What's the ceiling for a healthy Buxton?

June 16th, 2022

There’s no question that Byron Buxton is one of the most dynamic players in baseball, with a captivating power-speed combo that helps him excel at the plate and in the field. But he’s played more than 92 MLB games in a season just once in his career, in 2017 (140).

There’s a lot that can follow from that fact – and here in this space we take the positive road. We wondered: What is the ceiling for a healthy Buxton?

When we posed the question to Buxton himself, he paused.

"I haven't really thought about that,” Buxton said. “It's been more of the thought process of, you play what you need to play and the numbers are going to be there. Just go and play ball. I'm not worried about, 'Can I stay healthy?' It's, 'How can we get deep into the playoffs and get to the World Series?' Not trying to look too far ahead, but we have that team that can do that, and we're still getting better.”

Even if he hasn’t thought about it, we – and baseball fans everywhere – have. Here’s a look at what has made Buxton so successful in recent years, and what that best-case scenario could entail.

What makes him uniquely good

Buxton has that ultimate power-speed combination, an electrifying way of playing the game. He’s one of just three qualified players this season in the 90th percentile or higher in both barrel rate and sprint speed. In simple terms, that means he makes ideal – and hard – contact, and also runs quickly.

In practice, that leads to occurrences like his record streak of 45 homers and counting since the last time he grounded into a double play – which was in 2020. The speedy Buxton has been in the 90th percentile or higher in sprint speed in every season of his career, since ‘15.

Something else that comes with that speed is his ability to cover significant ground in the outfield. Only seven outfielders have more Outs Above Average than Buxton this season, and that’s a counting stat, making it even more impressive given his limited time spent on the field and the fact that even when he is in the lineup, he’s been slotted in at designated hitter one-third of the time in 2022.

Being Byron Buxton, with all that talent, comes with high expectations. Signing a seven-year extension raises those expectations.

“I think right now, he's exceeding those expectations,” Correa said. “He's a complete player. He can do it all. As a hitter right now, he's unstoppable. It's been fun to watch. It's been fun to talk to him and listen to the things he has to adjust to in order for him to become the hitter that he is now. It's honestly a great story."

How he’s improved

When Buxton debuted in 2015, did anyone think the brunt of his success would come as the power-speed slugging monster that he is today?

Blessed with his immense five-tool skillset, there were probably several imaginable paths to success for the one-time No. 2 overall pick, but when he first arrived in the Twin Cities, the organization thought that might involve leveraging his speed, contact ability and defense to wreak havoc on the basepaths.

To be sure, he did find some success with that, as his blistering wheels were on full display when he could get on base – but his OPS never rose above .728 in those first four seasons, and much of his value came from the defense. And more significantly, Buxton admits that he never felt he was actually meant to be that kind of player. That wasn’t his game.

“I knew I wasn't no, slap-the-ball-around and put-it-on-the-ground-and-run kind of guy,” Buxton said.

“I didn't fail until I got to the big leagues,” he added. “For me, it was getting back to what got me drafted and what got me to the big leagues. And that was me being myself, me being simple, and [in the] Minor Leagues, I wasn't that power hitter, but I wasn't a slap-the-ball-around kind of guy. More of a ... what I am now, a line-drive hitter.”

So, the first step was, as he describes it, “manning up” and taking control of his career ahead of the 2019 season, getting back to being that line-drive hitter and instead emphasizing his preternatural ability to hit the ball hard. His slugging percentage jumped from .387 across those first four seasons to .513 in ‘19 – then up to .577 in ‘20, then to .647 last season.

“I’m just trying to go up there and hit line drives through the wall,” Buxton said. “Try to hit it through it, not over. Just stick with that kind of mentality. They just keep carrying a little bit farther.”

This is the hitter he thinks he naturally is, the version that feels right to him. He’s now had a chance to be that hitter in the big leagues for four seasons, feeling things out, optimizing, refining.

Buxton’s current swing rate is right around MLB average, at 47.2%, but it’d be the second lowest of his career, behind his 46-game stint in his first year in 2015 (46.6%). That’s notable for a player who swung at 64.1% of pitches in 2020 and was above 50% in each year from 2016-21. He’s letting the game come to him more, especially on first pitches, where his swing rate is down to 31.2% from 39.8% in ‘21 and 51.1% in ‘20.

Put simply, he’s making better decisions at the plate, as evidenced by his swing-take numbers, where every individual pitch is assigned a value based on its outcome, and those are added together. He was negative or negligibly positive each year through 2020. Last year? 19 swing-take runs. And this year he already has nine.

He’s done far more damage against fastballs over the last two seasons, as well. After posting negative run values against four-seamers in 2017-20, he was +8 against them in ‘21 and is +5 so far this year.

“It's still a work in progress, but it's a lot more fun going out there and being myself and going 0-for-4 doing it my way rather than going 0-for-4 the way that I didn't feel comfortable doing it,” Buxton said. “Like I said, keeping it simple is the best thing for me, and my mindset, mentality-wise, and I know that. As long as I'm simple and free, it allows me to go out there and be myself."

The current plan to create value

Whatever Buxton’s theoretical ceiling may be, however tantalizing his red-hot homer streaks may appear, let’s establish one thing: He won’t be reaching that ceiling this season. Such is the reality when he’s been playing through knee soreness that he and the Twins have been carefully managing in an effort to ensure that it doesn’t become the latest in the long line of injuries to have sidelined him over the years.

And when it comes to Buxton, that’s OK! As we’ve established, he’s so valuable to the Twins on a per-game basis (even when he’s DHing) that the slight downside of losing a few maintenance games here and there vastly outweighs the downside of potentially losing him altogether for a larger chunk.

“We’ve got a process, a process of me standing on the field, trying to play 100 games,” Buxton said last month. “So however that looks, who knows? But that's what we have, a plan here, and it's what we're going to stick to. Whatever else, outside of that, kind of doesn't really matter to us, so it's all about winning.”

There was much consternation and hand-wringing from fans after Buxton made that comment, with many taking issue with his mention of “100 games” as a target. Here’s the thing: A 100-game season for Buxton is undoubtedly a top-end outcome, considering he’s only reached that mark once in his first seven seasons. A 100-game season for Buxton would also still make him one of the most valuable players in baseball.

Let’s pace it out, conservatively. Based on his current totals and playing time, Buxton is on pace for 6.9 WAR, per FanGraphs, in 116 games. Only five position players since 1900 have racked up at least that much WAR in a season during which they played 116 or fewer games: 1994 Jeff Bagwell (7.8), 1981 Mike Schmidt (7.8), 1955 Ted Williams (7.1), 1923 Rogers Hornsby (7.1) and 1994 Frank Thomas (7). Talk about a list of major names.

That’d also be tied for 14th-most WAR by a Twins/Senators position player in a single season – regardless of playing time. The only Twins position player to reach or exceed that figure since 1989 was 2009 Joe Mauer (8.4 in 138 games).

What does that playing time look like? The planned-out rest days factor into it, roughly once every three or four games. According to manager Rocco Baldelli, the Twins go into each series with a rough idea of when they might want to give Buxton a recovery day. The regular days at DH instead of in center field also help – and now that Buxton’s game is so much more offensively oriented and less heavily predicated on his defense, those don’t hurt his value as much.

The final piece of the puzzle is that his preparation and mentality are now more advanced than ever before. As he recently noted to MLB Network, he now has a routine in the hot tub to prepare his muscles for the wear of a game. He no longer runs out every ground ball at full speed or sacrifices his body for daredevil catches at the wall. He’s trying to be smart about his preparation and decision-making, he says, knowing the importance of his presence to his teammates.

“There's hustling, and there's fake hustle,” Correa said. “A ground ball to the pitcher where he's just going to flip it to first and you go 4.0 or 4.1 [seconds] to first, that's just fake hustle. There's no need for that.

“For him, the thing I [speak] to most is that I'd rather see a ball hit off the wall for a double than you go on the IL for two months because you crashed into it. Just playing smart. Just knowing how important he is for this lineup and how important he is for this club, he's been doing a really, really good job with that. So he gets it. He understands it. He's close to every day now, as the DH or center field, which is what we need from him.”

So, what is that ceiling?

Remember that this is but year one of the seven-year, $100 million extension Buxton signed to remain in Minnesota for the long-term. He’s only 28, firmly in the midst of his prime. If this caution continues to pay off in ‘22 and he manages to stay on the field, he still has plenty of time to apply what he’s learned over the course of full seasons in the years to come.

That would be good for Buxton, for the Twins – and for the game of baseball.

Buxton’s Baseball Reference WAR over the last two seasons, if paced out per 650 plate appearances – a normal full season – is 9.6. A number like that is in a whole other echelon, with Mike Trout (four times) and Mookie Betts (2018) and Bryce Harper (2015) among position players since 2010, not to mention many Cooperstown enshrinees, previously.

“Staying healthy for the rest of his career, he’s a potential Hall of Famer,” Correa said. “But MVP, for sure. He’s going to win multiple of those. He’s that talented.”

Over his last 162 games played, he has a .271/.320/.603 slashline, with 51 homers and 95 RBIs. The Twins are 97-65 in those games.

Is this level of performance, sustained across a full season, Buxton’s true ceiling? Is there even more to be unlocked, somewhere in there?

"Who knows?” Buxton said. “I don't know. Feels good right now.”