlock that massive upside. The results of that now lie before your eyes, and I genuinely hope that the homophonous nature of such a statement doesn’t come back to bite me.
Buxton’s walking at a 6.5 percent walk rate to start the year. His strikeout rate sits just barely a touch over 16 percent. That would be a 10 percent decrease from his career norm. His overall swing percent is down about seven points (currently sitting at 56.3 percent) and his Chase% is at 44.3, down about the same rate as the overall. His contact rate is also up about four percent, at just a shade short of 78 percent. So while it isn’t a complete overhaul of the approach, it appears to be exactly the sort of slight improvement that was needed for Buxton to thrive (in addition to, you know, being healthy). And the fact that it isn’t any sort of astronomical change in any of those figures could definitely bode well for him maintaining an elite level as the year progresses.
Again, I like to think I’ve been fairly transparent about how immensely dangerous this exercise in which I am currently engaged ultimately is — I’m taking a minuscule sample size from a guy with a massive injury portfolio and making some sort of declaration about what he is. It could all read as complete nonsense by the end of this week, add on to the fact that the best predictor of good health is previous good health.
It’s a terrifying thought, to be sure. Perhaps more so than any other early run of this type, but maybe, just this once, we as fans and observers of Major League Baseball, get a thing to universally enjoy.
Byron Buxton has been through the wringer with his injury history. He hasn’t been able to really solidify anything he does at the plate as a result. But the flashes have been there, especially the power potential. Even with a standard type of regression, which is most-definitely coming, we’re witnessing the breakout of a player who has long been due for it.
Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.